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Isabel C. Clarke "Something of Myself"

WITH DUE DEFERENCE to the late Rudyard Kipling I have ventured to borrow the title of his all-too-brief autobiography for this little account of my writing life. It is never an easy task to write about oneself; there is so much to say and so little one can tell.

Some years ago I wrote an article for America entitled "The Apostolate of the Novel," it being one of a series to which Catholic writers were invited to contribute. Although very diverse in form and matter they one and all set forth something of the ideals at which they were aiming, for now that the urge to Catholic Action among laymen is being stressed the writer has a deeper responsibility towards the Church. In his own special vocation he must further her work.

When did one begin? What prompted one to be a writer? In my case I certainly began to write as soon as I could scrawl a few pencilled phrases on a sheet of paper. These early stories were all illustrated, for drawing is really instinctive in most children. A little sketch of a house drawn at the age of seven was supposed ­ erroneously as I now think ­ to foreshadow talent, and ever afterwards drawing formed a regular and important part of our curriculum. I am glad it did so, for besides providing me with a favorite recreation (as I admitted in Who's Who), the mere sketching of a place in oils or water-colours has always served to impress it more forcibly on my mind than the endless picture postcards I purchased for the same purpose. And as those places were destined to be incorporated in my forthcoming novel its use as an aid to memory was invaluable. The actual process of drawing stimulates the artistic sense and develops one's power of accurate observation, most essential in the description of scenery.

I first saw myself in print, as the saying goes, at the age of twelve when I won the first prize in a children's magazine for an essay on Kindness to Animals. For some time I continued to win prizes and medals from this source and then competed in a more ambitious journal from which I also received rewards. I can even remember with pride obtaining a prize for an original watercolour sketch. I must have written a great number of stories in those early days, and even had the hardihood to submit them to editors who wisely declined to have anything to do with them.

A turning point was reached some years later when I encountered a well-known author at a dinner party. His name and books were familiar to me which may have been a passport to his favour, but for whatever reason on learning that I was anxious to write he invited me to submit some samples of my work to him. I told him I would do so on one condition, that he would seriously dissuade me from continuing if he thought it were useless for me to do so. It was a noble and generous offer on his part for he was a busy man, and I know now how the author shrinks from examining the works of literary aspirants. I took him at his word and sent him some stories. One of these met with his wholehearted approval and he said had he still been editing a paper he would have used it. He told me where to send it and he was right, for it met with ready acceptance. Thus I earned my first honorarium for literary work.

But his further advice to me was invaluable. "Write a great deal," he said. "You are bound to have refusals-everyone does -but the more you write the more you will place." I laid this to heart, and continued to write a great deal with varying success. I published short stories, essays, articles, poems, but the novels met with no success at all. Now and then a more kindly or may I suggest a more far-seeing?-publisher would send me an appreciative letter, intimating he would be interested in future work, but as a rule the devastating printed slip was all that I received. I worked on quite unbaffled for had I not always intended to be a writer of novels?

In the early days of this century my future career was largely influcnced by certain novels. These were One Poor Scruple by Mrs. Wilfrid Ward with its charming picture of intimate Catholic life, and The School tor Saints, and its still more brilliant sequel Robert Orange by "John Oliver Hobbs" (Mrs. Craigie). They were the first I had ever read with a definitely Catholic motif, and they taught me the immense and far-reaching influence of the novel, showing me as I have said elsewhere its definite apostolate. For it penetrates perhaps where no ostensibly Catholic book would ever be found, and thus may bring the Faith to the notice of many who are completely ignorant of it. In short it may arrest attention, as I have learned from my own experience and the often pathetic letters I have received from my readers asking me, a stranger to them, what they should do next. I am aware that propaganda fiction has an unpleasing sound to many, but considering the vast number of 'isms' that are inculcated in the modern novel, I fail to see why this medium should not be used in the service of the Catholic Church. For religion plays an important part in the make-up of countless human beings and cannot be omitted by the student of psychology. There are naturally many problems which are peculiar to the Catholic. Occasions arise-as in One Poor Scruple-when human passions find themselves in direct conflict with the laws of the Catholic Church. Such situations are frequently imbued with a very profound interest. They are, in the language of the Church, "cases of conscience."


At the same time it was a matter of deep distress to me to read so much in current literature that was definitely anti-Catholic, and tended to portray the Church as the insidious enemy rather than the divinely-appointed friend and support of mankind. With the examples of Mrs. Wilfrid Ward and Mrs. Craigie before me I resolved that my pen should be devoted as theirs had been to the service of the Church. For the Church does not despise such imperfect instruments - have we not the ancient legend of Our Lady's Juggler to confirm this?

Fortunately for me, this class of fiction was no longer looked askance upon by publishers. Where Mrs. Wilfrid Ward and Mrs. Craigie had paved the way, the late Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson was most enthusiastically to follow. And it was not I think without significance that the first of my long series of Catholic novels, Prisoners' Years, was accepted within a fortnight of its completion by a firm of London publishers, and very shortly afterwards by one in New York. From that winter's day in 1912 (is it really more than thirty years ago?) there has been for me no looking back. Gone were the printed slips, the bulky packages awaiting me in the hall on my return to the house. Gone too was the sense of disappointment which had however been accompanied by no discouragement.

After the publication of my next book By the Blue River, which appeared more than a year later and was the result of a long visit to friends in Algeria, I was invited to an afternoon party at the London house of my publisher, the late Sir George Hutchinson. He was delighted with the success of this book, the first he had published for me, and which he had advertised in the most generous manner. And then what did he say to me? He repeated the advice of my author-friend given so many years before by saying: "I want you to write a great deal." Never did advice fall upon the ears of one more eager to receive it. I have now published between fifty and sixty books including three slim volumes of verse. Novels followed one another in rapid succession, and I have even seen myself reviewed under the caption of the "Industrious Novelist!"

After publishing four books I reverted to my "sepulchre," as I used to call that treasury of former failures, and exhumed Only Anne. Anne had been refused by eighteen publishers including Sir. George himself. Reading it very carefully I came to the conclusion that here was a story with quite credible characters. But it was insufficiently developed, and, what was worse, was far too short for trade purposes. I need not remind my readers that novels by unknown hands must conform to a certain length. The minimum is usually eighty thousand words. It may be much longer but it must not be shorter, and Anne fell far short of the requisite length. And how well I now understood and even sympathised with those publishers who had refuscd to take it up in the past! So I set to work and re-wrote the book from beginning to end, my present experience showing me exactly what was wrong with it. It was published by one of those houses which had formerly refused it, as I was not slow to indicate to them.

During the years that followed I did indeed write a great deal, producing two books a year and finding an ever-increasing pleasure in my trade. But after a dozen years or more of fiction-writing I became aware of the need for a change and turned my thoughts to biography. Haworth Parsonage: A Picture of the Bronte Family, was my first attempt and proved a successful one, for in its cheap editions it has sold many thousands of copies. The tragic story of the three sisters immured in that dismal Yorkshire parsonage had always fascinated me. It was succeeded by Elizabeth Barret Browning: A Portrait. During my long residence in Italy I had the opportunity of visiting the various homes of the Brownings at Pisa, Florence, Rome and Siena. This topographical knowledge was also an advantage to me when some years later I wrote my most ambitious biography, Shelley and Byron: A Tragic Friendship, which dealt with the years when their respective lives were intertwined in Switzerland and especially Italy, and which saw the severance of their always uneasy friendship. This book was translated into French by Madame Barrante d'Estensan who received the prize annually awarded in France for the best translation of a biography published during the year.

But to write a biography is a far more difficult task than to write a novel, involving as it does the most careful research. The result may read like a novel but on the other hand every word must be scrupulously true. The late Edmund Gosse once declared that only novelists should write biographies, and it is certain that they bring an imaginative insight to their task which as fiction-writers they are bound to possess.

I suppose all writers have listened to that exasperating question: Do you think it all out beforehand or do you make it up as you go along? I can answer both these questions at least partly in the affirmative. No author could sit down to write a novel without some definite plan or purpose. There must always be that initial flash of inspiration that determines the matter of the book, Some authors have called it the "germ," others the "gleam." Whence it comes it is often difficult to say. One hears perhaps of a situation or reads of one in a book of memoirs which might have developed very differently and thus becomes the nucleus of a story. A passing face in the street may equally suggest it, or it may flash into the author's mind so suddenly and unexpectedly that he himself cannot tell you whence it comes. But once that germ is established and has matured in the author's brain "the pen takes charge," to quote once more from Kipling. This at least is how it has been with me, though I have known authors who prepared the most careful and detailed syllabus of each chapter before beginning the actual task of writing. I am sure it is an excellent plan but my wayward and often wilful pcn would never submit to be thus "cribb'd, cabin'd and confin'd." It must be free to wander where it will down unexpected byways and into fresh regions lured by beauty or sadness, comedy or tragedy. My note-books contain the barest sketch of any story and a few details of the leading characters.

My many years residence in Rome provided me with the scenery for numerous novels. The best known of these are I think Carina, It Happened in Rome, Strangers of Rome, and Roman Year. Venice gave me the background for The Light on the Lagoon and Amalfi for the Altar of Sacrifice. Some of the scenes of a more recent novel The Custody of the Children are also laid in Rome, though the earlier chapters open in Ceylon. And now that I am living in Jamaica, having lost through stress of war my home of so many years, I hope that my novel Welcome, recently published, gives an adequate picture of this beautiful island.

EDITORS NOTE: Miss Clarke died in 1951.

Originally published by Walter Romig in The Book of Catholic Authors Volume Three, copyright 1945

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