The Books That Might Have Been

     It’s gratifying to record that within a month of being set up, has scored its first success. One of London’s most enterprising publishers was so taken by the extract from Gail Hallyburton and Rosanna Kelly’s Student Suppers that he immediately emailed the site to express his interest in putting it between covers. The authors are now working on a high flame to bring it up to date.

     On the subject of literary Kellys, those who followed the incisive articles of Rosanna’s sister Rachel when she was property editor of The Times will be interested to hear that she has written a book on the subject of depression. The sad news is that it is based on her own experience; the happy news, that early reports of it are extremely good.  Meanwhile, their mother Linda is at work on a history of the Holland House set.

     There are tidings of great joy, also, for admirers of Amanda Foreman, who have had to wait more than ten years for a book to follow her enormously successful Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.  (She has persuasive reasons for the delay, among them the birth of five children.) At a party given for her in London last week by her friend Caroline Dalmeny, it was revealed that her next work had reached the indexing stage. A World on Fire tells of British men and women who took part in the American Civil War – an estimated 50,000 of them – and is scheduled for publication in October 2010. ‘It was,’ she writes, ‘the largest non-British war ever fought by British men and women. Never again, not even during the Spanish Civil War, would so many risk their lives on behalf of a foreign  cause.’

     Although this web log is devoted to books which are in production, the subject of books which might be – or might have been – written is equally fascinating. At a recent Royal Society of Literature meeting, A.S. Byatt mentioned a novel agitating for her attention, on the subject of two parents who are so in love that there is no room in their relationship for their child. ‘I probably won’t live to write it,’ she said, ‘but there’s a good one to be done.’

     What are the great unwritten works of literature? Wordsworth’s projected three-part epic poem The Recluse is certainly one, while Coleridge had any number of uncompleted – or unstarted – projects. (Adam Sisman’s excellent recent study of the two, The Friendship, quotes Hazlitt’s telling description of Coleridge out for a walk, continually crossing from one side of the footpath to the other: ‘He seemed unable to keep on in a straight line.’)  There are of course plenty of promising books left uncompleted at the author’s death, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Jane Austen’s Sanditon and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood among them; but here the epithet  ‘great’ demands – to my mind at least – heroic ambition. In this category I would certainly place Richard Hughes’s projected series of novels The Human Predicament, of which only the first two – The Fox in the Attic and The Wooden Shepherdess – were actually written.

     Returning to completed books, it would be churlish of me not to mention a forthcoming novel by my own publisher, Chip Martin. Proie, which comes out on 2 February, begins with a house party in Provence: to quote the blurb, ‘There is a fire: a handful of decadents die. Who dun it? Cui bono? One survivor, half-burnt, goes in quest for answers along the Riviera…Encountering yachties, a wealthy designer, an actress, would-be gangsters, twin young men, an old salt and others half-reflecting his past, he moves towards a future where no motive is sure…’ Chip eschews as a point of pride what he calls ‘the slick big time’ of publishing, but with such a promising scenario he may find himself thrown into it whether he likes it or not.

     Fascinating, too, is the premise of Sebastian Barry’s latest play, Andersen’s English: Hans Christian Andersen arrives without warning to stay with Charles Dickens and his family at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, and because of his poor English does not at first appreciate the tensions beneath the household’s jovial surface. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark, and with a cast including Niamh Cusack, the play opens at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 11 February and will then tour England and Wales. ‘So the bright lights of Suffolk are calling,’ I said cheerfully to the author when I saw him in Dublin recently. He shook his head lugubriously: ‘I think they’re preparing the stocks.’