Nothing There? Not Like When an Author Throws His Hated Manuscript Into the Fire

When you study 19th and 20th Century English literature, you sometimes come across writers who are very great drinkers, great lovers and often, filled with wild emotions about what they are writing. There are innumerable cases when a famous novelist, unhappy with a particular manuscript he’s worked on for years, heaves it into the fire in a fit of passion and that’s the end of it. Even if he later regrets it, it’s gone.

“Who knows what we lost when (fill in the blank) did this,” the English professor tells the students.

The author sometimes makes it even worse or, depending on your perspective, better, by dying young. All that genius, gone forever.

Today, of course, we don’t have that problem. We write on computers. We save the material on a hard drive. We print things out in duplicate. We use a copier. We email manuscript files to others. Even if we write in longhand, we try to always make copies of it so it isn’t lost.

It’s still possible to decline to publish something, of course. The 21st century equivalent of this is to refuse to publish and then hire a lawyer to prevent publication after your passing (dying young).

In these circumstances, I was rather delighted to read about a woman, an English author named Trish Vickers who lives in the town of Lyme Regis, who suffered the kind of old fashioned loss I have been referring to. She never intended to have it happen. And as it happened, those around her moved heaven and earth to get what she wrote back.

Trish Vickers lives alone in a tiny cottage in that country village and writes her stories longhand, with a ballpoint pen. She is blind, though self sufficient. For her writing career, she uses rubber bands going across a blank page that can be moved down on pegs to make sure she writes without overwriting an earlier line. She’s a nice lady. People in town stop in from time to time to enjoy her company. She doesn’t go out much.

The latest book she has been writing is tentatively called Grannifer’s Legacy, and is about a young woman named Jennifer who loses her job, her great-great-grandmother and her boyfriend, yet remains determined to overcome these obstacles and have a meaningful life. Jennifer’s great-great-grandmother’s death is a particularly hard blow. That woman is her mentor.

Vickers enjoys the act of writing. But she doesn’t show anyone what she’s written until it’s done.

One day, her son Simon, who lives several hours away, came to visit. Excited to show him what she had just about finished, she brought out the manuscript and showed it to him. He was shocked. Every page was blank. He asked to see her pen. When she gave it to him, he had to tell her the truth. The pen was out of ink and had been for quite sometime.

Ms. Vickers was devastated. But when the word got out, the whole town came together to try to find a way to get what she wrote back. The answer came from the forensic division of the Dorset County Police Department, in which Lyme Regis sits and which is usually involved in solving crime.

The woman who runs the place, Kerry Savage, said that she felt that by shining a light at various angles onto the blank pages one at a time, she might be able to determine from the indentation made by the pen on the paper what the words were. The blank pages were taken to the police department, and Savage and her staff worked five months to reveal the words and have a typist transcribe them all. With the exception of one line that simply defied interpretation—but which Vickers happily provided from memory—the manuscript was recreated exactly as she had written it.

This story was originally reported in London’s The Daily Telegraph, but it was picked up and also run in the New York Times. What a story!

“It was nice to do something for somebody, and it was nice to read the book as well,” said officer Savage, according to the Times.

“I remembered the gist of what I had written, but there was no way I could have written exactly the same way again,” Vickers said in the Times.

Ms. Vickers now has a box of new pens. And a volunteer stops by every week to type up what she has written. This is not going to happen again.

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