Miss Martineau’s Gentle Advice for Writers: Don’t botch your work!

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“Revise, revise, revise.” As a writer, I was formed by this maxim. Now, as a teacher of writing, I repeat the refrain to my students. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read in her Autobiography the writing practices of accomplished Victorian author Harriet Martineau. Martineau “committed [her]self to a single copy” of each piece. After she had figured out what she wanted to say, she had always “written it down without care and anxiety” (113). She not only describes her process of single-draft composition in glowing terms; she also denounces revision as a sloppy practice! “I think I perceive,” continues Martineau daintily, “that great mischief arises from the notion that botching in the second place will compensate for carelessness in the first.” After dropping that bomb, she decides to stomp out the survivors: “I think I perceive”—oh, that phrase!—“that confusion of thought, or cloudiness or affectation of style are produced or aggravated by faulty prepossessions [i.e., revision practices]” (114). So, for Martineau, revision is “botching in the second place,” is it? Really, now! Revision is an art, I’ll have you know!

Once I let my flustered temper cool down, however, I was ready to give Martineau her proper due—and get to the more interesting questions of the matter. After all, Martineau’s method seems to have worked well for her: She does have a readable, pleasurable prose style. She was extremely prolific in multiple genres. She made a name for herself, a woman writer, under adverse circumstances. And after having meandered among her writings, both fiction and nonfiction, for a little while, I have a growing respect for this author. I’m not interested, then, in simply contradicting her writing practices.

Instead, I am intrigued by what her single-draft publications might reveal about how her mind and opinions develop—especially when she contradicts herself. Others bloggers and I have noticed differences between Martineau’s theory and practice of travel-writing (in her Society in America). Victorian scholar Dallas Liddle, in The Dynamics of Genre: Journalism and the Practice of Literature in Mid-Victorian Britain, argues that Martineau attempts to present herself in the Autobiography as a humble, unambitious writer who unintentionally broke in on the publishing scene…but that Martineau contradicts herself in the details of the scenes, which suggest that she felt the triumph of satisfied ambition. Further, Liddle claims that the historical facts of Martineau’s first publication also suggest the latter (57).

Could Martineau’s single-draft writing be a reason these inconsistencies came into print? She writes in a state that is both purposeful and stream-of-consciousness. Thus, her writing most closely approximates her thoughts at a given period; she does not revisit it. The rest of us—those who revise—bring our many “selves” to the composition; we change between each draft, and we meld our thoughts from these different “selves” to most closely approach that which we intend. This certainly does not exempt from error those writers who revise (there are faults and risks), nor do I condemn the single draft—Liddle makes the excellent point that Martineau is aligning herself with journalistic writing style. However, “I think I perceive” that many of Martineau’s works frame inconsistencies—overt or hidden, as the case may be. The works are more interesting this way, fresh from Martineau’s mind, and I want to see what can be gleaned from her distinct, unblended writing “selves.”

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