The notion of the solitary genius is a romantic one, fuelled by (probably erroneous) images of William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein and others, labouring late into the night as the mysteries of the universe and the human heart revealed themselves. During his relationship with French novelist George Sand (1804-76), Frederic Chopin (1810-49), would shut himself away in his room for days on end, weeping, walking, breaking his pens, altering each bar of music a hundred times before writing it down and altering it as many times again, spending six weeks to produce a page that was, to Sand, identical to that which he had first set down. When she attempted to intercede, encouraging him to trust his instincts, he would fly into a rage.
Gustav Flaubert (1821-80) lived, by his own admission, an austere life stripped of all eternal pleasures. Easily distracted by the noises of the day, Flaubert usually worked alone and at night. He rose at 10am, ringing a bell for his mail and signalling to the family that they could stop creeping around in near silence. He would be up by 11am, and the day would be filled with family walks, conversation, reading and lessons for his young niece. Then, at 10pm, in a dark and silent house, the real work began. Composition of his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, crept along at a glacial pace, sometimes at a rate of two pages a week. On Sundays, he and a friend might go over a single sentence dozens or even hundreds of times. This life of monotonous grind lasted almost five years, when the book was finally mailed to Flaubert’s publisher.
However, not all such creative masters had the opportunity for such peace. Given that Jane Austen (1775-1817) never lived alone she was remarkably productive. Residing with her mother, sisters and servants, the household was prone to a constant stream of unannounced visitors and casual interruptions. Austen didn’t want anyone outside her immediate family to know about her work. In order to conceal her occupation from callers and servants, she wrote on small sheets of paper that could be easily concealed. She also objected to the repair of a squeaking door that would announce a presence and give her a vital few seconds to hide material. Austen rose early and played the piano before organising the family breakfast a 9am (her one domestic chore). This task completed, she would write, often with her mother and sisters sewing alongside. Dinner, the main meal of the day, was served between 3pm and 4pm, and the evening was spent reading aloud from novels or Austen’s work in progress. Austen’s development as a writer was doubtlessly aided by her family, who were supportive and respectful, and her sister, who assumed the bulk of the household responsibilities, allowing the time needed for composition.
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