When writing is the family business

October 27, 2016
A lot of great writers seem like they were better with ink and paper than people. Pick up biographies of some literary geniuses and you’ll find many worked hard at their crafts and often endured terrible setbacks but were also self-centered loners who focused on their own problems to the detriment of their loved ones. A few of the “greats” were self-destructive abusers. Others unearthed family traumas or secrets and then publicized these for money. You wonder how their relations ever stood them.
On the other hand, there are a few authors who were so devoted to their families that their talent seemed to echo through their DNA.  Take a look at these clans of chroniclers and prepare to be amazed.
The Bronte Girls
The Bronte Sisters – Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, the literary doyennes of Yorkshire.  They grew when opportunity ran thin on the ground, especially for girls. These three (and their brother, Branwell) developed a rich communal imaginary life that carried them through some miserable childhood experiences.  All three of the Bronte girls tried to become teachers at some point (the only respectable profession open to women then)  but frail health and romantic disappointment eventually brought them back home.  As the daughters of minister they were, of course, poor as church mice and  they decided to try and make money by jointly writing a book of poetry.  Since their culture still didn’t accept the idea of women as professional writers, the published book was credited to Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; male pseudonyms with the same initials as the poetesses.  The Bronte sisters changed from poetry to prose and two years later England was hit with those twin monoliths of Victorian novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as Anne’s story, Agnes Grey. Two years later came Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the Brontes were out of poverty and ruling the best-seller list, though not for long.  Consumption took Anne and Emily before 1850.  Charlotte lived long enough to marry and enjoy some degree of her literary success but it was difficult for her to continue without her sibling support system. The only novel she wrote after Anne and Emily’s death was a retelling of her first effort. 
Mary Bard Jensen and Betty MacDonald
The Bard family clan: The Bard family’s motto was “Don’t be a Saddo” although some would say the clan had a right to be miserable.  The patriarch, Darsie Bard, died in 1920 leaving his wife with five young children, his aged mother, a heavily mortgaged house and very little money.  Nevertheless, his widow, Sydney to everyone that knew her, believed in making do and moving on without complaints. This “Never Give Up, Keep on Grinning” attitude kept the family together and doing anything (including writing) that might pay the family bills.  Sydney wrote, but her second daughter, Anne Elizableth, was the one to hit gold as Betty MacDonald, the author of The Egg and I and her children’s series, The Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle Books.  Sydney’s eldest daughter, Mary Bard Jensen also did well in the domestic humor market with her books about being a doctor’s wife and one of Betty’s friends Monica Sone published Nisei Daughter.  Almost every book contains the theme of facing adversity with optimism and humor. There are worse beliefs in this world.
Lawrence and Gerald Durrell
And then, there are the Durrells.  Masterpiece tipped me off to The Corfu Trilogy the saga of (another!) widow and her eccentric family trying to survive on no money and a good attitude, this time in a foreign land. The stories were obviously penned by the youngest child, Gerald, but it is his eldest brother, Larry, who insists he is going to be a writer.  After two good episodes about this fascinating family, I started reading Gerald’s first book, My Family and Other Animals, and decided to do a bit of research on the family.  Are they known? Holy Smoke, are they ever!  The sardonic but kind Larry turned out to be Lawrence Durrell, one of the “Great” modern novelists my college  English instructors raved about in the 1970’s. (Chants of “Miller, and Durrell and Greene, Oh MY! would spill angry English grad students into the halls of my first university.) Lawrence Durrell’s work is visionary, sexy, brilliant, bitter, and good enough to be considered for a Nobel prize at one point but Gerald’s stories of their family are what gained popularity.  (A good thing, since Gerald’s vocation as a naturalist paid little or nothing!) The Corfu trilogy brought in cash and unexpected dimensions to any would be biographer of the “more literary” Durrell. The writing bug even spread to their sister, Margaret who penned “Whatever Happened to Margo?“; her account of how the family coped once they were relocated to England.
So there you have it.  A novelist doesn’t need to cut off his/her family in order to work (although writing requires quiet every once in a while).  Family can actually be a scribbler’s greatest ally, if his/her siblings get into the act.  As long as everyone agrees to help and refrain from being “a Saddo.”

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