On the joy of reading first drafts

The BBC looks at what we gain from reviewing first drafts of famous works. I have a great book of photographs of the notes on Eliot’s The Wasteland, and one of my favourite possessions is Gorgeous Nothings, which is the same for all Emily Dickinson’s poems jotted onto envelope and scraps and edited by her own hand in ways that sometimes put contemporary experimentalists on notice.

The manuscripts of literary works-in-progress fascinate on many levels, from the flush-faced thrill of spying on something intensely private and the visceral delight of knowing that a legendary author’s hand rested on the paper before you, to the light that such early drafts shed on authorial methodology and intent. Sometimes, the very essence of what a writer is trying to express seems to hover tantalisingly in the gap between a word deleted and another added in its place.

Elsewhere, discombobulating differences can inspire in the reader fresh takes on even the most well-thumbed texts. Openings and endings turn out to have been quite different in their earliest renderings, and beloved characters are to be found taking their first steps bearing very different names. For instance, Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy, Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing detective answered to Sherrinford Hope, and The Great Gatsby’s Daisy and Nick were Ada and Dud.

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