It is said that, when the time came to kill off D’Artagnan, Dumas couldn’t bring himself to do the deed, and had his right-hand man Maquet do it.*
It is also said that Dumas killed off Porthos in person – and wept like a baby over it.
I think I rather understand him.
I have vivid memories of killing off my first hero ever, some twenty years ago. I sat up late at night to write, and it was my insomniac father who found me in tears, and wanted to know what was the matter…
“I’ve just killed Ned!” I sobbed – and if Dad was amused, he covered it well. I remember the exhilaration of having reached the last page, and the awfulness of having pushed under a cab this fellow I had imagined, and followed from childhood to early thirties, and put through all sorts of ups and downs, and grown to love… But he had to die in the end for the story to make the sense I wanted it to make. And so I cried my eyes out, but push him under the cab I did.
Back then I was very young and green at the game, but it would seem that, twenty years later, little has changed. Last weekend I reached the last-but-one, climatic scene of the opera libretto I’m writing for a composer. The scene involves a duel, in which my hero gets himself killed, poor lad. Now, don’t go and assume I kill of all my main characters… Oh well, I often do – but this time it isn’t exactly my choice. The libretto is a commission and a loose adaptation from someone else’s work, and I couldn’t change the ending, even if I wished.**
Wait, wait, wait! Why don’t we have another cup of tea, before we get drastic?
And yet, bearing all the above in mind, and having known from the beginning how it would end, I found myself dithering like mad, and tinkering past reason with the market scene that precedes the duel, and making myself multiple cups of tea – anything to postpone the fatal blow a little longer.
In the end, it took me twentyseven hours to kill the fellow – an inhuman length of time, I’ll agree – and I may not have teared up, but I very much wanted to. Like my much younger self. Like Dumas. Like, I’ll wager, a whole lot of writers.
Let no one tell you writing isn’t gruesome work. We do a lot of darling-killing, and it’s not always all that metaphorical. We make up people, we grow to know and love them – and then we kill them, and manage to be so very sorry about it.
Someone might call it not just gruesome, but weirdly so.
* Sounds terribly felonious, doesn’t it? Actually, Auguste Maquet was a history teacher and a very minor novelist, who earned a living as a sort of writing assistant to Dumas. It didn’t end well.
** Not that I do: it makes such perfect dramatic sense…