There was just one problem with Rock Me Gently, a bestselling autobiographical account of a traumatic childhood in a brutal convent: large chunks of it were plagiarised from other books.
Now Judith Kelly, the author, has spoken about the frustrations that led her to lift long passages from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock and Hilary Mantel’s Fludd for her memoir. Blaming her own ignorance and lack of a formal education, she said: “I am not a writer and I never will be. I’m just a fool. It’s a tragedy really — such a stupid thing to do.”
That "I'm just a fool" was a clever touch; it almost makes it sound like Kelly's taking responsibility for her actions. But to me, the words wrapped around that sentence still look like, "Gee, if I'd know I was going to get caught I sure wouldn't have done it." Kelly is "not a writer," so she urges us to excuse her from accountability; her lack of a formal education is to blame for her not knowing it was wrong to copy someone else's words and pretend they were her own.
Excuse me? The woman's literate enough to be reading Charlotte Bronte and Graham Greene, but she doesn't understand the concept of plagiarism? I'm not buying it. My kids learned about stealing the words of others when they started cranking out their very first book reports in elementary school.
So how did this terrible accident happen to Kelly? She tells us:
“I read and read, and I took copious notes. I knew I had a moving story to tell. I took notes from books and most of the time I would write the title and page number next to phrases I liked.
“When I came to write the book four years later, I obviously forgot on some passages. It was a genuine mistake,” she said.
Give. Me. A break. There's no way she could have skimmed her final draft and missed the fact that big chunks of it were the words of other writers.
Like many fiction writers, I often worry that my subconscious mind might copy a plot or even a clever turn of phrase I've read elsewhere. If something like that trickled into my writing I'd be horribly ashamed; that healthy fear helps me avoid such accidents. But this was no accident:
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë: That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence, which . . . breathed typhus through its crowded school-room and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital. Semi- starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of eighty girls lay ill at one time.
Rock Me Gently: The convent was a cradle of fly-bred infection . . . disease had crept into the orphanage and breathed its foul breath through the kitchens and refectory. Lack of food, rat-ridden dormitories and clogged drains had primed the children to catch infections. Before May arrived, 45 out of 60 girls lay ill.
Note that Kelly did quite a bit of furniture-moving to make this paragraph "her own." Did she really intend to go back later and make it more her own?
Call me a skeptic. Kelly's not making apologies, she's making excuses.