Podcast Episode 137: The Mystery of Fiona Macleod

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When the Scottish writer William Sharp died in 1905, his wife revealed a surprising secret: For 10 years he had kept up a second career as a reclusive novelist named Fiona Macleod, carrying on correspondences and writing works in two distinctly different styles. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll explore Sharp’s curious relationship with his feminine alter ego, whose sporadic appearances perplexed even him.

We’ll also hunt tigers in Singapore and puzzle over a surprisingly unsuccessful bank robber.

Intro:

In 1904 Mrs. Membury, of Hyde Corner, Bridport, Dorset, set out to make a snake of stamps.

In 1996, mathematician Michael J. Bradley noticed that his son’s Little League rulebook specified a geometrically impossible home plate.

Sources for our feature on Fiona Macleod:

Flavia Alaya, William Sharp — “Fiona Macleod,” 1855-1905, 1970.

Terry L. Meyers, The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp, 1996.

John Sutherland, Curiosities of Literature, 2013.

“Sharp’s Death Solves a Literary Mystery,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 1905.

Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, “A Man With Two Souls,” Votes for Women, Jan. 6, 1911.

“The Past Year’s Literary Output,” Sydney Morning Herald, Feb. 16, 1901.

“Fiona Macleod,” Athenaeum 3733 (May 13, 1899), 596.

“Fiona Macleod,” The Academy, May 15, 1897, 525-526.

Georgiana Goddard King, “Fiona Macleod,” Modern Language Notes 33:6 (June 1918), 352-356.

Alfred Noyes, “Fiona Macleod,” Fortnightly Review 79:469 (January 1906), 163.

“Fiona Macleod,” The Academy, Dec. 16, 1905, 1312-1313.

Ethel Rolt-Wheeler, “Fiona Macleod — The Woman,” Fortnightly Review 106:635 (November 1919), 780-790.

Frank Rinder, “William Sharp — ‘Fiona Macleod,'” Art Journal, February 1906, 44-45.

“Miss Fiona Macleod,” The Sketch 23:296 (Sept. 28, 1898), 430.

“Fiona Macleod,” Vogue 13:13 (March 30, 1899), 206.

Catharine A. Janvier, “Fiona Macleod and Her Creator William Sharp,” North American Review 184:612 (April 5, 1907), 718-732.

William Sharp “Fiona Macleod” Archive, Institute of English Studies, University of London.

James Norman Hall, Oh Millersville!, 1940.

Edward Brunner, “‘Writing Another Kind of Poetry’: James Norman Hall as ‘Fern Gravel’ in Oh Millersville!”, Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 8/9 (Spring 2006), 44-59.

Listener mail:

Cara Giaimo, “How Millions of Secret Silk Maps Helped POWs Escape Their Captors in WWII,” Atlas Obscura, Dec. 20, 2016.

“A Tiger in Town,” Straits Times, Aug. 13, 1902.

“Notes of the Day,” Straits Times, Oct. 27, 1930.

Tom Standage, A History of the World in Six Glasses, 2010.

Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, 2010.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Davide Tassinari, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Taste

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Cheering news from India. My press clipping agency has sent me a letter from the correspondence column of an Indian paper about a cow that came into the bungalow of a Mr. Verrier Elwyn, who lives at Patengarth, Mandla District, and ate his copy of Carry On, Jeeves, ‘selecting it from a shelf which contained, among other works, books by Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Henry Fielding.’ A pretty striking tribute I look on that as.

— P.G. Wodehouse to William Townend, Sept. 3, 1929

The Last Blessing

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After his daughter Jean’s death in 1909, Mark Twain began to write:

Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for strength to withhold the word. And I would have the strength; I am sure of it. In her loss I am almost bankrupt, and my life is a bitterness, but I am content: for she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts — that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor — death. I have never wanted any released friend of mine restored to life since I reached manhood. I felt in this way when Susy passed away; and later my wife, and later Mr. Rogers. When Clara met me at the station in New York and told me Mr. Rogers had died suddenly that morning, my thought was, Oh, favorite of fortune — fortunate all his long and lovely life — fortunate to his latest moment! The reporters said there were tears of sorrow in my eyes. True — but they were for ME, not for him. He had suffered no loss. All the fortunes he had ever made before were poverty compared with this one.

“I am setting it down,” he told his friend Albert Bigelow Paine, “everything. It is a relief to me to write it. It furnishes me an excuse for thinking.”

He wrote for three days, handed the manuscript to Paine, and told him to make it the final chapter of his autobiography. Four months later he was dead.

Eternity in an Hour

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At the end of his 1986 book Paradoxes in Probability Theory and Mathematical Statistics, statistician Gábor J. Székely offers a final paradox from his late professor Alfréd Rényi:

Since I started to deal with information theory I have often meditated upon the conciseness of poems; how can a single line of verse contain far more ‘information’ than a highly concise telegram of the same length. The surprising richness of meaning of literary works seems to be in contradiction with the laws of information theory. The key to this paradox is, I think, the notion of ‘resonance.’ The writer does not merely give us information, but also plays on the strings of the language with such virtuosity, that our mind, and even the subconscious self resonate. A poet can recall chains of ideas, emotions and memories with a well-turned word. In this sense, writing is magic.

Sommelier!

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” may be a classic horror story, but it’s full of “weird wine howlers,” according to Clifton Fadiman.

Fortunato, who is immured in the story, “prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine,” and Montresor, who does the immuring, adds, “I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.”

But Fortunato tells him, “Luchesi is quite incapable of telling Amontillado from Sherry,” and, later, “Amontillado! You have been imposed upon; and as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado.”

But Amontillado is a sherry! H. Warner Allen points out that André Simon’s wine encyclopedia defines Amontillado as “one of the most popular types of Sherry, neither too dry nor too sweet.”

Compounding this error, Montresor tells Fortunato that he wants Luchesi’s opinion of a pipe of Amontillado that he has received. But a pipe is a cask of port; a cask of sherry is a butt.

Also, Poe seems to have thought that Amontillado is an Italian wine, perhaps judging by the look of the word. Fadiman writes, “What he thought ‘a flagon of De Grâve’ could be is almost beyond conjecture.”

(Clifton Fadiman, Dionysus: A Case of Vintage Tales About Wine, 1962.)

Midnight Oil

In 1960, MIT mathematician George B. Thomas Jr. received a letter from a waterfowl farmer in Maine. The farmer thought he had discovered an error in a problem in Thomas’ influential textbook Calculus and Analytic Geometry. A little bewildered, Thomas looked into it and discovered that there was indeed an error. He thanked the writer and promised to correct the mistake in future editions.

The two corresponded intermittently thereafter, but four years went by before Thomas realized that the farmer was novelist Henry Roth, author of Call It Sleep. Suffering a disastrous case of writer’s block, Roth had turned to farming and tutoring to support his family, and he had worked his way through every problem in Thomas’ book, ninety per chapter, “often struggling long into the night before arriving at the solution,” according to biographer Steven Kellman.

A copy of the textbook, “inscribed with notes,” is listed among Roth’s papers. In the preface to the fourth edition, Thomas wrote, “One of the author’s friends, Mr. Henry Roth, wrote that he feared that the new edition would be ‘rife with set theory.’ I believe that he, and others who have used the third edition, will find that only modest additions of set theory have been made.”

Podcast Episode 129: The Voynich Manuscript

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In 1912, bookseller Wilfrid Voynich discovered an illustrated manuscript that was written in a mysterious alphabet that had never been seen before. The text bears the hallmarks of natural language, but no one has ever been able to determine its meaning. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn about the Voynich manuscript, which has been bewildering scholars for more than a century.

We’ll also ponder some parliamentary hostages and puzzle over a tormenting acquisition.

Intro:

In 1851, George Merryweather invented the Tempest Prognosticator, a rack of bottled leeches who would ring a bell when a storm approached.

Between 1884 and 1896, visitors to Coney Island could stay in a 31-room hotel shaped like an elephant.

Sources for our feature on the Voynich manuscript:

Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, The Voynich Manuscript, 2004.

“Voynich Manuscript,” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Klaus Schmeh, “The Voynich Manuscript: The Book Nobody Can Read,” Skeptical Inquirer 35:1 (January/February 2011).

Diego R. Amancio et al., “Probing the Statistical Properties of Unknown Texts: Application to the Voynich Manuscript,” PLoS One, July 2, 2013.

Andreas Schinner, “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis,” Cryptologia 31:2 (March 2007).

Marcelo A. Montemurro and Damián H. Zanette, “Keywords and Co-Occurrence Patterns in the Voynich Manuscript: An Information-Theoretic Analysis,” PLoS One, June 21, 2013.

Bec Crew, “Researcher Finds Evidence That the ‘World’s Most Mysterious Book’ Is an Elaborate Hoax,” Science Alert, Sept. 23, 2016.

Melissa Hogenboom, “Mysterious Voynich Manuscript Has ‘Genuine Message’,” BBC News, June 22, 2013.

Reed Johnson, “The Unread: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript,” New Yorker, July 9, 2013.

Rich McCormick, “Decrypting the Most Mysterious Book in the World,” The Verge, Feb. 28, 2014.

Wikipedia has scans of the entire manuscript, sortable by page, folio, or topic.

Listener mail:

Wikipedia, “Hostage MP” (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Wikipedia, “State Opening of Parliament” (accessed Nov. 12, 2016).

Matt Field, “Queen’s Speech: Your Guide to All the Parliamentary Pomp and Pageantry,” Guardian, May 27, 2015.

“Intertwined Love Story: Twins Who Married Twins,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, May 28, 2010.

“Identical Twins Marry, Give Birth to Identical Twins,” Telegraph, July 22, 2008.

Danielle Centoni, “The Secret Life of Pears (in Brandy),” Oregon Live, September 2011.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Jake Koethler.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!