Too Late

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For 500 years it was thought that Geoffrey Chaucer had written The Testament of Love, a medieval dialogue between a prisoner and a lady.

But in the late 1800s, British philologists Walter Skeat and Henry Bradshaw discovered that the initial letters of the poem’s sections form an acrostic, spelling “MARGARET OF VIRTU HAVE MERCI ON THINUSK” [“thine Usk”].

It’s now thought that the poem’s true author was Thomas Usk, a contemporary of Chaucer who was accused of conspiring against the duke of Gloucester. Apparently he had written the Testament in prison in an attempt to seek aid — Margaret may have been Margaret Berkeley, wife of Thomas Berkeley, a literary patron of the time.

If it’s aid that Usk was seeking, he never found it: He was hanged at Tyburn in March 1388.

Crime and Punishment

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

German playwright Ernst Toller was arrested for socialist activities in 1919. His 1937 collection of letters from prison, Look Through the Bars, includes this memory:

Stadelheim 1919

Dear ——,

We are a hundred men here in prison, separated from our wives for months. Every conversation between any two men always ends in the same way — women.

The high walls prevent any view. Within the walls is a small hut. It was, we heard, some sort of wash-house, which was not used. One day one of us saw that the shutters of the hut were opened. He saw two women at work. One stayed in the wash-house, the other went away and locked the door. Soon we knew all. The two women were a wardress and a prisoner, who was to be released in a short time. She had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for child-murder. She had already served five years; in a few weeks’ time she was to be pardoned.

It would be too complicated to tell you how we contrived to exchange notes with the girl. First playful and harmless ones, then feverish, passionate and confused ones. Everything which, in that closed-in existence, had come in dreams, wishes and fantasies went out to that woman. One morning she gave us a signal. We were to stand near the window at a certain hour.

Impossible to describe what happened. The woman opened her dress and stood naked at the window. She was surprised and taken away. We never saw her again. But we learned that the pardon had been annulled.

Never has a woman moved me so much as that little prisoner, who, in order to make men happy for a few seconds (in a very questionable way) suffered with unsophisticated wisdom three more years in prison.

Appeals

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Advertisements in the Sing Sing inmate newspaper Star of Hope, May 19, 1900:

WANTED — A home-like home. Present one, not what it is cracked up to be. Address Clinton 4,320.

WANTED — A good night’s rest. Gallery shouters and instrumentalists take note. Nemo, Star Office.

WANTED — An eraser, (must be mighty sharp) to blot out the past. A stock of experience, (fringed and threadbare) given in exchange. For particulars, Auburn 20,101.

WANTED — That rara avis, the con who does not think he is better able to manage the Star than the present Editor. Applications solicited by Sing Sing 51,094.

WANTED — A few blank pages in the Book of Life, wherein we desire to make some new entries — on the Cr. side. Address Summa Summarum, New York State Prisons.

WANTED — Immediately — an Opportunity. Price no object if goods are fair and in good working order. Anxious, Clinton 4,298.

WANTED — Anno Domini 1902. Will give in exchange one and a quarter yards of warranted genuine, homemade Spring po’ms — just too lovely for every day wear. Samantha, Auburn 595 (W. P.)

LOST — Five days’ ‘short time.’ Finder can have same by arranging with the Powers That Be. Address Nostalgic, Auburn 20,210.

(From Karel Weiss, The Prison Experience, 1976.)

Wild Life

The author of Bambi wrote a pornographic novel. Josephine Mutzenbacher: The Life Story of a Viennese Whore was published anonymously in Vienna in 1906, shortly after Felix Salten moved there. Salten’s authorship has never been proven conclusively, but the consensus of scholars and even the Austrian government supports it.

The book is the fictional memoir of a 50-year-old Viennese prostitute, looking back on her scandalous life. In The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, Harold B. Segel writes, “For those who knew him it was more in character than Bambi.”

It’s remained in print for more than a century now and sold 3 million copies. A sample in English (NSFW) is here.

Love and Laureates

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George Hitchings, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988, proposed to his wife by saying “Incidentally, you’re my fiancée now” as they drove to an event.

John Bardeen, who won the prize in physics in both 1956 and 1972, told his fiancée, “You can be married in the church if you want to, but not to me.”

Hemingway, a Nobelist in literature in 1954, said, “I remember after I got that marriage license I went across from the license bureau to a bar for a drink. The bartender said, ‘What will you have, sir?’ And I said, ‘A glass of hemlock.'”

And Wolfgang Pauli won the Nobel in physics in 1945. Of his ex-wife’s remarriage, he said, “Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood, but an ordinary chemist!”

The War of the Ring

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Of The Lord of the Rings, W.H. Auden wrote, “I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it.”

Among the naysayers, Edmund Wilson wrote, “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.”

Tolkien seemed philosophical about the difference. He wrote in the foreword to the second edition:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.

He wrote elsewhere:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like it you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!

“The Cage Without Birds”

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Felix does not understand how people can keep birds in cages.

‘It’s a crime,’ he says, ‘like picking flowers. Personally, I’d rather sniff them on their stems — and birds are meant to fly, the same way.’

Nonethless he buys a cage, hangs it in his window. He puts a cotton-wool nest inside, a saucer of seeds, and a cup of clean, renewable water. He also hangs a swing in the cage, and a little mirror.

And when he is questioned with some surprise:

‘I pride myself on my generosity,’ he says, ‘each time I look at that cage. I could put a bird in there, but I leave it empty. If I wanted to, some brown thrush, some fat bullfinch hopping around outside, or some other bird of all the kinds we have here would be a captive. But thanks to me, at least one of them remains free. There’s always that …’

— Jules Renard, Les Histoires Naturelles, 1896

Application

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Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame under enormous financial pressure, leaving his table only to eat or sleep.

Finally, his daughter Adèle wrote, “On 14 January, [Notre-Dame] was finished. The bottle of ink that M. Victor Hugo had bought the first day was finished also; he had arrived in the same moment at the last line and at the last drop.

“This gave him, in that moment, the idea of changing his title and calling his novel: What There Is in a Bottle of Ink.”

Character Study

Balzac’s 1829 treatise La physiologie du mariage contains a strange passage:

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“Four editions of the book, three of them printed in Balzac’s lifetime, in fact contain four different versions,” notes F.L. Bauer in Decrypted Secrets. “The author must have been playing a practical joke on the reader. Nevertheless, [French military cryptanalyst Étienne] Bazeries investigated such a cryptogram in 1901 and found that it did not fit any known scheme; it was une facétie de l’auteur.”

Distant Early Warning

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Alexandre Dumas’ cat knew when he was coming home:

At the time I speak of, I held a situation in the service of the Duc d’Orléans, with a salary of 1500 francs. My work occupied me from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. We had a cat in those days, whose name was Mysouff. This cat had missed his vocation; he ought to have been a dog. Every morning I started for my office at half-past nine, and came back every evening at half-past five. Every morning Mysouff followed me to the corner of a particular street, and every evening I found him in the same street, at the same corner, waiting for me. Now the curious thing was that on the days when I had found some amusement elsewhere, and was not coming home to dinner, it was of no use to open the door for Mysouff to go and meet me. Mysouff, in the attitude of the serpent with its tail in its mouth, refused to stir from his cushion. On the other hand, on the days I did come, Mysouff would scratch at the door until some one opened it for him.

“My mother was very fond of Mysouff,” he wrote. “She used to call him her barometer.”