In scenes of pathos, Charles Dickens often wrote unconsciously in blank verse. These paragraphs from The Old Curiosity Shop, arranged as poetry, show a strong iambic rhythm:
And now the bell — the bell
She had so often heard by night and day
And listened to with solid pleasure,
E’en as a living voice –
Rung its remorseless toll for her,
So young, so beautiful, so good.
Decrepit age, and vigorous life,
And blooming youth, and helpless infancy,
Poured forth — on crutches, in the pride of strength
And health, in the full blush
Of promise — the mere dawn of life –
To gather round her tomb. Old men were there,
Whose eyes were dim
And senses failing –
Granddames, who might have died ten years ago,
And still been old — the deaf, the blind, the lame, the palsied,
The living dead in many shapes and forms,
To see the closing of this early grave!
What was the death it would shut in,
To that which still would crawl and creep above it!
Along the crowded path they bore her now;
Pure as the new-fallen snow
That covered it; whose day on earth
Had been so fleeting.
Under that porch where she had sat when Heaven
In mercy brought her to that peaceful spot,
She passed again, and the old church
Received her in its quiet shade.
Richard Horne presented these stanzas in New Spirit of the Age in 1844. “Throughout the whole of the above, only two unimportant words have been omitted — in and its; ‘granddames’ has been substituted for ‘grandmothers,’ and ‘e’en’ for ‘almost.’ All that remains is exactly as in the original, not a single word transposed, and the punctuation the same to a comma.”
“It is not an affectation in me, nor have I the least desire to write them in that metre,” Dickens wrote to an inquirer that April, “but I run into it, involuntarily and unconsciously, when I am very much in earnest. I even do so, in speaking.”
“I am not prepared to say that this may not be a defect in prose composition, but I attach less importance to it than I do to earnestness. And considering that it is a very melodious and agreeable march of words, usually; and may be perfectly plain and free; I cannot agree with you that it is likely to be considered by discreet readers as turgid or bombastic, unless the sentiments expressed in it, be of that character. Then indeed it matters very little how they are attired, as they cannot fail to be disagreeable in any garb.”
But he seems to have grown self-conscious about it. In 1846 he wrote to John Forster regarding The Battle of Life, “If in going over the proofs you find the tendency to blank verse (I cannot help it, when I am very much in earnest) too strong, knock out a word’s brains here and there.”
William F. Buckley Jr. called Norman Mailer an egotist, “almost unique in his search for notoriety and absolutely unequalled in his co-existence with it.”
Mailer called Buckley a “second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row.”
In 1966 Buckley sent Mailer an autographed copy of The Unmaking of a Mayor, the memoir of his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City the previous year.
Mailer turned to the index and looked up his own name. There he found, in Buckley’s handwriting, the words “Hi, Norman.”
Titles of actual publications collected by librarian Eric v.d. Luft:
How to Abandon Ship (1942)
How to Abduct a Highland Lord (2007)
How to Attract the Wombat (1949)
How to Avoid Intercourse With Your Unfriendly Car Mechanic (1977)
How to Be an Ocean Scientist in Your Own Home (1988)
How to Become Extinct (1941)
How to Boil Water (1976)
How to Break Out of Prison (2003)
How to Bribe a Judge (2002)
How to Buy an Elephant (1977)
How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth (1986)
How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World (1979)
How to Embalm Your Mother-in-Law (1993)
How to Get a Gorilla Out of Your Bathtub (2006)
How to Hold a Crocodile (1981)
How to Label a Goat (2006)
How to Ride a Tiger (1983)
How to Run a Bassoon Factory (1934)
How to Tell a Blackbird From a Sausage (2007)
How to Tell If Your Boyfriend Is the Antichrist (2007)
How to Travel With a Salmon (1994)
How to Trick or Treat in Outer Space (2004)
How to Wreck a Building (1982)
The list was begun by librarians at Bowdoin College in the 1970s; Luft inherited it there and has maintained it ever since. He published a selection in 2008 as The Inscribed List: Or Why Librarians Are Crazy. “We librarians don’t go deliberately looking for these little nuggets of delight,” he writes. “We don’t have to. They just appear.”
This is the opening page of “The Metamorphosis,” from Vladimir Nabokov’s teaching copy. Kafka’s novella held a special interest for Nabokov, who was a trained entomologist. From his lecture notes at Cornell:
Now, what exactly is the ‘vermin’ into which poor Gregor, the seedy commercial traveler, is so suddenly transformed? It obviously belongs to the branch of ‘jointed leggers’ (Arthropoda), to which insects, and spiders, and centipedes, and crustaceans belong. … Next question: What insect? Commentators say cockroach, which of course does not make sense. A cockroach is an insect that is flat in shape with large legs, and Gregor is anything but flat: he is convex on both sides, belly and back, and his legs are small. He approaches a cockroach in only one respect: his coloration is brown. That is all. Apart from this he has a tremendous convex belly divided into segments and a hard rounded back suggestive of wing cases. In beetles these cases conceal flimsy little wings that can be expanded and then may carry the beetle for miles and miles in a blundering flight. … Further, he has strong mandibles. He uses these organs to turn the key in a lock while standing erect on his hind legs, on his third pair of legs (a strong little pair), and this gives us the length of his body, which is about three feet long. … In the original German text the old charwoman calls him Mistkafer, a ‘dung beetle.’ It is obvious that the good woman is adding the epithet only to be friendly. He is not, technically, a dung beetle. He is merely a big beetle.
“Curiously enough,” he added, “Gregor the beetle never found out that he had wings under the hard covering of his back. This is a very nice observation on my part to be treasured all your lives. Some Gregors, some Joes and Janes, do not know that they have wings.”
Unused titles from Raymond Chandler’s notebooks:
The Man with the Shredded Ear
All Guns Are Loaded
The Man Who Loved the Rain
The Corpse Came in Person
The Porter Rose at Dawn
We All Liked Al
Too Late for Smiling
They Only Murdered Him Once
The Diary of a Loud Check Suit
Stop Screaming — It’s Me
Return from Ruin
Between Two Liars
The Lady with the Truck
They Still Come Honest
My Best to the Bride
Law Is Where You Buy It
Deceased When Last Seen
The Black-Eyed Blonde
Chandler delighted in titles. In a 1954 letter to Hamish Hamilton, he invented a “neglected author” named Aaron Klopstein who “committed suicide at the age of 33 in Greenwich Village by shooting himself with an Amazonian blow gun, having published two novels entitled Once More the Cicatrice and The Sea Gull Has No Friends, two volumes of poetry, The Hydraulic Face Lift and Cat Hairs in the Custard, one book of short stories called Twenty Inches of Monkey, and a book of critical essays entitled Shakespeare in Baby Talk.”
When Charles Dickens died in 1870, he was midway through composing a novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The book was published without a conclusion; Dickens had completed 22 chapters and a general outline, but he nowhere identified the murderer.
This unfortunate state of affairs persisted until 1873, when a Vermont printer named Thomas James announced that Dickens had contacted him during a Brattleboro séance and asked his help in completing the novel. James and the ghost collaborated for weeks, with James slipping into a nightly trance and scribbling down the author’s dictation; when James flagged, Dickens would send notes of encouragement and explain that others in the afterworld were following the project with interest.
The completed novel, attributed to “the Spirit-Pen of Charles Dickens, through a Medium,” became a bestseller in America but was largely derided in England for its American tone and inept prose. An excerpt:
As for Stollop, it is safe to assert that there was not a happier man in London than he, and it would occupy no small space to relate the thoughts which filled his mind till the first rays of the morning sun peeped through the crevices of the shutters, throwing light on everything, except the mind of Stollop, as to how the night’s adventure would affect his perspective future, and how long it would be ere he should lead the beautiful young lady to the altar.
The book found an unlikely supporter in Arthur Conan Doyle, who had turned to spiritualism after a series of tragedies in his own life. “If it was a true communication,” he wrote, “it must have been intensely galling to the author that his efforts should have been met with derision. There would, however, be a certain poetic justice in the matter, as Dickens in his lifetime, even while admitting psychic happenings for which he could give no explanation, went out of his way to ridicule spiritualism, which he had never studied or understood.”
Excerpt from Beer in the Sergeant Major’s Hat, a parody found in Raymond Chandler’s notebook:
Hank went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
‘The hell with it,’ he said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’
It was a good bathroom. It was small and the green enamel was peeling off the walls. But the hell with that, as Napoleon said when they told him Josephine waited without. The bathroom had a wide window through which Hank looked at the pine and larches. They dripped with a faint rain. They looked smooth and comfortable.
‘The hell with it,’ Hank said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’
He opened the cabinet over the washbasin and took out his toothpaste. He looked at his teeth in the mirror. They were large yellow teeth, but sound. Hank could still bite his way for a while.
Hank unscrewed the top of the toothpaste tube, thinking of the day when he had unscrewed the lid of the coffee jar, down on the Pukayak River, when he was trout fishing. There had been larches there too. It was a damn good river, and the trout had been damn good trout. They liked being hooked. Everything had been good except the coffee, which had been lousy. He had made it Watson’s way, boiling it for two hours and a half in his knapsack. It had tasted like hell. It had tasted like the socks of the Forgotten Man.
‘She shouldn’t have done it,’ Hank said out loud. Then he was silent.
He had written it on Aug. 7, 1932, and dedicated it to “the greatest living American novelist — Ernest Hemingway.”
In 1866 Mark Twain embarked on a lecture tour in California. He wrote the handbills himself:
In Nevada City, he proposed to perform the following “wonderful feats of sleight of hand” after the lecture:
At a given signal, he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat — repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no more deception about it.
At a moment’s warning, he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous feat many hundreds of times, in San Francisco, and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
“The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present,” he wrote, “for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.”
Notable cross-references in the index of Donald Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume VI, 1939:
Agnostic, see Dachsund.
Appendicitis, see Cadenza.
Critics, see Experts.
Experts, see Critics.
Giraffe, see Berlioz.
Hedgehog, see Brahms.
Monster, see Loch Ness.
Noodles, see Brahms on plagiarism.
Pope, see Bruckner.
Sneeze, see Cherubini and Beethoven.
Sugar, see Grocer.
Witchery, see Mendelssohn.
Evelyn Waugh owned a translation of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection for which someone had composed “a particularly felicitous index. The first entry is: ‘Adultery, 13, 53, 68, 70′; the last is ‘Why do people punish? 358′. Between them occurs such items as: Cannibalism, Dogs, Good breeding, Justification of one’s position, Seduction, Smoking, Spies, and Vegetarianism.”
In 1969, Sufi scholar Idries Shah published a volume called The Book of the Book. Its opening pages told of a king whose people would not listen to his teachings, as he lacked an instrument with which to teach them.
The king meets a stranger who tells him of a revered wise man who attributed his knowledge to a tome kept in a place of honor in his room. When the wise man died, his followers eagerly opened the book and found writing on only one page. “When you realise the difference between the container and the content,” it said, “you will have knowledge.”
The rest of Shah’s 200-page book was blank.
In 1859, Harvard treasurer Henry G. Denny sent out an appeal for funds to buy books for the college library. Among the replies he found this:
Enclosed please find five dollars, for the object above described. I would gladly give more, but this exceeds my income from all sources together for the last four months.
Henry D. Thoreau
Between 1932 and 2002, messages addressed to 221B Baker Street in London were delivered to the Abbey National Building Society, whose headquarters occupied that address. The society received hundreds of letters each year from around the globe and employed a secretary to answer them. Many concerned rather ordinary mysteries (Can Mr. Holmes suggest how a girl might find out if a boy likes her? Mr. Holmes thinks you will have to ask the boy outright), but in 1985 this telegram arrived:
GLAD TO HAVE CASE – YOUR ASSUMPTIONS WERE RIGHT – JEWELS GONE – STATUE GONE – FORMULA STOLEN – POLICE INCAPABLE – PROF. DR HANS MEIER KIDNAPPED – ME TOO! – WHAT SHALL I DO? – IMPATIENTLY AWAITING FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.
It had been sent from Raunheim, West Germany. No further messages followed.
Eunoia, by the Canadian poet Christian Bök, uses only one vowel per chapter:
Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Max and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.
Mark Dunn’s 2001 epistolary novel Ella Minnow Pea is set on an island that successively bans letters of the alphabet. Its discourse begins with “Thank you for the lovely postcards” and dwindles to “No, mon, no! Nooooooooo!”
Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel The Gift ends with the main character, a writer, resolving to write a book about his experiences in the novel, thus promoting himself from a character to the author.
In Norman Mailer’s short story “The Notebook,” a writer’s girlfriend accuses him of being only an observer, not a participant in life. This gives him an idea, which he scribbles into his notebook: Writer accused of being observer, not participant in life by girl. Gets idea he must put in notebook. Does so, and brings the quarrel to a head. Girl breaks relationship over this. The girl breaks up with him over this.
The first story in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper: One side bears the words ONCE UPON A TIME THERE, the other WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN. The reader is instructed to cut this out and fashion it into a Möbius strip that reads “Once upon a time there was a story that began ‘Once upon a time there was a story that began “Once upon a time there was a story that began …”‘”
“It’s short on character, it’s short on plot, but above all, it’s short,” Barth told an interviewer. “And it does remind us of the infinite imbeddedness of the narrative impulse in human consciousness.”
In Jean-Louis Bailly’s 1990 novel La Dispersion des cendres, an embittered mystery writer publishes a sensational novel whose cover bears the warning IF YOU BUY THIS BOOK, YOU ARE A MURDERER. IF YOU READ IT, YOU WILL KNOW WHY. When the royalties reach a certain sum, they automatically send into action an assassin who shoots the writer.
Who done it? You did! “As cause and instrument of the murder, fully aware of perpetrating it, the reader — or at least the buyer — is in every sense the guilty party.”
(Thanks, Ole and Harold.)
Here are three items that I haven’t been able to confirm — I expect the first two are false, but I’m posting them here for what they’re worth. The first is from Henry Thomas and Dana Lee Thomas, Living Biographies of Great Poets, 1941:
An interesting and touching story is told about the manuscript of the first Jungle Book. Kipling gave this manuscript as a present to the nurse who had cared for his first-born child. ‘Take this script,’ he said, ‘and someday if you are in need of money you may be able to sell it at a handsome price.’ Years later, when the nurse was actually in want, she sold the manuscript and managed to live in comfort for the rest of her life.
I can’t verify that anywhere. The second item is from Robert Hendrickson, American Literary Anecdotes, 1992:
Some 5,000 copies of [Steinbeck's] The Wayward Bus (1947) went up in flames when the truck taking them from the bindery collided with a bus — yes, a wayward bus — travelling on the wrong side of the road.
San Jose State University’s Center for Steinbeck Studies repeated that story in a 1995 newsletter, but it cited Hendrickson as the source. I haven’t been able to confirm it independently.
This last one may be true. The Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations claims that Millvina Dean (1911-), the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, while visiting the Kansas City house in which her family would have lived, said, “I can’t bear iced drinks … the iceberg, you know. Perhaps some champagne though.”
The dictionary cites the Times, Aug. 20, 1997, for this quote, but I haven’t tracked that down to confirm it.
Letter to the Times, Feb. 10, 1970:
My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You’re T.S. Eliot.’ When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about,’ and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’
Marcel Bénabou dreamed of producing a book-length literary work, but something always prevented him.
So in 1986 he wrote a book called Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.
“The conceit produces a kind of large-scale demonstration of the principle of antonymy,” notes Harry Mathews in The Oulipo Compendium. “His failures as a writer are what make his success possible.”
“Twenty rules for writing detective stories,” by S.S. Van Dine, 1928:
- The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
- No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
- There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
- The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.
- The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
- The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
- There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
- The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
- There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
- The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
- A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
- There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
- Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
- The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
- The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face — that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
- A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no ‘atmospheric’ preoccupations. Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
- A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
- A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
- The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
- And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic séance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f) The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.
“For the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws,” Van Dine wrote, “unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.”
Letter to the Times, Nov. 28, 1980:
Mr Roger Lancelyn Green (25 November) asks whether it is known how Robert Louis Stevenson intended the name of Dr Jekyll should be pronounced. Fortunately a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, who interviewed Stevenson in his hotel bedroom in San Francisco on 7 June 1888, asked him that very question:
‘There has been considerable discussion, Mr Stevenson, as to the pronunciation or Dr Jekyll’s name. Which do you consider to be correct?’
Stevenson (described as propped up in bed ‘wearing a white woollen nightdress and a tired look’) replied: ‘By all means let the name be pronounced as though it spelt “Jee-kill”, not “Jek-ill”. Jekyll is a very good family name in England, and over there it is pronounced in the manner stated.’
Japanese novelist Tarō Hirai wrote detective fiction under the pseudonym Edogawa Rampo.
That’s a phonetic rendering of one of the genre’s inventors — Edgar Allan Poe.
A letter from Wallace Stevens to his wife, July 19, 1916:
Eminent Vers Libriste Arrives in Town; Details of Reception
St Paul, Minn. July 19, 1916. Wallace Stevens, the playwright and barrister, arrived at Union Station, at 10.30 o’clock this morning. Some thirty representatives of the press were not present to greet him. He proceeded on foot to the Hotel St. Paul, where they had no room for him. Thereupon, carrying an umbrella and two mysterious looking bags, he proceeded to Minnesota Club, 4th & Washington-Streets, St. Paul where he will stay while he is in St. Paul. At the Club, Mr. Stevens took a shower-bath and succeeded in flooding not only the bath-room floor but the bed-room floor as well. He used all the bath-towels in mopping up the mess and was obliged to dry himself with a wash-cloth. From the Club, Mr. Stevens went down-town on business. When asked how he liked St. Paul, Mr. Stevens, borrowing a cigar, said, ‘I like it.’
The above clipping may be of interest to you. Note my address. I am waiting for some papers to be typed — ah! Give my best to the family.
Lewis Carroll discerns a public danger in birthday toasts, from a letter to Gertrude Chataway, Oct. 13, 1875:
I am very much afraid, next time Sybil looks for you, she’ll find you sitting by the sad sea-wave, and crying ‘Boo! hoo! Here’s Mr. Dodgson has drunk my health, and I haven’t got any left!’ And how it will puzzle Dr. Maund, when he is sent for to see you! ‘My dear Madam, I’m very sorry to say your little girl has got no health at all! I never saw such a thing in my life!’ ‘Oh, I can easily explain it!’ your mother will say. ‘You see she would go and make friends with a strange gentleman, and yesterday he drank her health!’ ‘Well, Mrs. Chataway,’ he will say, ‘the only way to cure her is to wait till his next birthday, and then for her to drink his health.’
“And then we shall have changed healths. I wonder how you’ll like mine! Oh, Gertrude, I wish you wouldn’t talk such nonsense!”
This litigious humour is bad enough: but there is one character still worse — that of a person who goes into company, not to contradict, but to talk at you. This is the greatest nuisance in civilised society. Such a person does not come armed to defend himself at all points, but to unsettle, if he can, and throw a slur on all your favourite opinions. If he has a notion that anyone in the room is fond of poetry, he immediately volunteers a contemptuous tirade against the idle jingle of verse. If he suspects you have a delight in pictures, he endeavours, not by fair argument, but by a side-wind, to put you out of conceit with so frivolous an art. If you have a taste for music, he does not think much good is to be done by this tickling of the ears. If you speak in praise of a comedy, he does not see the use of wit: if you say you have been to a tragedy, he shakes his head at this mockery of human misery, and thinks it ought to be prohibited. He tries to find out beforehand whatever it is that you take a particular pride or pleasure in, that he may annoy your self-love in the tenderest point (as if he were probing a wound) and make you dissatisfied with yourself and your pursuits for several days afterwards. A person might as well make a practice of throwing out scandalous aspersions against your dearest friends or nearest relations, by way of ingratiating himself into your favour. Such ill-timed impertinence is ‘villainous, and shows a pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.’
– William Hazlitt, “On the Conversation of Authors,” 1820
George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede opens in a carpenter’s workshop:
The concert of the tools and Adam’s voice was at last broken by Seth, who, lifting the door at which he had been working intently, placed it against the wall, and said, ‘There! I’ve finished my door to-day, anyhow.’
The workmen all looked up; Jim Salt, a burly, red-haired man known as Sandy Jim, paused from his planing, and Adam said to Seth, with a sharp glance of surprise, ‘What! Dost think thee’st finished the door?’
‘Aye, sure,’ said Seth, with answering surprise; ‘what’s awanting to’t?’
A loud roar of laughter from the other three workmen made Seth look round confusedly. Adam did not join in the laughter, but there was a slight smile on his face as he said, in a gentler tone than before, ‘Why, thee’st forgot the panels.’
The laughter burst out afresh as Seth clapped his hands to his head, and coloured over brow and crown.
“I found out in the first two pages that it was a woman’s writing,” Thomas Carlyle complained to Willliam Allingham. “She supposed that in making a door, you last of all put in the panels!”