Late in life Arthur Conan Doyle pursued an interest in the possibility of spiritualism and existence beyond the grave. He was widely criticized for this, but a writer to the Graphic raised a redeeming point:
Although we may misbelieve mediums and
With doubt and suspicion our minds may be filled,
Sherlock Holmes, we must grant, reappeared in the Strand
A number of times after having been killed.
Indeed, Holmes had returned against his creator’s wishes. “I never thought they would take it so much to heart,” Conan Doyle once wrote of Holmes’ death. “I got letters from all over the world reproaching me on the subject. One, I remember, from a lady whom I did not know, began ‘You beast’.”
Edward Lear once overheard a gentleman in a railway station saying that his children had been reading the Book of Nonsense. He maintained that Edward Lear did not exist, and said that Lord Derby had written the book.
Says I, joining spontaneous in the conversation — ‘That is quite a mistake: I have reason to know that Edward Lear the painter and author wrote and illustrated the whole book.’ ‘And I,’ says the Gentleman, says he, — ‘have good reason to know, Sir, that you are wholly mistaken. There is no such person as Edward Lear.’ ‘But,’ says I, ‘there is — and I am the man — I wrote the book!’ Whereupon all the party burst out laughing and evidently thought me mad or telling fibs. So I took off my hat and showed it, with Edward Lear and the address in large letters — also one of my cards, and a marked handkerchief: on which amazement devoured those benighted individuals and I left them to gnash their teeth in trouble and tumult.
Related: In October 1812, Trinity and St. John’s Colleges, Cambridge, ordered that students appearing in hall or chapel in pantaloons or trousers should be considered absent.
Visitors to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London can see a plaque commemorating the location in which John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. The occasion of Holmes and Watson’s meeting there led Tokyo’s Sherlock Holmes Appreciation Society to contribute £650 to the “Save Bart’s Campaign” in 2006.
Holmes is astir elsewhere as well. A passage in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral runs:
THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.
THOMAS: What shall we give for it?
TEMPTER: Pretence of priestly power.
THOMAS: Why should we give it?
TEMPTER: For the power and the glory.
A writer to John O’ London’s Weekly in August 1937 noted that this is strikingly similar to a passage in “The Musgrave Ritual”:
“Whose was it?”
“His who is gone.”
“Who shall have it?”
“He who will come.”
“Where was the sun?”
“Over the oak.”
“Where was the shadow?”
“Under the elm.”
“How was it stepped?”
“North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.”
“What shall we give for it?”
“All that is ours.”
“Why should we give it?”
“For the sake of the trust.”
The writer asked, “Can you tell me what the connection is between the two?”
The editors replied: “We are informed that Mr. Eliot makes no secret of the fact that occasionally in order to obtain a special effect certain passages from his works are taken from the writings of other authors, and that the passage in question was actually adapted by him from the Conan Doyle story.”
Conan Doyle himself paid a similar compliment at the end of Holmes’ career. At the conclusion of “The Final Problem,” Watson calls his friend “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.” A writer to the Times, March 5, 1941, points out that Plato says the same of Socrates at the end of the Phaedo: “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.”
Robert Browning spent seven years composing Sordello, a 40,000-word narrative poem about strife between Guelphs and Ghibellines in 13th-century Italy. It was not received well.
Tennyson said, “There were only two lines in it that I understood, and they were both lies: ‘Who will may hear Sordello’s story told’ and ‘Who would has heard Sordello’s story told.’”
Thomas Carlyle wrote, “My wife has read through ‘Sordello’ without being able to make out whether ‘Sordello’ was a man, or a city, or a book.”
Douglas Jerrold opened the book while convalescing from an illness and began to fear that his mind had been destroyed. “O God, I AM an idiot!” he cried, sinking back onto the sofa. He pressed the book on his wife and sister; when Mrs. Jerrold said, “I don’t understand what this man means; it is gibberish,” her husband exclaimed, “Thank God, I am NOT an idiot!”
In Walter Besant’s 1895 novel The Golden Butterfly, one character spends eight hours trying to penetrate Browning’s poetry. “His eyes were bloodshot, his hair was pushed in disorder about his head, his cheeks were flushed, his hands were trembling, the nerves in his face were twitching. He looked about him wildly, and tried to collect his faculties. Then he arose, and solemnly cursed Robert Browning. He cursed him eating, drinking, and sleeping. And then he took all his volumes, and disposing them carefully in the fireplace, set light to them. ‘I wish,’ he said, ‘that I could put the poet there too.’”
Another (apocryphal) story tells of a puzzled friend who asked Browning the meaning of one of his poems. “When I wrote it, only God and I knew,” the poet replied. “Now, God alone knows!”
“I’m glad you like adverbs,” wrote Henry James to a correspondent. “I adore them; they are the only qualifications I really much respect, and I agree with the fine author of your quotations in saying — or in thinking — that the sense for them is the literary sense. None other is much worth speaking of.”
As Somerset Maugham prepared to write Of Human Bondage, “I began with the impossible aim of using no adjectives at all. I thought that if you could find the exact term a qualifying epithet could be dispensed with. As I saw it in my mind’s eye my book would have the appearance of an immensely long telegram in which for economy’s sake you had left out every word that was not necessary to make the sense clear. I have not read it since I corrected the proofs and do not know how near I came to doing what I tried. My impression is that it is written at least more naturally than anything I had written before.”
Edgar Allan Poe bewailed the passing of the dash. “The Byronic poets were all dash,” he complained. “The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — ‘or, to make my meaning more distinct’. This force it has — and this force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.”
When a Boston girl took Mark Twain to task for splitting infinitives, he confessed that “I have certain instincts, and I wholly lack certain others. (Is that ‘wholly’ in the right place?) For instance, I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. … I know thoroughly well that I shall never be able to get it into my head. Mind, I do not say I shall not be able to make it stay there; I say and mean that I am not capable of getting it into my head. There are subtleties which I cannot master at all, — they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me, — and this adverb plague is one of them.”
J. Joseph Renaud, the French novelist and dramatic author, to test the popularity of Conan Doyle’s stories, recently sent a letter to a friend living in Baker Street. It was addressed as follows:
The same street as Sherlock Holmes,
The letter was delivered by the first post the following morning. The conclusion drawn is that Sherlock Holmes is still fresh in the memory of the English and that the English postal authorities are both erudite and conscientious.
– The Morning Post, Feb. 3, 1933
“You write with ease, to show your breeding, / But easy writing’s curst hard reading.” — Richard Sheridan
“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” — Samuel Johnson
“So did the best writers in their beginnings; they imposed upon themselves care, and industry. They did nothing rashly. They obtained first to write well, and then custom made it easy and a habit. By little and little, their matter showed itself to them more plentifully; their words answered, their composition followed; and all, as in a well ordered family, presented itself in the place. So that the sum of all is: ready writing makes not good writing; but good writing brings on ready writing.” — Ben Jonson
This “geographical love enigma” appeared on a German postcard in the early 20th century. Travel north to south through each successive country (green, red, purple, yellow), naming the geographical features you encounter in each, and you’ll produce the fourth song in Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder:
Wenn ich in deine Augen seh,
So schwindet all mein Leid und Weh;
Doch wenn ich küsse deinen Mund,
So werd ich ganz und gar gesund.
Wenn ich mich lehn an deine Brust,
Kommt’s über mich wie Himmelslust;
Doch wenn du sprichst: “Ich liebe dich!”
So muss ich weinen bitterlich.
When I look into your eyes,
Then vanish all my sorrow and pain!
Ah, but when I kiss your mouth,
Then I will be wholly and completely healthy.
When I lean on your breast,
I am overcome with heavenly delight,
Ah, but when you say, “I love you!”
Then I must weep bitterly.
The French greet one another with kisses on the cheek, but the number of kisses varies with the département. In 2007 Gilles Debunne set up a website, Combien de bises?, on which his countrymen could record their local customs; to date, after more than 87,000 votes, the results range from 1 kiss in Finistère to 4 in Loire Atlantique.
“It’s a lot more subtle than I ever imagined,” Debunne told the Times. “Sometimes the number of kisses changes depending on whether you’re seeing friends or family or what generation you belong to.”
An infantryman’s view of World War I combat, from veteran Henry Williamson’s 1930 novel Patriot’s Progress:
… Half the sky leapt alight behind them, there were shouts and cries, a cascade of sound slipped solidly upon them, seeming to John Bullock to swell and converge upon the place where his now very trembling body was large and alone. He saw a long pale shadow before him an instant before it vagged and vanished in the shock of the earth rushing up in fire before him. He was aware of men going forward, himself with them, of the unreality of all movement, of the barrage which was all-weight and all-sound, so that he was carried forward effortlessly over a land freed from the force of gravity and matter. As in a nightmare of rising green and white showers of light about the rending fire he shouted without sound in a silent world, and his senses fused into a glassy delirium which lasted until he realized that of the figures on either side of him some were slowly going down on their knees, their chins on their box-respirators, their rifles loosening from their hands. He was hot and swearing, and his throat was dried up. That sissing noise and far-away racketting must be emma-gees. Now the fire wall was going down under his nose and streaking sparks were over and he was lying on his back watching a great torn umbrella of mud, while his head was drawn down into his belly …
(The vacuum of a dud shell falling just behind him.) He retched for breath. His ears screamed in his head. He crawled to his knees and looked to see what had happened. Chaps going on forward. He was on his feet in the sissing criss-cross and stinking of smoking earth gaping — hullo, hullo, new shell-holes, this must be near the first objective. They had come three hundred yards already! Cushy! Nothing in going over the top! Then his heart instead of finishing its beat and pausing to beat again swelled out its beat into an ear-bursting agony and great lurid light that leapt out of his broken-apart body with a spinning shriek
and the earth was in his eyes and up his nostrils and going away smaller and smaller
and tiny far away
Rough and smooth. Rough was wide and large and tilting with sickness. He struggled and struggled to clutch smooth, and it slid away. Rough came back and washed harshly over him. He cried out between the receding of rough and the coming of smooth white, then rough and smooth receded …
Shell-shocked at the Somme, Williamson was invalided back to England in 1917, where he wrote seven novels about his wartime experiences. He died in 1977.
“Dancing is a sweat job. … When you’re experimenting you have to try so many things before you choose what you want, that you may go days getting nothing but exhaustion. This search for what you want is like tracking something that doesn’t want to be tracked. It takes time to get a dance right, to create something memorable. There must be a certain amount of polish to it. I don’t want it to look anything but accomplished, and if I can’t make it look that way, then I’m not ready yet. I always try to get to know my routine so well that I don’t have to think, ‘What comes next?’ Everything should fall right into line, and then I know I’ve got control of the bloody floor.” — Fred Astaire
“How to hit home runs: I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. In boxing, your fist usually stops when you hit a man, but it’s possible to hit so hard that your fist doesn’t stop. I try to follow through in the same way. The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.” — Babe Ruth
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. … I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. … The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he has read but something that has happened to himself. That’s the true test of writing.” — Ernest Hemingway
In 1915, critic Arthur Guiterman addressed a poem “To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”:
Holmes is your hero of drama and serial;
All of us know where you dug the material
Whence he was moulded — ’tis almost a platitude;
Yet your detective, in shameless ingratitude –
Sherlock your sleuthhound with motives ulterior
Sneers at Poe’s “Dupin” as “very inferior!”
Labels Gaboriau’s clever “Lecoq”, indeed,
Merely “a bungler”, a creature to mock, indeed!
This, when your plots and your methods in story owe
More than a trifle to Poe and Gaboriau,
Sets all the Muses of Helicon sorrowing.
Borrow, Sir Knight, but be decent in borrowing!
Conan Doyle responded with “To an Undiscerning Critic”:
Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
“Where are the limits of human stupidity?”
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because “in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe’s Dupin as very ‘inferior’.”
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I’ve praised to satiety
Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety,
And have admitted that in my detective work
I owe to my model a deal of selective work.
But is it not on the verge of inanity
To put down to me my creation’s crude vanity?
He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,
Where I, the creator, would bow and revere.
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle:
The doll and its maker are never identical.
In Shakespeare’s plays
For days and days,
Till the very end,
His closest friend
If he’s changed his clothes.
But to put on his hat
And he’s what he was,
A duke, like that!
They gladly aver,
Who knew him before,
“You are what you were
When you wear what you wore.”
– Henry G. Fischer
How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina when we know she’s not a real person?
In order to have an emotional response to a character or event, we must believe that it really exists. We know that this belief is lacking when we read a work of fiction. Yet we’re commonly moved by such works. Why?
It can’t be the case that we’re simply “caught up” in a story and forget that it’s fiction. If that were true then the fear, sadness, and pity we feel should be unpleasant rather than enjoyable. (Also, we’re not moved to intervene and help a fictional character.)
University of Kent philosopher Colin Radford concludes that our emotional responses to fiction are ultimately irrational, that “our being moved in certain ways by works of art, though very ‘natural’ to us and in that way only too intelligible, involves us in inconsistency and so incoherence.”
See Push and Pull.
[Theodore] Dreiser said that when he was living in New York, on West Fifty-seventh Street, John Cowper Powys came occasionally to dinner. At that time Powys was living in this country, in a little town about thirty miles up the Hudson, and he usually left Dreiser’s place fairly early to catch a train to take him home. One evening, after a rather long after-dinner conversation, Powys looked at his watch and said hurriedly that he had no idea it was so late, and he would have to go at once or miss his train. Dreiser helped him on with his overcoat, and Powys, on his way to the door, said, ‘ I’ll appear before you, right here, later this evening. You’ll see me.’
‘Are you going to turn yourself into a ghost, or have you a key to the door?’ Dreiser laughed when he asked that question, for he did not believe for an instant that Powys meant to be taken seriously.
‘I don’t know,’ said Powys. ‘ I may return as a spirit or in some other astral form.’
Dreiser said that there had been no discussion whatever during the evening, of spirits, ghosts or visions. The talk had been mainly about American publishers and their methods. He said that he gave no further thought to Powys’s promise to reappear, but he sat up reading for about two hours, all alone. Then he looked up from his book and saw Powys standing in the doorway between the entrance hall and the living room. The apparation had Powys’s features, his tall stature, loose tweed garments and general appearance, but a pale white glow shone from the figure. Dreiser rose at once, and strode towards the ghost, or whatever it was, saying, ‘Well, you’ve kept your word, John. You’re here. Come on in and tell me how you did it.’ The apparation did not reply, and it vanished when Dreiser was within three feet of it.
As soon as he had recovered somewhat from his astonishment Dreiser picked up the telephone and called John Cowper Powy’s house in the country. Powys came to the phone, and Dreiser recognized his voice. After he had heard the story of the apparation, Powys said, ‘I told you I’d be there, and you oughtn’t to be surprised.’ Dreiser told me that he was never able to get any explanation from Powys, who refused to discuss the matter from any standpoint.
– W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947
Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell wrote one novel apiece. Both won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Turning Point and The Color Purple each received 11 Oscar nominations — and won zero.
Deluged with mail after his discovery of the double helix, Francis Crick began sending a printed card in response to invitations:
He modeled it on a similar one made by Edmund Wilson:
In 1976 freelance writer Betty Eppes managed to talk to J.D. Salinger for 20 minutes. “He said he didn’t believe in giving autographs. It was a meaningless gesture. He told me never to sign my name for anyone else. It was all right for actors and actresses to sign their names, because all they had to give were their faces and names. But it was different with writers. They had their work to give. Therefore, it was cheap to give autographs. He said, Don’t you ever do it! No self-respecting writer should ever do it.”
See Pen Fatigue.
“A propos of dreams, is it not a strange thing if writers of fiction never dream of their own creations; recollecting, I suppose, even in their dreams, that they have no real existence? I never dream of any of my own characters, and I feel it is so impossible that I would wager Scott never did of his, real as they are.”
– Charles Dickens, letter to C.C. Felton, Sept. 1, 1843
“Only a few isolated figures in letters stand out as real; Sir Roger de Coverley, I suppose, Mr. Pickwick certainly, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes … Such characters, I mean, as create a real illusion; so that a man attaining Heaven might look round him and say, ‘And now, where’s Pickwick? Oh, no, I forgot; of course, he’s only a character in a book.’”
– Ronald Knox, “A Ramble in Barsetshire,” Essays in Satire, 1928
“Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.” — Eugene Field, Denver Tribune, c. 1880
Proverbs from around the world:
- A shroud has no pockets. (Scotland)
- No one is a blacksmith at birth. (Namibia)
- The absent always bears the blame. (Netherlands)
- One cannot make soup out of beauty. (Estonia)
- Bad is called good when worse happens. (Norway)
- When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole. (Gambia)
- Under trees it rains twice. (Switzerland)
- Everyone is foolish until they buy land. (Ireland)
- Every head is a world. (Cuba)
- The only victory over love is flight. (France)
- Don’t look where you fell, but where you slipped. (Liberia)
- Many lose when they win, and others win when they lose. (Germany)
And “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” (China)
When Polish composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in hopes that he might appear as Yorick in a production of Hamlet.
No one felt comfortable fulfilling this wish until David Tennant used the skull in a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. He continued to use it throughout the production’s West End run and in a later television adaptation.
“André’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide,” said director Gregory Doran. “I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”
By Franklin Pierce Adams, in Overset, 1922:
Herbert Bayard Swope
without whose friendly
aid and counsel every
line in this book was
By Francis Hackett, in The Invisible Censor, 1921:
whose lack of interest
in this book has been my
By Benjamin Disraeli, in Vivian Grey, 1826:
The Best and Greatest of Men
I dedicate these volumes.
He for whom it was intended will accept and
appreciate the compliment;
Those for whom it was not intended will –
do the same.
By John Burroughs, in Bird and Bough, 1906:
that sang in my evergreens in October and
made me think it was May.
By Jerome K. Jerome, in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886:
To the very dear and well beloved Friend of my prosperous and evil days. — To the friend, who, though in the early stages of our acquaintanceship, he did ofttimes disagree with me, has since come to be my very warmest comrade. To the friend who, however often I may put him out, never (now) upsets me in revenge. To the friend who, treated with marked coldness by all the female members of my household, and regarded with suspicion by my very dog, nevertheless, seems day by day to be more drawn by me, and in return, to more and more impregnate me with the odour of his friendship. To the friend who never tells me of my faults, never wants to borrow money, and never talks about himself. To the companion of my idle hours, the soother of my sorrows, the confidant of my joys and hopes, my oldest and strongest Pipe, this little volume is gratefully and affectionately dedicated.
- Kingsley Amis on Dylan Thomas, 1947: “I have got to the stage now with mr toss that I have only reached with Chaucer and Dryden, not even with Milton, that of VIOLENTLY WISHING that the man WERE IN FRONT OF ME, so that I could be DEMONIACALLY RUDE to him about his GONORRHEIC RUBBISH, and end up by WALKING ON HIS FACE and PUNCHING HIS PRIVY PARTS.”
- Mark Twain on Jane Austen, 1898: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
- Byron on Keats, 1820: “No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the driveling idiotism of the Mankin.”
- Virginia Woolf on D.H. Lawrence, 1932: “English has one million words: why confine yourself to six?”
- Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, 1973: “He would not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”
In reviewing Tom Wolfe’s 742-page A Man in Full in the New York Review of Books in 1998, Norman Mailer wrote: “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.”
Sinclair Lewis received this letter from a lawyer in a Midwestern city:
Have read a few of your works and would like to ask a few favors. Please send me a list of your stories, your autograph, picture, and a letter describing your life. How many children have you and their names.
Thanking you, I am
Yours very truly,
J.J. Jones, Esq.
My Dear Jim:
There was only one thing about your nice letter that I didn’t like. It was so sort of formal. True, we have never met, and somehow I feel we aren’t likely to, but, isn’t this a democratic country? So let me call you Jim, and you call me Fatty, or any other friendly name.
Now Jim, I haven’t got a photograph of me here, but I’ll go right down to the junction and have one taken. I’m preparing a letter about my life, but it’s been a pretty long one and a bad one, and that will take me several weeks.
But in the meantime, Jim, I’m awfully interested in lawyers. Kindly send me your picture, picture of your home and office, a list of your assets and liabilities, average income per month, list of the books you have read since 1914, if any. Kindly inform me whether you have ever defended a bootlegger and why. Should be glad to have any other interesting personal information for use in a story. How do you get along with your wife? Kindly explain this in detail.
Thanking you in advance, I remain,
In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe recommends seven Gothic novels to Catherine Morland:
‘Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.’
‘Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?’
‘I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.’
‘Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?’
‘Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.’
For a century it was assumed that Jane Austen had invented these titles, but then Montague Summers and Michael Sadleir discovered they were actual novels. Here’s an excerpt from Horrid Mysteries, which is certainly well named:
‘Thank God, Countess,’ one of them began, ‘that you have been rescued from the cruel hands of that barbarian, and are now in the company of more humane beings!’
‘From what cruel hands?’ I replied, with astonishment.
‘From those of your pretended lover, the Marquis Carlos of G******.’
‘Be silent, vile reptile,’ I exclaimed, ‘and dare not to asperse the name of a man whom I adore!’
Ironically, Austen’s parody may have rescued these titles from an oblivion they otherwise deserved. Announcing his discovery in a 1927 article, Sadleir wrote, “So long as Jane Austen is read — which will be for at least as long as there are readers at all — [these novels] will survive as tiny stitches in the immense tapestry of English literature.”