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.

See full show notes …

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.

Misc

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  • FRENCH REVOLUTION is an anagram of VIOLENCE RUN FORTH.
  • Aldous Huxley was George Orwell’s French teacher.
  • West Side Story was originally called East Side Story.
  • The Labrador dog is from Newfoundland, and the Newfoundland dog is from Labrador.
  • “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.” — Wilson Mizner

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.

See full show notes …

A Great Man

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G.K. Chesterton stood 6 foot 4 and weighed 286 pounds.

During the First World War a lady in London asked why he was not out at the front.

He said, “If you go round to the side, you will see that I am.”