Peace and Quiet

cheyne row attic

Thomas Carlyle required absolute silence to write, and silence was hard to come by in London’s Chelsea district, where he struggled to compose his biography of Frederick the Great. His wife, Jane, postponed her cleaning until Thomas was away and perpetually tried to quiet neighborhood dogs, roosters, and street vendors. But it wasn’t enough.

In 1853 Carlyle wrote to his sister: “At length, after deep deliberation, I have fairly decided to have a top story put upon the house, one big apartment, twenty feet square, with thin double walls, light from the top, etc., and artfully ventilated, into which no sound can come; and all the cocks in nature may crow round it without my hearing a whisper of them!”

Alas, the skylight wasn’t soundproof, and he was assailed by railway whistles, church bells, and steamer sirens from the Thames. Jane wrote, “The silent room is the noisiest room in the house, and Mr. Carlyle is very much out of sorts.” He finished the biography, finally, but he called it “the Nightmare … the Minotaur … the Unutterable book.”

Dueling Servilities

An encounter between theologian and mathematician Isaac Barrow and John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester:

Barrow … met Rochester at court, who said to him, ‘doctor, I am yours to my shoe-tie;’ Barrow bowed obsequiously with, ‘my lord, I am yours to the ground;’ Rochester returned this by, ‘doctor, I am yours to the centre;’ Barrow rejoined, ‘my lord, I am yours to the antipodes;’ Rochester, not to be foiled by ‘a musty old piece of divinity,’ as he was accustomed to call him, exclaimed, ‘doctor, I am yours to the lowest pit of hell;’ whereupon Barrow turned from him with, ‘there, my lord, I leave you.’

From William Hone’s Every-Day Book, 1868.

Being There

“Gravina, an Italian critic, observes, that every man desires to see that of which he has read; but no man desires to read an account of what he has seen: so much does description fall short of reality. Description only excites curiosity: seeing satisfies it.” — Samuel Johnson


When Winnie-the-Pooh was proposed for sale in East Germany, censors found its message too neutral, insufficiently progressive, and hence not representative of East German society. Here’s an extract from the print permit files of 1959:

Winnie the Pooh is exclusively about fantasy, happiness and child’s play. Certainly our children are not less imaginative in their play, but it cannot be denied that the fantasy of our children moves in another direction. Our time is not so much about a single child with his toys on his own — and if this does prevail in a child, it is not desired and does not match our didactic ideals. Thus, the value for the education of our children is minimal and it is not worthwhile spending foreign currency on it. Yet, should it be taken on in exchange for publishing one of our valuable children’s books in West Germany, a publication should not be refused.

The book did eventually get a permit and was published in 1960.

(From Gaby Thomson-Wohlgemuth, Translation Under State Control, 2011.)

In a Word

adj. odd; not matched

n. an anonymous person

n. one who speaks for another

adj. not knowable for certain

Ostensibly the adventures of Sherlock Holmes were recorded by his friend John Watson. But of the 60 canonical tales, two (“The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”) are told in the third person. Who wrote these? Sherlock’s brother Mycroft? One of Watson’s wives? Watson himself, strangely? Arthur Conan Doyle?

In The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, William Stuart Baring-Gould writes only, “There has been much controversy as to the authorship of these two adventures.”


The story of Little Red Riding Hood that we know was written by Charles Perrault in 1697, but he based it on an oral tradition from the Middle Ages, adapting it to suit the social and aesthetic standards of an upper-class audience. Here’s the folktale that Perrault’s mother would have known, The Story of Grandmother, as told by Louis and François Briffault in 1885:

There was a woman who had made some bread. She said to her daughter: ‘Go carry this hot loaf and a bottle of milk to your granny.’

So the little girl departed. At the crossway she met bzou, the werewolf, who said to her:

‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m taking this hot loaf and a bottle of milk to my granny.’

‘What path are you taking,’ said the werewolf, ‘the path of needles or the path of pins?’

‘The path of needles,’ the little girl said.

‘All right, then, I’ll take the path of pins.’

The little girl entertained herself by gathering needles. Meanwhile the werewolf arrived at the grandmother’s house, killed her, put some of her meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf. The little girl arrived and knocked at the door.

‘Push the door,’ said the werewolf, ‘it’s barred by a piece of wet straw.’

‘Good day, granny. I’ve brought you a hot loaf of bread and a bottle of milk.’

‘Put it in the cupboard, my child. Take some of the meat which is inside and the bottle of wine on the shelf.’

After she had eaten, there was a little cat which said: ‘Phooey!’

A slut is she who eats the flesh and drinks the blood of her granny. ‘Undress yourself, my child,’ the werewolf said, ‘and come lie down beside me.’

‘Where should I put my apron?’

‘Throw it into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing it any more.’

‘And each time she asked where she should put all her other clothes, the bodice, the dress, the petticoat, and the long stockings, the wolf responded:

‘Throw them into the fire, my child, you won’t be needing them any more.’

When she laid herself down in the bed, the little girl said:

‘Oh, Granny, how hairy you are!’

‘The better to keep myself warm, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big nails you have!’

‘The better to scratch me with, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big shoulders you have!’

‘The better to carry the firewood, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big ears you have!’

‘The better to hear you with, my child!’

‘Oh, Granny, what big nostrils you have!’

‘The better to snuff my tobacco with, my child!’

”Oh, Grannny, what a big mouth you have!’

‘The better to eat you with, my child!’

‘Oh Granny, I’ve got to go badly. Let me go outside.’

‘Do it in the bed, my child.’

‘Oh, no, Granny, I want to go outside.’

‘All right, but make it quick.’

The werewolf attached a woolen rope to her foot and let her go outside. When the little girl was outside, she tied the end of the rope to a plum tree in the courtyard. The werewolf became impatient and said: ‘Are you making a load out there? Are you making a load?’

When he realized that nobody was answering him, he jumped out of bed and saw that the little girl had escaped. He followed her but arrived at her house just at the moment she entered.

In the Middle Ages little children might be attacked and killed by animals or supernatural creatures; Perrault transformed a “warning tale” into a “civilized” story to entertain children and adults of the educated classes. French folklorist Paul Delarue wrote, “The common elements which are lacking in the literary story are precisely those which would have shocked the society of his epoch by their cruelty (the flesh and blood of the grandmother devoured by the child), their puerility (the path of needles and the path of pins) or their impropriety (the question of the little girl about the hairy body of the grandmother). And it appears likely that Perrault eliminated them, while preserving a folk flavor and freshness in the tale which have made it an imperishable masterpiece.”

(From Jack Zipes, ed., The Trials & Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, 1993.)

New Lands

Confined to his bedroom for 42 days as a punishment for dueling, Xavier de Maistre wrote A Journey Round My Room (1794), a parody of travel journals in which he heroically explores his surroundings and rhapsodizes on his discoveries:

Next to my arm-chair, as we go northward, my bed comes into sight. It is placed at the end of my room, and forms the most agreeable perspective. It is very pleasantly situated, and the earliest rays of the sun play upon my curtains. On fine summer days I see them come creeping, as the sun rises, all along the whitened wall.

De Maistre considered it a trifle, but his brother had it published, and here we are talking about it 200 years later. The whole thing is here.


Notes left in manuscripts and colophons by medieval scribes and copyists, from the Spring 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly:

New parchment, bad ink; I say nothing more.

I am very cold.

That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.

Let the reader’s voice honor the writer’s pen.

This page has not been written very slowly.

The parchment is hairy.

The ink is thin.

Thank God, it will soon be dark.

Oh, my hand.

Now I’ve written the whole thing; for Christ’s sake give me a drink.

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.

While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.

As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.

This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, “The hand that wrote it is no more.”

In her History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek lists another: “Here ends the second part of the title work of Brother Thomas Aquinas of the Dominican Order; very long, very verbose, and very tedious for the scribe.”

Free Thinking

Arthur Conan Doyle in Tit-Bits, Dec. 15, 1900:

There is one fact in connection with Holmes which will probably interest those who have followed his career from the beginning, and to which, so far as I am aware, attention has never been drawn. In dealing with criminal subjects one’s natural endeavour is to keep the crime in the background. In nearly half the number of the Sherlock Holmes stories, however, in a strictly legal sense no crime was actually committed at all. One heard a good deal about crime and the criminal, but the reader was completely bluffed. Of course, I could not bluff him always, so sometimes I had to give him a crime, and occasionally I had to make it a downright bad one.

A footnote from Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2005:

Fletcher Pratt computes that by 1914, when the record of Holmes’s detective activities ceases, no crimes had taken place in one quarter of the total published cases. In nine of these cases, there was no legal crime. In six no crime took place because Holmes intervened in time to prevent its occurrence.