In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll look at the strange phenomenon of poet doppelgängers — at least five notable poets have been seen by witnesses when their physical bodies were elsewhere.
We’ll also share our readers’ research on Cervino, the Matterhorn-climbing pussycat, and puzzle over why a man traveling internationally would not be asked for his passport.
In an 1810 satire, C.L. Pitt noted that “a novel may be made out of a romance, or a romance out of a novel with the greatest ease, by scratching out a few terms, and inserting others.” The steps below will, “like machinery in factories,” convert a Gothic romance into a sentimental novel:
Where you find: Put:
A castle An house
A cavern A bower
A groan A sigh
A giant A father
A bloodstained dagger A fan
Howling blasts Zephyrs
A knight A gentleman without whiskers
A lady who is the heroine Need not be changed, being versatile
Assassins Telling glances
A monk An old steward
Skeletons, skulls, etc. Compliments, sentiments etc.
A gliding ghost A usurer, or an attorney
A witch An old housekeeper
A wound A kiss
A midnight murder A marriage
“The same table of course answers for transmuting a novel into a romance.”
(From a footnote in Pitt’s The Age: A Poem, Moral, Political, and Metaphysical, With Illustrative Annotations, 1810.)
I may as well just tell you a few of the things I like, and then, whenever you want to give me a birthday present (my birthday comes once every seven years, on the fifth Tuesday in April) you will know what to give me. Well, I like, very much indeed, a little mustard with a bit of beef spread thinly under it; and I like brown sugar — only it should have some apple pudding mixed with it to keep it from being too sweet; but perhaps what I like best of all is salt, with some soup poured over it. The use of the soup is to hinder the salt from being too dry; and it helps to melt it. Then there are other things I like; for instance, pins — only they should always have a cushion put round them to keep them warm. And I like two or three handfuls of hair; only they should always have a little girl’s head beneath them to grow on, or else whenever you open the door they get blown all over the room, and then they get lost, you know.
— Lewis Carroll, letter to Jessie Sinclair, Jan. 22, 1878
Satirists must make difficult masters. Jonathan Swift spent 28 years amassing grievances about his servants and published them in a sarcastic list in 1731:
To save time and trouble, cut your apples and onions with the same knife, for well-bred gentry love the taste of an onion in everything they eat.
Never send up a leg of a fowl at supper, while there is a cat or a dog in the house that can be accused of running away with it: but, if there happen to be neither, you must lay it upon the rats, or a strange greyhound.
When you are chidden for a fault, as you go out of the room, and down stairs, mutter loud enough to be plainly heard; this will make him believe you are innocent.
When any servant comes home drunk, and cannot appear, you must all join in telling your master, that he is gone to bed very sick.
In order to learn the secrets of other families, tell your brethren those of your master’s; thus you will grow a favourite both at home and abroad, and regarded as a person of importance.
When you have done a fault, be always pert and insolent, and behave yourself as if you were the injured person; this will immediately put your master or lady off their mettle.
Never submit to stir a finger in any business but that for which you were particularly hired. For example, if the groom be drunk or absent, and the butler be ordered to shut the stable door, the answer is ready, An please your Honour, I don’t understand Horses.
Leave a pail of dirty water with the mop in it, a coal-box, a bottle, a broom, a chamber pot, and such other unsightly things, either in a blind entry or upon the darkest part of the back stairs, that they may not be seen, and if people break their shins by trampling on them, it is their own fault.
Samuel Johnson remarked that Swift must have taken copious notes, “for such a number of particulars could never have been assembled by the power of recollection.”
Nominations are currently open for the 2014 Bookseller/Diagram Prize for oddest book title of the year. This year’s candidates:
Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen
Advanced Pavement Research, edited by Bo Tian
The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones, by Sandra Tsing-Loh
Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson
Divorcing a Real Witch: For Pagans and the People That Used to Love Them, by Diana Rajchel
The Ugly Wife Is a Treasure at Home, by Melissa Margaret Schneider
Strangers Have the Best Candy, by Margaret Meps Schulte
Recent winners have included How to Poo on a Date, by Mats & Enzo (2013), Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop, by Reginald Bakeley (2012), Cooking With Poo, by Saiyuud Diwong (2011), Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way, by Michael R. Young (2010), and Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, by Daina Taimina (2009).
You can vote here. “This is one of strongest years I have seen in more than three decades of administering the prize, which highlights the crème de la crème of unintentionally nonsensical, absurd and downright head-scratching titles,” said The Bookseller‘s Horace Bent, who organizes the contest. “Let other awards cheer the contents within, the Diagram will always continually judge the book by its cover (title).”
On June 29, 1851, phrenologist J.P. Browne examined a subject he knew only as a “gentlewoman”:
In its intellectual development this head is very remarkable. The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding. … This lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can, if she has done her talents justice by exercise, express her sentiments with clearness, precision, and force — sufficiently eloquent but not verbose. In learning a language she would investigate its spirit and structure. … In analyzing the motives of human conduct, this lady would display originality and power.
The subject was Charlotte Brontë. She had attended the reading with George Smith, presenting themselves as “Mr. and Miss Fraser.” Phrenology was fashionable at the time, and Charlotte, like many others, was willing to overlook its failures to appreciate its successes. Smith’s reading said, “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. … Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious.” Smith found this “not so happy,” but Charlotte said, “It is a sort of miracle — like — like — like as the very life itself.”
Another of these dreams he had used as a basis for ‘Pickman’s Model,’ while still another formed the nucleus for ‘The Call of Cthulhu.’ I referred to this story one day, pronouncing the strange word as though it were spelled K-Thool-Hoo. Lovecraft looked blank for an instant, then corrected me firmly, informing me that the word was pronounced, as nearly as I can put it down in print, K-Lütl-Lütl. I was surprised, and asked why he didn’t spell it that way if such was the pronunciation. He replied in all seriousness that the word was originated by the denizens of his story and that he had only recorded their own way of spelling it. Lovecraft’s own invention had assumed an actual reality in his mind.
— Donald Wandrei, “Lovecraft in Providence,” in Peter Cannon, ed., Lovecraft Remembered, 1998
Victorian children’s author Favell Lee Mortimer published three bizarre travel books that described a world full of death, vice, and peril. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll sample her terrifying descriptions of the lands beyond England and wonder what led her to write them.
We’ll also review the movie career of an Alaskan sled dog, learn about the Soviet Union’s domestication of silver foxes, and puzzle over some curious noises in a soccer stadium.