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.
“Those praised in a book take that praise, and more, as their due. What you meant as a gift is accepted as an obligation. In a second printing of one of his books, a writer listed the misprints in the first. Among them was the dedication.” — Baltasar Gracián
British author Sarah Caudwell wrote four mystery novels without revealing the main character’s gender.
Like Caudwell herself, sleuth Hilary Tamar taught law at Oxford and was witty, erudite, and incisive. In the four novels — Thus Was Adonis Murdered, The Shortest Way to Hades, The Sirens Sang of Murder, and The Sybil in Her Grave — Tamar acts as mentor to four barristers in “legal whodunits” that revolve around the intricacies of the British legal system. Tamar, who serves as both storyteller and detective, writes in the first person, often communicates with the other characters by letter, and is addressed directly when present:
‘So you see, Hilary,’ said Selena, ‘no one’s on holiday. Except Julia, of course. She should be in Venice by now.’
‘Julia?’ I said, much astonished. ‘You haven’t let Julia go off on her own to Venice, surely?’
‘Am I,’ asked Selena, ‘Julia’s keeper?’
‘Yes,’ I said, rather severely, for her attitude seemed to me irresponsible.
“Others speak to Hilary or use the name — one never knows for sure whether Hilary is woman or man,” notes Sally McConnell-Ginet in Greville G. Corbett’s The Expression of Gender. “Caudwell manages this so skillfully that people reading the novels do not always notice the absence of definitive gendering of Hilary: they sometimes mentally provide she or he on the basis of whichever familiar gender assumptions happen to attract their attention.”
“Very few people seemed to notice that there was any doubt,” Caudwell said. “Usually they referred to Hilary as certainly female or certainly male. It’s now mentioned in the jacket copy and, having been tipped off, readers become very angry at me for not resolving it at the end of the book.” But she had determined never to reveal Tamar’s gender. “I think Hilary is sort of a quintessential Oxford don,” she said. “I don’t really regard Oxford dons as being determined by gender.”
This never bothered her fans, who love the books for their brilliance and humor. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Newgate Callendar praised Caudwell’s “polished, stylized prose,” “a kind of English that has not been around since the days of Oscar Wilde.” Robert Bork once said, “In my opinion, there can’t be too many Sarah Caudwell novels.” Alas, there are only four — she passed away in 2000.
This is the so-called Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare, engraved by Martin Droeshout as the frontispiece for the First Folio, published in 1623. In his 1910 book Bacon Is Shake-Speare, Edwin Durning-Lawrence draws attention to the fit of the coat on the figure’s right arm. “Every tailor will admit that this is not and cannot be the front of the right arm, but is, without possibility of doubt, the back of the left arm.” Compare this with the figure’s left arm, where “you at once perceive that you are no longer looking at the back of the coat but at the front of the coat.”
If that’s not enough, note the line beneath Shakespeare’s jaw, suggesting that he’s wearing a false face. The engraving is in fact “a cunningly drawn cryptographic picture, shewing two left arms and a mask” and proving that Shakespeare is a fraud and not the author of the plays attributed to him.
I’ll admit that I don’t quite see the problem with the coat, but apparently I’m just not discerning enough: In 1911 Durning-Lawrence reported that the trade journal Tailor and Cutter had agreed that Droeshout’s figure “was undoubtedly clothed in an impossible coat composed of the back and front of the same left arm.” Indeed, the Gentleman’s Tailor Magazine printed “the two halves of the coat put tailor fashion, shoulder to shoulder” and observed that “it is passing strange that something like three centuries should have been allowed to elapse before the tailor’s handiwork should have been appealed to in this particular manner.”
In Through the Looking-Glass, John Tenniel’s two illustrations above are designed to fall on opposite sides of a single page. In this way the page itself becomes the looking-glass — Alice enters one side and emerges from the other, where all the details are reversed, including Tenniel’s signature and initials.
“Tenniel this time clearly draws the borderline between the world of dreams and reality,” writes Isabelle Nières. The dream occupies the center of the physical book. “Yet not all perceived that Alice’s return was not a symmetrical one, i.e. back through the mirror, but is symbolized by an almost perfect superimposition of the Red Queen on the kitten.”
(Isabelle Nières, “Tenniel: The Logic Behind His Interpretation of the Alice Books,” in Rachel Fordyce and Carla Marello, eds., Semiotics and Linguistics in Alice’s Worlds, 1994.)
In June 1918, frustrated novelist Sherwood Anderson sent this letter to his day job at a Chicago advertising agency:
You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work. There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and mussy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office. But Anderson is not really productive, as I have said, his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired, and if you will not do the job, I should like permission to fire him myself. I, therefore, suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on August 1st. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy, but let’s can him.
Clive Harcourt Carruthers’ 1964 book Alicia in Terra Mirabili begins at once, without a preface:
Aliciam iam incipiebat plurimum taedere iuxta sororem suam in ripa sedere nec quidquam habere quod faceret.
Semel et saepius in librum oculos coniecerat quem soror legebat: sed ei inerant nec tabulae nec sermones. ‘Quid adiuvat liber,’ secum reputabat Alicia, ‘in quo sunt nullae tabulae aut sermones?’
Itaque cogitabat (nempe ut lucidissime poterat, nam tempestate calida torpebat semisomna) num operae pretium esset surgere et flosculos carpere, modo ut sertum nectendo se delectaret, cum subito Cuniculus Albus oculis rubeis prope eam praeteriit.
Only a brief “Glossarium” at the end might give a clue to its origin:
A memory of Lewis Carroll by Lionel A. Tollemache:
He was, indeed, addicted to mathematical and sometimes to ethical paradoxes. The following specimen was propounded by him in my presence. Suppose that I toss up a coin on the condition that, if I throw heads once, I am to receive 1d.; if twice in succession, 2d.; if thrice, 4d.; and so on, doubling for each successful toss: what is the value of my prospects? The amazing reply is that it amounts to infinity; for, as the profit attached to each successful toss increases in exact proportion as the chance of success diminishes, the value (so to say) of each toss will be identical, being in fact, 1/2d.; so that the value of an infinite number of tosses is an infinite number of half-pence. Yet, in fact, would any one give me sixpence for my prospect? This, concluded Dodgson, shows how far our conduct is from being determined by logic.
Actually this curiosity was first noted by Nicholas Bernoulli; Carroll would have met it in his studies of probability. Tollemache wrote, “The only comment that I will offer on his astounding paradox is that, in order to bring out his result, we must suppose a somewhat monotonous eternity to be consumed in the tossing process.”
(Lionel A. Tollemache, “Reminiscences of ‘Lewis Carroll,'” Literature, Feb. 5, 1898.)
In 2001 UC-San Diego sociologist David Phillips and his colleagues noted that deaths by heart disease seem to occur with unusual frequency among Chinese and Japanese patients on the 4th of the month. A study of death records revealed a 7 percent increase in cardiac deaths on that date, compared with the daily average for the rest of the week. And deaths from chronic heart disease were 13 percent higher.
One explanation is that the number 4 sounds like the word for “death” in Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, which causes discomfort and apprehension among some people. The effect is so strong that some Chinese and Japanese hospitals refrain from assigning the number 4 to floors or rooms. The psychological stress brought on by that date, the researchers suggest, may underlie the higher mortality.
They dubbed this the Baskerville effect, after the Arthur Conan Doyle novel in which a seemingly diabolical dog chases a man, who flees and suffers a fatal heart attack. “This Baskerville effect seems to exist in fact as well as in fiction,” they wrote in the British Medical Journal (PDF).
“Our findings are consistent with the scientific literature and with a famous, non-scientific story. The Baskerville effect exists both in fact and in fiction and suggests that Conan Doyle was not only a great writer but a remarkably intuitive physician as well.”