Lv Lttr

Confined to an asylum in 1849, poet John Clare made this curious entry in a notebook:

M Drst Mr Cllngwd

M nrl wrn t & wnt t hr frm Nbd wll wn M r hv m t n prc & wht hv dn D knw wht r n m Dbt — kss’s fr tn yrs & lngr stll & Ingr thn tht whn ppl mk sch mstks s t cll m Gds bstrd & whrs p m b shttng m p frm Gds ppl t f th w f cmmn snse & thn tk m hd ff bcs th cnt fnd m t t hrds hrd

Drst Mr r fthfll r d thnk f m knw wht w sd tgthr — dd vst m n hll sm tm bck bt dnt cm hr gn fr t s ntrs bd plc wrs nd wrs nd w r ll Frnchmn flsh ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld nd s dnt believe n th thr nrt t mk mslf hvn wth m drst Mr nd sbscrb mslf rs fr vr & vr

Jhn Clr

Decoding it is simple enough — Clare had removed all vowels and the letter Y. Evidently it was the draft of a letter:

My Dearest Mary Collingwood

I am nearly worn out and want to hear from you — Nobody will own me or have me at any price and what have I done — Do you know what you are in my Debt — kisses for ten years and longer still and longer than that — when people make such mistakes as to call me God’s bastard and whores pay me by shutting me up from God’s people out of the way of common sense and then take my head off because they can’t find me — it out-Herods Herod.

Dearest Mary are you faithful or do you think of me — you know what we said together — you did visit me in hell sometime back but don’t come here again for it is a notorious bad place worse and worse and we are all turned Frenchmen — foolish people tell me I have got no home in this world and as I don’t believe in the other [? undertake] to make myself heaven with my dearest Mary and subscribe myself yours for ever and ever

John Clare

I almost offered this as a puzzle, but it’s too sad. “This is among the most disturbing letters that Clare ever wrote,” notes biographer Jonathan Bate. “It takes us inside his head during a phase of derangement. Even once one has broken the code, it is impossible to decipher the sub-text, especially as we know nothing about the identity of Mary Collingwood beyond the fact that in another of his lists Clare identified her as a Northampton girl.”

Easy Money

In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.

That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.

The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.

An Early Wonder
Image: Peter Tarn

Lewis Carroll’s father was rector at St. Peter’s Church in Croft-on-Tees. On a tour of the church in 1992, Joel Birenbaum noticed a stone carving of a cat’s head on the chancel’s east wall, a few feet above the floor. When he dropped to his knees and looked at it from a child’s perspective, the cat’s mouth assumed a broad grin.

His discovery appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 1992.

Pen Slips

  • In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats writes of Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. Balboa did.
  • In Ivanhoe, Malvoisin’s first name changes from Philip to Richard.
  • In War and Peace, Vera is 17 in 1805 and 24 in 1809.
  • In Eugene O’Neill’s Where the Cross Is Made, the stage directions call for a one-armed man to sit at a table “resting his elbows, his chin in his hands.”
  • In the Aeneid, Chorinaeus and Numa die and then reappear with no explanation.

In Little Dorrit, Chapter 33, Tattycoram appears with “an iron box some two feet square” in her arms. Writes Ebenezer Brewer in his Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, “She must have been a pretty strong girl, with very long arms.”

The Author’s Eye

Excerpts from Somerset Maugham’s notebook:

  • “No action is in itself good or bad, but only such according to convention.”
  • “People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.”
  • “An action is not virtuous merely because it is unpleasant to do.”
  • “The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.”
  • “However harmless a thing is, if the law forbids it most people will think it wrong.”
  • “I don’t know why it is that the religious never ascribe common sense to God.”
  • “All this effort of natural selection, wherefore? What is the good of all this social activity beyond helping unessential creatures to feed and propagate?”
  • “I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life than a humorous resignation.”


In 1880 Mark Twain invited William Dean Howells to join him in a club in which “the first & main qualification for membership is modesty.”

“At present,” he wrote, “I am the only member; & as the modesty required must be of a quite aggravated type, the enterprize did seem for a time doomed to stop dead still with myself, for lack of further material; but upon reflection I have come to the conclusion that you are eligible.”

Howells responded, “The only reason I have for not joining the Modest Club is that I am too modest: that is, I am afraid that I am not modest enough. … If you think I am not too modest, you may put my name down, and I will try to think the same of you.”

Curious Company

In his autobiography, mathematician Norbert Wiener describes three particular dons he came to know at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1914:

“It is impossible to describe Bertrand Russell except by saying that he looks like the Mad Hatter. … [J.M.E.] McTaggart … with his pudgy hands, his innocent, sleepy air, and his sidelong walk, could only be the Dormouse. The third, G.E. Moore, was a perfect March Hare. His gown was always covered with chalk, his cap was in rags or missing, and his hair was a tangle which had never known the brush within man’s memory.”

The three together became known as the Mad Tea Party of Trinity. Though they appeared 50 years after their fictional counterparts, Wiener wrote, “the caricature of Tenniel almost argues an anticipation on the part of the artist.”

Nothing Doing

In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:

My dear Ella,

I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’

I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.

Your affect. friend,

C.L. Dodgson

Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:

I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?

“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”

My dear Ella,

I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!

Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.

In haste,

Yours affectionately,


Palette Trouble

In 1858, William Ewart Gladstone noticed something peculiar in Homer: Both oxen and the sea are compared to the color of wine, sheep are “violet,” honey is “green,” and, while the sky is described as starry, broad, great, iron, and copper, it’s never “blue.” He advanced the idea that “the organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age.”

Building on this idea 20 years later in Nature, William Pole suggested that Homer might even have been color-blind. “It would be a most interesting fact in physiology and optics,” he wrote, “if we could show, in this way, that dichromatism was an early stage of human vision out of which the present more comprehensive and perfect faculty has been gradually developed in the course of some thousands of years.”

The truth awaited a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay of culture and language, one that’s still evolving. In a way that’s a shame — as Pole points out, if this oddity had been the unique mark of a particular writer, then we’d have “the strongest possible proof, by internal evidence, of the existence of a single author, to whom the whole of the poems are due.”