The ‘Invention’ of Folklore in the Nineteenth Century

Image from 'Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush' by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive

The word ‘folklore’, was coined in 1846 by the British writer and editor of Notes and Queries, W. J. Thoms. Prior to this local traditions and rituals, then known as ‘popular antiquities’, that had passed down through many generations had been an accepted part of rural life, but by giving these practices a name, Thoms was transforming them from background rituals, largely taken for granted, to an area of culture and history that could be studied. From the 1860s there was a boom in the collection and discussion of folklore – the rise of social Darwinism, a growing population and increased urbanisation generated an upsurge in the idea of survivalism and a fear that these rural traditions might be lost.[1]

Folklorist and first female president of the Folklore Society Charlotte Sophia Burne (1850–1923) defined folklore as:

‘the generic term under which the traditional Beliefs, Customs, Stories, Songs and Sayings current among backward peoples, or retained by the uncultured classes of more advanced peoples, are comprehended and included.’[2]

As this quotation attests, folklore was perceived as the relics of behaviour from the distant past that had been passed down through generations; the traditional rituals giving an indication of how our ancestors thought. The tone of the quotation and its reference to ‘uncultured classes’ reveals something of the Victorian folklorists’ attitudes to the people they were studying – these were largely middle and upper class people studying the customs of the rural working classes – and it is key to bear in mind the filter through which we are reading the folklore record.

Encroaching modernity caused the Victorians to worry that old traditions were under threat and in need of preservation. A rising panic at the changes wrought by technology, industrialisation, and burgeoning capitalism collided with fears about the booming population and the move to city life, creating a nostalgia for the rural idyll. It was against this backdrop that an interest in recording folklore grew, alongside an anxiety that it was a way of life quickly passing.

As an interest in folklore grew in the mid to late Victorian period there were two main schools of thought on the correct way to study folk beliefs. The Folklore Society followed the Victorian tradition of armchair scholarship, in which antiquarians analysed existing references to folklore from books and periodicals. This extract from the introduction of Folklore Society member Edwin Sidney Hartland’s book on Gloucestershire folklore, neatly sums up the survivalist thinking of the society:

Nobody now disputes that the superstitions, the customs, the tales, the songs, and even the proverbial sayings of a people may throw unexpected light upon its history; and from the investigation and comparison of such things as these, once deemed unworthy of notice, scientific men have begun to reconstruct the unrecorded past of humanity.[3]

This was represented as a systematic, scientific study of behaviour – the folklore collected dispassionately for future analysis.

Outside the Folklore Society there existed a number of regional historians, often experts in local dialect, who worked in the field collecting oral history in order to preserve and record local customs and traditions.[4] The majority of these were collected in the north of England by regional experts who diligently recorded the oral history of their local communities. A number of these collectors were vicars, their job necessitating close relationships with their parishioners. This, at times, created a tension in their recording of the folklore, as by its very definition it is based around superstition, something the Anglican Church was at pains to distance itself from. The Reverend Morris justified his interest in folklore thus: ‘False and absurd as many of their notions were, there were others that were tinged with a picturesque interest, and betokened a deep-rooted faith in the unseen world.’[5] This is a fairly typical interjection of the folklore collector, a lofty view of a local tradition, painting a picture of quaint, old fashioned and ill-educated people still mindlessly carrying out the traditions of their ancestors. It should also be noted that most folklorists were middle or upper-class and this coloured what they chose to perceive as folk customs. As historian Helen Frisby points out, they were looking for ‘otherness’ and therefore middle-class traditions, such as the mute posted at the door during funerals, were not defined as folklore.[6]

Image from 'Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush' by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive
Image from ‘Rush-bearing: an account of the old custom of strewing rushes; carrying rushes to church; the rush-cart; garlands in churches; morris-dancers; the wakes; the rush’ by Alfred Burton (1891) via Internet Archive

In the introduction to their collections many of the folklorists were mindful of the need to record the folklore in a neutral fashion, in order to ensure it could be analysed without bias in years to come. This has meant that although we get a description of the rituals performed, there is no emotional insight into the purpose nor a glimpse of the people behind the ritual, leaving a silence to be read.

A further challenge presented by the sources is a consideration of how honest and open the local people were when revealing their traditional practices to someone who was setting themselves apart as an observer. Folklorist Fletcher Moss was keenly aware of the skill required to gain trust and ensure people were comfortable enough to share their beliefs, writing in his introduction:

‘To learn a tale it is often necessary to tell a tale. People will tell things to those who have their confidence, which they will flatly deny to any one who seems to them to be inquisitive, or to be a superior person trying to get something from them.’[7]

When studying folklore collected in the nineteenth century, greater insight can be gained by thinking about who the collectors were and what motivated them to collect. It is interesting to consider how the emphasis on rational thought in the nineteenth century created a sort of urgency to collect and preserve what seemed like irrational traditional beliefs. By recognising the motivation of the folklorists, and better understanding their methods, we can gain greater insight into how modern attitudes to folklore have developed.


[1] Helen Frisby, ‘Drawing the pillow, laying out and port wine: the moral economy of death, dying and bereavement in England, c.1840–1930’, Mortality, Vol. 20. No. 2, 2015, p.107.

[2] Charlotte Sophia Burne, The Handbook of Folklore, Folklore Society, 1914, p.1.

[3] Edwin Sidney Hartland, County Folk-Lore: Printed Extracts No. 1. Gloucestershire, edited by The Folklore Society, London, 1892, p.3.

[4] John Ashton, ‘Beyond Survivalism: Regional Folkloritics in Late-Victorian England’, Folklore, Vol. 108, 1996, p.19.

[5] Rev M. C. F. Morris, Yorkshire Folk-Talk, Henry Frowde, London, 1892, p.237.

[6] Frisby, p.108.

[7] Fletcher Moss, Folk-Lore: Old Customs and Tales of my Neighbours, Manchester, 1898, p.ix.

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My Next Book: A Museum Miscellany

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

It is with great excitement that I introduce my next book A Museum Miscellany — the final instalment of my miscellany trilogy (see here for more details on sister books The Book Lovers’ Miscellany and A Library Miscellany). I am especially excited about the gorgeous cover designed in-house by my wonderful publishers, Bodleian Library Publishing and I cannot wait to finally see all three miscellanies lined up side-by-side, looking fancy.

The cover of A Museum Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

To whet the appetite here is what to expect from A Museum Miscellany:

Which are the oldest museums in the world? What is a cabinet of curiosities? Who haunts Hampton Court? What is on the FBI’s list of stolen art?

A Museum Miscellany celebrates the intriguing world of galleries and museums, from national institutions such as the Musee du Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to niche collections such as the Lawnmower Museum and the Museum of Barbed Wire. Here you will find a cornucopia of museum-related facts, statistics and lists, covering everything from museum ghosts, dangerous museum objects and conservation beetles to treasure troves, museum heists and the Museum of London’s fatberg. Bursting with quirky facts, intriguing statistics and legendary curators, this is the perfect gift for all those who love to visit museums and galleries.

Not only will A Museum Miscellany be fit to bursting with all the lists, arcane facts and potted histories you will have come to expect from me, but in a departure from previous books this one will contain … [drum roll]…ILLUSTRATIONS! It’s going to be a beauty and I look forward to sharing more details here and on Twitter (@nonfictioness) when I get my grubby mitts on an advance copy.

A Museum Miscellany is out in the UK on 4 October 2019 and you can pre-order your copy here.

The ‘Woman Question’ Solved? Female Middle Class Emigration in the Nineteenth Century

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

In 1851 the census exposed the bald truth that there was an excess of 500,000 women in Britain. Not only this, but the statistics also showed that two-thirds of women aged 20 to 24 years old and one third of women aged 24 to 35 were unmarried. This fact was seized upon by many prominent journalists, including W. R. Greg, who wrote his infamous article ‘Why are Women Redundant?’ in the National Review in 1862. Articles such as this served to cast unwed middle-class women as ‘redundant’ or ‘surplus’ and framing unmarried women as an economic drain on society and a problem to be solved.

In the mid to late nineteenth century it was only socially acceptable for working-class women to work. The role of middle- and upper-class women was as homemakers; supporting their husbands’ endeavours and bringing up children. However, many unmarried middle-class women not only wanted to, but needed to work to support themselves and gain some independence. Many single or widowed middle-class women ended up existing in genteel poverty as their families struggled to support them and their role in society came under question. Unfortunately very little work was acceptable for a middle-class woman, as any sort of manual labour was seen as degrading to their class status. One of the very few options open to middle-class women who wanted to work was as a governess, a position that did not gain glowing reviews from contemporary novels such as Jane Eyre (1847) and Agnes Grey (1847). Not only were governess positions poorly paid and lowly in status but also (conversely) much sought-after, making finding a position difficult.

Painting of The Governess by Rebecca Solomon, 1851
The Governess by Rebecca Solomon (1851) – note the modestly dressed, unprepossessing governess educates the child while the gaily-dressed elder daughter of the family flirts with a gentleman.

With the ongoing debate over suitable work for women rumbling along in the background various solutions to the ‘women problem’ were mooted. From 1857 the Langham Place group, led by Barbara Leigh Smith, was active in trying to improve education and open up new working options for women. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) followed in 1859, set up by Jessie Boucherett, its aim was to aid women’s economic independence by providing training (in areas such as book keeping and printing) and setting up law-copying and printing businesses in order to offer respectable work to educated women. However these campaigns had long-term goals in sight, working to improve education and opportunities was never going to be an overnight solution to an entrenched problem. As a result Langham Place members Maria Rye and Jane Lewin set up the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (FMCES) in 1862 with the aim of helping middle-class women emigrate to the colonies where they might find work and independence. It was hoped by helping middle-class women to emigrate it would save the excess women from poverty and improve the job market at home.

Emigration had traditionally been reserved for criminals and paupers, the undesirables rounded up and sent off to the colonies to populate our overseas territories and remove their ilk from the motherland. As a consequence emigration had a very bad reputation. Furthermore by the 1830s the need for workers in the colonies had meant a large number of working-class men and women had been recruited, with their passage paid, to go and take on domestic work in the colonies. This had been a hugely successful scheme and domestic workers were in great need, a factor which encouraged Maria Rye to suppose that the colonies must also be in need of well-educated governesses.

The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, "The Emigrants," in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham
The Emigrants by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). October 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 57, “The Emigrants,” in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two. Image scan by Philip V. Allingham

The press was initially sceptical of the scheme, accusing any women who volunteered for emigration of lowering themselves — not only was emigration seen as the preserve of the lower classes, it was also seen as unseemly for single middle-class women to travel alone without a male chaperone. Maria Rye took to regularly writing the the Times to publicise the scheme and attract funding. Right from the outset she was clear that although she wanted to attract educated middle-class women for emigration, they would need to roll their sleeves up and get involved in colonial life, where the average middle-class person kept chickens and churned their own butter. Rye wrote in to the Times in April 1862: ‘People are wanted here but not any sort. The people who come should be intelligent; idle people will not do in Australia.’

By December 1879 just 215 women had successfully been placed in the colonies by FMCES, a very small number which perhaps reflects not only the difficulty in persuading middle-class women that it was a viable option but also the extremely stringent parameters they had to fit into in order to qualify for assistance. They needed to be educated to a good level (therefore able to work as governesses) plus be able to cook, wash, do needlework and housework. In a sense these requirements were mutually exclusive as most middle-class women who were sufficiently educated would see it as below themselves to stoop to any sort of domestic work, and working-class women had the domestic experience but not the required level of education.

Those who applied needed to supply evidence of their educational experience and provide references to attest to their good character. If selected the FMCES would loan the women the money to pay the passage to the colonies and then assist them in finding work on arrival. The letterbook and reports of the FMCES held at the Women’s Library at LSE allows us to hear the voices of the emigrants themselves reflecting on their experience (it is worth noting that generally only the more successful emigrants wrote back to the society repaying their loan and reporting on their outcome). Miss S. E. A. Hall was one of the most successful of FMCES’s emigrants, ultimately setting up a school in the Cape Colony and employing many other female emigrants as teachers there. Despite her success, Miss Hall seemed to maintain a dislike for the colonial life and a yearning for her homeland, writing in 1877: ‘The character of the people I have more knowledge of than admiration for: as a rule it lacks those traits which we are proud to call English.’ Likewise, Lina Hastleton who took on a governess position in Cape Colony for £80 a year (a comparatively decent salary), wrote: ‘There is certainly plenty of work for any capable teacher of sound religion, and not apt to be either elated or depressed by the conduct of those around.’

Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland ... Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library
Map of Cape Colony from South African Experiences: in Cape Colony, Natal and Pondoland … Illustrated, etc by Albert Groser, 1891 via The British Library

Some of the emigrants clearly felt that they had been misled about the availability of work and how hard it might be to secure a good position: J. Caldwell wrote from Melbourne in July 1880 ‘I am sorry to say that everything here is so dear and bad for governesses that several have said to me that you and Miss Lewin ought to be told not to send any more ladies at any rate for a year or so, for there is some difficulty finding engagements.’ Elizabeth Long wrote from New Zealand in May 1880: ‘[New Zealand is] undoubtedly the paradise of servants; I am afraid the paradise for governesses has yet to be found.’ These then were girls who had emigrated seemingly unprepared for life to be equally hard in the colonies, they were surprised to find the promised jobs unforthcoming and unwilling to surrender their gentility to take on lower grade work. Miss Fanny Grofs wrote from Dunedin in July 1880 that she had struggled to find a proper position and did temporary work as a dressmaker and in houses: ‘The people are very rough and actually governesses are going out as nurses in Dunedin. There are a great number out of employ and it is pitiful to hear of the number of young women who degenerate so on account of the scarcity of situations and no home influences to keep them… I do not think I am better off here than at home.’

Others, however, were more able, or more prepared, to adapt and took to their new life and position more readily. Mary Long wrote from New Zealand in 1880: ‘I have two little girl pupils, in a clergyman’s family. I get very small pay only £30. I do a great deal of needlework and housekeeping as well as teach … But in spite of it all I would rather be a governess here than in England.’ Eleanor Blackith, also in New Zealand (and also only earning £30) wrote in 1881: ‘I am very happy out here and like N. Z, life in the summer… since I came here I have become quite clever in the art of cooking.’ Miss Barlow wrote from Melbourne: ‘I am getting quite a Colonial women, and I fear I should not easily fit into English ideas again, can scrub a floor with anyone, and bake my own bread and many other things an English Governess and School mistress especially would be horrified at.’ These letters appear to show that women who were ready to take on more traditionally working-class duties and adopt the role of a ‘colonial woman’ were more likely to find happiness and even contentment. For someone who had been made to feel redundant and unwanted in England and perhaps struggled to find any work, the opportunity to work and make a living, even if it meant surrendering ideas of English gentility, could be worth it.

The official reports of the FMCES reveal short vignettes on the fate of some of their emigrants. The 1868 report reflects on the first seven years of work, revealing a list of emigrants, ranging up to 158. The list reveals the destination, date of sailing, salary obtained in the colonies and remarks. The vast majority went to Australia c.86, with 32 to New Zealand, 20 to Africa, 9 to America, 8 to Canada and 1 to India. The reports indicate that women who were perhaps not quite up to scratch to make it as a governess in England were successful in the colonies. One emigrant to Australia in 1861 gained a £60 salary there but ‘Had failed entirely to obtain employment in England, from inability to teach music.’ – this implies the colonies were more accepting and prepared to take less qualified women. A further note reported on another emigrant who got a post in Australia for £60 a year but ‘Had experienced great difficulty in obtaining employment in England, on account of slight deafness.’

As further letters and reports on the success, or otherwise, of the emigrants reached the FMCES back in England the emphasis on recruiting the right type of candidates increased. The 1880 report stated that it was useless sending half-trained women out to the colonies as the competition there was now as fierce for governess positions as it was back home in England. They stressed that the society should be ‘strongly impressing on possible emigrants the facts proving that the distress occasioned by the keen competition among half-educated women-teachers is as extreme and despairing in the large and old-settled towns of the Colonies as in England … if teachers want work they must go “up country,” must accept the life of the family without other society, and must share the household work with the mother and family.’ The FMCES although keen to stress the importance of adaptability was also clearly unhappy that their vision for opportunities for educated middle-class women in the colonies was not playing out as they hoped, there was obviously some difference in their minds between being versatile and being reduced to unsuitable work as evidenced by this slightly shrill extract: ‘Complaints have been received also from Auckland this year of the hopelessness of obtaining  situations, reporting an excess of teachers of music in that town alone, and telling of one governess having gone into a factory, another as a servant in a shop, a third as housekeeper and only servant in a widower’s family.’ Despite this, the report goes on to a more upbeat tone: ‘It must be stated that the greater number of those who have been sent out write grateful acknowledgements to the Secretary for “the fresh start in life,” and when once they accommodate themselves to the customs and needs of the country and follow the heads of the family in readiness to give a hand in every sort of work, they soon share in the interest and happiness of life.’

The FMCES Letterbook at the Women's Library, LSE. Photo by author.
The FMCES Letterbook at the Women’s Library, LSE. Photo by author.

Ultimately between 1861 and 1886 the FMCES helped 302 middle-class women to emigrate to the colonies – a relatively minor amount compared to the thousands of working-class women who made the same trip. Maria Rye herself became disillusioned with middle-class emigration and by 1868 left the work of the FMCES to her colleague, Jane Lewin while she focused on assisting working-class children to emigrate to Canada, for a better life. By the 1890s the FMCES had ceased to exist, in part due to the improved prospects for women to find work in Britain. Although emigration did not prove a viable large-scale solution to the problem of ‘surplus’ women, the efforts of the FMCES did shine a light on the lack of opportunities for women at home and the greater need for women’s education. By giving young women agency to emigrate and seek a better life elsewhere the FMCES acted as a sort of test-bed, allowing women greater opportunity to work in the more class-flexible colonies, and opening up the conversation on improving women’s rights and access to education back home.

Traditional Methods of Divination

Humans have always looked for certainty in life, after all it’s reassuring to know what the future might bring. As a result throughout history people have used a wide-variety of methods, often rooted in the natural world, in an attempt to predict the future. There is something especially fascinating about the varying methods of divination used across the globe, revealing  our human need to see signs in the natural world or to seek messages from the gods. Below are a selection of traditional methods of divination:

Urimancy

Urimancy was the ancient practice of telling the future by inspecting urine and was, somewhat inexplicably, based around the number and size of the bubbles in wee (I would have thought inspecting the colour would have been a lot more useful in terms of medical predictions but then what do I know, I am no soothsayer). Practitioners in ancient Rome would peer into the toilet bowl and make their prognostications. Lots of large, well-spaced bubbles meant that you would soon come into a large sum of money. A smattering of small bubbles was a bad omen and signified the death or illness of a loved one.

Haruspication

Haruspication is telling the future from animal innards. In Ancient Rome animals sacrificed to the gods would be cut open in order for the seer, known as a haruspex, to consult the liver, entrails, spleen and stomach. The haruspex would look at colour, shape, size and texture in order to make their predictions.

In the Near East this practice was limited to inspecting the liver of sacrificed sheep, which was thought to reveal messages from the gods. The British Museum has a clay model of a sheep’s liver from Babylonia from between 2050 and 1750 BC which has been divided into sections and each section is thought to relate to a different medical diagnosis.

Tasseography

Tasseography is the reading of tea leaves, a phenomena which became popular in Europe in the nineteenth century but which has its roots in ancient Chinese soothsaying. To read the leaves, make yourself a cup of tea with a generous pinch of loose leaf tea. 5585307590_e30838673f_mLeave to steep for 3 minutes before drinking it, leaving a tiny amount of water along with the leaves in the bottom of the cup. Turn the cup three times in a clockwise direction and then invert it onto a saucer so the liquid drains away. The tea leaves are now ready to be interpreted.

Naturally as with any of these methods the variables are numerous and a potted explanation can do no justice to the complexities of tasseography, however if you’d like to know more about interpreting the results take a look at this great post from the Tea Association of USA.

Geomancy

Geomancy (or in Arabic ‘ilm al-raml‘, meaning ‘the science of sand’) is divination by the earth and was first developed on the Arabian Peninsula. Seers would draw lines in the sand and interpret the formation to predict the future or answer a specific question.

In Medieval times it migrated into Europe and was simplified so it could be practised by simply drawing points. The seer should hold the question they wish to answer in the minds while unthinkingly drawing a series of lines of points. This pattern can then be interpreted, to reveal the answer to the question posed. This brilliant Princeton Blog explains the rather complicated method.

Scrying

Probably the most well-known image of divination is scrying– the act of gazing into a reflective surface such as a pool of water, mirror or crystal ball in order to foretell the future. The reflective object itself does not foretell the future but rather it is a conduit through which the seer may enter into a trance and receive messages from the mysterious shapes reflected back at them.

A magician gazes into a crystal ball
Image from The Black Highwayman by Edward Viles, 1868, via The British Library

The Ancient Egyptians practised scrying during initiations, using mirrors, water and highly-polished obsidian. Nostradamus was thought to have used a small bowl of water when making his predictions and the magician John Dee had a small crystal ball which is held by the British Museum.

Osteomancy

Osteomancy is divination using animal bones. This is a method that has been used across cultures right back to the ancient past, revealing the long human–animal association. One method is to throw a selection of small animal bones and make predictions from their relative positions.

Another method, known as pyro-osteomancy, is to burn the bones, most often the scapula or shoulder blade of an animal, and divine the future from the fissures and cracks that appear. In China seers would carve their question into the scapula of a large oxen and then throw it onto the fire. The answer to their question would be revealed by the marks left on the bone once it had been removed from the fire.

A Chinese oracle bone
16th-10th century B.C Chinese oracle bone via the British Library

In Elizabethan England geese were traditionally eaten at Michaelmas. The breast bone of the Michaelmas goose would be removed and afterwards used to predict the coming weather. By holding the bone up to the light, its density could be judged. If the bone appeared dark then a hard winter was ahead, if the bone is mottled then the weather will be variable and if the bone is thin or near transparent then the winter will be a mild one.

Augury

The ancient Roman practice of augury tells the future by observing the flight patterns of birds. Augury was said to have played a part in the foundation of Rome. When Romulus and Remus first came to the area which is now Rome they disagreed over the placing of the city. Romulus wanted to build on the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus felt the Aventine Hill would be more strategically advantageous. They agreed to decide using augury, believing that the will of the gods would be revealed to them through the birds. The brothers sat at different spots on the hill for a set period of time and counted the number of birds they saw. Remus spied six vultures, but Romulus saw twelve and as a result Rome was built on the Palatine Hill.

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The birds could be read either by their song or by their flight and the augurs would use their knowledge to reveal if the birds thought any action was either auspicious (good) or inauspicious (bad). This sort of fortune-telling was seen as message sent from the gods and was in widespread use across the Roman Empire.

English folklore also set store in reading flocks of birds and it was said that watching crows heading homewards in flight could reveal the future. Those watching the birds might interpret the birds forming letters and spelling out a message, revealing anything from their true love’s name to the weather for the week ahead.

Molybdomancy

This visually impressive method of foretelling the future uses molten tin or lead. The practice is thought to have developed from alchemy, whereby alchemists attempted to make gold from lead. Throughout the Middle Ages across northern Europe seers would pour molten lead or tin into a basin of water, the metal would then harden in strange shapes which would be interpreted. This method of divination was mostly used in a medical context, predicting a patients’ recovery or demise.

Today molybdomancy is still practised in Germany and Scandinavia. In Finland it is traditional on New Year to melt tin or lead and pour it into cold water. The lump of hardened metal is then rotated in the candlelight and the shapes of the shadows are interpreted to give predictions for the year ahead.

6 Writers and Artists who Quit

The creative urge is seen as something that can’t be ignored, and yet over the years a number of hugely talented writers and artists have walked away from writing, poetry or the art world. Some cited disillusionment, others fatigue, while a few never explained their reasoning at all. Below are a number of writers and artists who quit:

Arthur Rimbaud

Bad boy French poet Arthur Rimbaud had a difficult relationship with his mother and railed against convention, three times running away from home as a child and travelling to Paris. Aged 17 he left home and moved into the Paris residence of poet Paul Verlaine, embarking on a tumultuous affair with the older man (much to Verlaine’s wife’s dismay).

Rimbaud’s poetry was ground-breaking. His modernist take on life and his play with language and orthodox verse had a huge impact on the literary scene, making him something of a poster boy for the Surrealist and Symbolist movements.

Photograph of Rimbaud, aged 17, by Étienne Carjat, probably taken in December 1871
Photograph of Rimbaud, aged 17, by Étienne Carjat, probably taken in December 1871

Rimbaud wrote his two hugely influential collections of poetry A Season in Hell and Illuminations by the age of 21 and thereafter wrote no more. The reasons for this are somewhat of a mystery. He set off travelling, working and enlisting in the army before moving to Ethiopia (then known as Aden) where he was one of the first European traders in the area. He lived and worked there, trading coffee and firearms until his death from cancer aged 37 in 1891.

Scholars have pored through Rimbaud’s later letters for any glimpse or references to poetry, but they are nearly all solely concerned with business, as if his previous incarnation as the enfant terrible of the French literary scene had never happened at all.

Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp shocked the art world with his surrealist work, most famously with his urinal-based work Fountain (1917) which presented and reframed a manufactured urinal as a piece of art. Duchamp however expressed disregard for painting and the avant-garde scene (which he famously derided as ‘a basket of crabs’) and from 1918 began retreating from the art world and devoting his energies to chess. For twenty-five years Duchamp played chess professionally, even competing for the French national team, seemingly content to leave his previous life as an artist and provocateur in the past.

However Duchamp’s retreat from the art world was not quite as complete as would seem, despite no longer publicly participating in art he continued to work in secret on a single work, Étant donnés, which took him 20 years to complete. This unusual assemblage has been on show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1969 and invites visitors to approach a ramshackle wooden door with peep holes cut into it. On peering through visitors can glimpse a tableau featuring a nude woman holding a gas lamp.

Lee Lozano

Lee Lozano gained fame in the 1960s for her subversive art featuring machinery, genitalia and cartoonish facial features but she soon became disillusioned with, and increasingly critical of, the New York art scene. In protest she began documenting her retreat from the art world as a work in itself.

In General Strike (1969) she listed a countdown of her final art-related appearances and in her final work Dropout Piece (1972) she wrapped up her studio and withdrew forever. Unfortunately her grand gesture was ahead of its time and led her to be largely forgotten. Only recently, in part in thanks to the attentions of critic Lucy Lippard, has interest in her subversive work been revived.

J D Salinger

J D Salinger published a number of short stories and novellas before hitting the big time with Catcher in the Rye (1951). His writing had been much admired in literary circles but his insistence that editors not change a single word of his compositions made him difficult to work with – his first contract for Catcher in the Rye with Harcourt Brace was broken off by Sallinger after the publisher ordered some rewrites and it was finally published by Little, Brown who agreed to leave the text alone.

J D Salinger on the cover of Time magazine (September 15, 1961)
J D Salinger on the cover of Time magazine (September 15, 1961), illustration by Robert Vickrey

Salinger abhorred the limelight and the greater the book’s success the more he shrank from publicity. He refused requests to use an author photograph on the book’s cover and eschewed all interview requests, save one with a local high school newspaper The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger effectively became a recluse, saying ‘It is my rather subversive opinion that a writer’s feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him during his working years.’ He subsequently published a smattering of short stories and novellas but never again wrote another novel before his death in 2010.

Charlotte Posenenske

Charlotte Posenenske was a German Jewish artist who grew up during the Second World War. Family friends hid her from the Nazis after her father committed suicide. Posenenske developed into an influential modernist artist, moving from painting to sculpture, for which she is today best known.

Her sculptural works of corrugated cardboard and steel are almost industrial in shape and ultimately, she felt, could be assembled by anyone – her presence at exhibitions or even ownership of the pieces becoming increasingly irrelevant to her. Posenenske felt art had become futile and did little to actively address social injustice, as a result in 1968 she stopped working as an artist entirely and devoted the rest of her career to working as a sociologist.

Posenenske’s work was not shown again until after her death in 1985 as she had refused to take part in any exhibitions, but today her art is back on display showing her important place in the history of Modernism.

Margaret Mitchell

The success of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell’s only novel was a phenomenon – it sold over 50,000 copies in one day and ultimately went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide. The book had been a long time in writing for Mitchell, she wrote it in bits and pieces over 9 years while working as a journalist. Once picked up for publication it began a roller coaster that Mitchell was not prepared for.

The massive success that Gone with the Wind enjoyed took Mitchell by surprise, turning her life upside down. She refused to do promotional activities and rarely signed copies of the book, finding the limelight too much to bear. The attention was further increased by the scramble to buy the film rights and the subsequent success of the film. Mitchell had had enough and vowed never to write another book, her time now taken up with replying to the thousands of fan letters she received.

By the late 1940s the initial whirl of attention had begun to wane and Mitchell began to think about writing again. Unfortunately on 11 August 1949 she was hit by a car and later died of her injuries, robbing the world of a great writer and any potential that she might take up her pen again.

If you enjoyed this article check out my other book-related posts such as 10 Best-selling Books Written in less Than Two Months, Literary Orphans of Note or What Happened when Charlotte Bronte met Thackeray

 

On Definitions of Short Stories

I just finished reading Henry James’ Daisy Miller (1878) and once I’d finished the story itself I flicked on to read the appended essay that was included in my Penguin English Library edition. The first thing that caught my eye was the description, or should I say classification, of the story as a ‘nouvelle’.

This was a new term to me and had I been asked to described the short story myself I probably would have named it a novella. My interest was immediately piqued by this new word and I thought I should research it further and share what I found out about the many and various classifications of short stories with the readers of my blog, so here goes:

Nouvelle

In English this is a variety of short story which rather than concerning the supernatural or fantastic involves a realistic narrative or anecdote. It is, in effect, like news (hence the naming of it nouvelle). In the French tradition of short stories there has been no direct translation for ‘short story’ as an all-encompassing term, instead they use nouvelle to mean realistic short stories, and conte to mean a fantastical short story (although there is some debate about the exact classifications, see here for more).

Conte

This word comes from the French tradition of oral story-telling (deriving from the French verb conter, meaning ‘to recount’). Most commonly it relates to fairy-tales and adventure stories which are shorter in length than a novel. Examples include Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mère l’oye or Tales of Mother Goose.

Flash Fiction

Flash fiction is a relatively modern phenomena and now numerous competitions in the genre abound. The idea is to write a very short story in less than 1,000 words, keeping it short and punchy.

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Novelette

A short story which is shorter than a novella (therefore less than 17,500 words) and is generally of a romantic or sentimental subject matter. Naturally due to the inherent snobbery of the literary world this unfortunately means it is often used in a patronising or derogatory fashion.

Novella

This can rather unhelpfully be characterised as longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The word novella derives from the Italian word for new. Novellas are generally thought to be more realistic in style and might concern just one incident or be confined to just a couple of main characters. In general novellas do not include chapters nor complicated side-plots. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction define the novella as having a word count of 17,500 to 40,000 words. Examples of novella include The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

As with any discussion on the definition or classification of something as nebulous as writing disagreements abound. This is just my take on what I have read on the subject but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these classifications and if you have any to add please do leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books for more on books, libraries, words and arcane history.

 

Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).

Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.

Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:

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When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.

If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.

In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.

Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.

If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.

The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.

If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.

As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.

A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.

Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.

If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.

After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.

In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.

Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.

Funerals

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.

If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.

Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.

Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.

Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.

If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.

A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.

Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.

If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.

Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.besieged-house-ghosts-768

Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.

Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.

Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.

Graveyards

A graveyard
A graveyard

If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.

Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.

If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.

Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.

Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.

Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.

If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.

 

 

When Charlotte Brontë met William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray was one of Charlotte Brontë’s literary heroes. In 1848 she dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre to him, after much admiring the recently released Vanity Fair (1848).

She wrote in the preface to that edition that Thackeray was ‘the first social regenerator of the day’, adding, ‘His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer- cloud does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.’

Illustration of Charlotte Bronte by Edmund Henry Garrett from 1899 edition of Jane Eyre
Illustration of Charlotte Bronte by Edmund Henry Garrett from 1899 edition of Jane Eyre via The British Library

In a letter of thanks in reply to Brontë’s publisher, Thackeray wrote that the dedication was ‘the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life.’ Unfortunately however, it was also a source of embarrassment and gossip. Unbeknown to Brontë, Thackeray, in an echo of Mr Rochester, had a mentally-ill wife who had been locked away in an institution and who Thackeray was unable to divorce. Rumours abounded after the dedication that Currer Bell had been a governess in Thackeray’s household and had written the fiction inspired by real life.

Despite this uneasy undertone Brontë was still keen to meet the much-admired Thackeray and when she visited London in December 1849 was happy to have an introduction afforded by her publisher, George Smith. This first meeting was at a dinner and Brontë had expected so much from Thackeray she was a little unnerved to find he was just an ordinary gentleman.

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Image from The Oxford Thackeray. With illustrations via The British Library

Brontë struggled to think of anything to say, her shyness and her disappointment likely mingling and making her mute. Thackeray was reportedly also thrown by the encounter. In Lewis Melville’s, The Life of William Makepeace Thackeray (1899), an anecdote of this first meeting is recounted:

At dinner, Miss Bronte was placed opposite him. ‘And,’ said Thackeray, ‘I had the miserable humiliation of seeing her ideal of me disappearing, as everything went into my mouth, and nothing came out of it, until, at last, as I took my fifth potato, she leaned across, with clasped hands and tearful eyes, and breathed imploringly, ‘Oh, Mr. Thackeray! Don’t!’

Whether or not this is a true reflection of the meeting is hard to know, but I can’t help hoping it’s true as the awkwardness depicted by the mindless potato-over-eating Thackeray is quite an image to enjoy.

The pair’s second meeting was no less unsuccessful. Thackeray invited Brontë to a dinner party for lady writers at his house in June 1850. Again Brontë was crippled by shyness and barely spoke, the other guests were reportedly disdainful of her brooding, quiet manner and her outmoded dress. Thackeray’s daughter Anne, said of the dinner ‘It was a gloomy and silent evening. Everyone waited for the brilliant conversation, which never began at all.’

At one point one of the ladies attempted to brighten things up by addressing Brontë directly, asking her how she liked London. An interminable pause followed before Brontë uttered ‘Yes; and no,’ and the conversation ended.

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How the evening might have looked (except less fun) from an unrelated illustration from The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray via The British Library

Brontë ended up leaving the gathering early and Thackeray, embarrassed by the abject failure of the evening, quietly sloped off to his club, leaving his other guests to entertain themselves.

And so it seems the adage is true, never meet your heroes. Both Brontë and Thackeray, so sparkling and alive on the page, struggled to live up to the pressures of performing in society. Perhaps this can give all us mere mortals some succour that talent can exist behind even the most unlikely exterior.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books which are full of fascinating historical tidbits and numerous book-related facts.

10 Bestselling Books Written in Less Than 2 Months

Writing often seems like a tortuous process, we tend to picture novelists hopped up on coffee, hunched over their laptops staring into space while their creative muse torments and then deserts them. However some writers subvert that image by churning out a book in the time it takes most people to get round to writing their shopping list.

Whether entering a drug-fuelled fugue state to get the words down, or simply creating a really, really long piece of paper on which to type, the following 10 writers have written a bestselling book in super quick time:

1. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming: 2 months

Ian Fleming was on holiday in Jamaica in January 1952 and, growing bored of spear-fishing and over-thinking his impending marriage, he decided he needed something to occupy his idle hands. Fleming sat down at the typewriter and began to write, dashing off 2,000 words every morning, until by 18 March the manuscript was finished. Fleming had no faith in his ‘adolescent tripe’ but fortunately for Bond fans everywhere, publishers thought differently and Casino Royale was published in April 1953, introducing the public to James Bond and marking the start a 14-book series.

Fleming stuck to his writing routine and most of his later Bond books were also written in under two months. When Birdsong writer, Sebastian Faulks took on Fleming’s mantle to pen Bond continuation novel Devil May Care in 2008 he too decided to adopt the speed-writing technique. Faulks’ previous book Human Traces had taken him 5 years to complete, so copying Fleming’s strict 2,000 word a day method was quite a departure.

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: 6 weeks

William Faulkner wrote his fifth novel As I Lay Dying over the course of six weeks while he worked the night shift at a power plant. Faulkner would start writing at midnight and finish as 4 a.m. the words tumbling neatly into place. So confident was he in his writing technique that he claimed he never changed one word from his first draft, despite the fact that the 59 chapters are narrated by 15 different characters.

3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard: 6 weeks

Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’ Mines in just 6 weeks after his brother bet him he could not write a book as good as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Haggard proved his brother wrong as his novel became an instant bestseller and inspired many others to pen books in the new ‘lost world’ genre. Despite the speed at which it was written, King Solomon’s Mines retains an aura of reality as Haggard had lived and travelled in Africa for many years and as a consequence had ample source material in his memory banks.

King Solomon’s Mines was a huge success (although not as much as his next book She (1887) which went on to sell over 83 million copies) and part of its popularity can perhaps be traced back to the astoundingly good early reviews. Some 20 gushing reviews of the book were published anonymously in the press on publication in 1885 and it was only many years later that it emerged that they had all been written by Haggard’s good friend, Andrew Lang.

4. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 6 weeks

"Marley's Ghost", original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition via The British Library
“Marley’s Ghost”, original illustration by John Leech from the 1843 edition via The British Library

Charles Dickens was a prolific writer and he was used to keeping to tight deadlines because his books were published weekly in serial form in Victorian magazines, however he excelled himself with A Christmas Carol, completing the work in about 6 weeks. Dickens started writing the story in October and worked intensely, occasionally taking breaks at night for a stroll through the streets of London, before finishing it at the end of November. The book was an immediate festive success and has since spawned numerous stage plays, movies and musicals, proving the enduring popularity of Mr Scrooge.

5. On the Road by Jack Kerouac: 3 weeks

Although Kerouac spent a number of years formulating the ideas for On the Road, both in his head and in his journals, the complete draft was typed out in a manic three weeks. Kerouac liked to type fast and hated to be interrupted to change the paper in his typewriter, so before he started typing out his work he taped together numerous sheets of paper to create a continuous roll 120-feet long. This original manuscript is today preserved at the University of Indiana.

6. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: 3 weeks

Anthony Burgess’s brilliantly dark dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange was written in 1962. Burgess liked to claim he wrote it in just three weeks, motivated only by money. The novel was hugely influential, a fact which was magnified by Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. Burgess himself did not approve of Kubrick’s film (he was especially annoyed that Kubrick ignored his final chapter) and referred to it dismissively as ‘Clockwork Marmalade’.

Although Burgess was best known for A Clockwork Orange he wrote a great number of other works over his career, ranging from nonfiction to plays, essays, poems and biographies. Burgess came to writing late in life after originally working as a teacher. At the age of 40 Burgess was given just one year to live after being diagnosed with a brain tumour so he began writing to try and leave some money for his wife. The diagnosis turned out to be wrong and Burgess continued to live and write until a different cancer (this time of the lung) really did finish him off aged 76.

7. The Maigret series by Georges Simenon: 11 days

Belgian writer Georges Simenon was extremely prolific, penning over 500 novels during his career, but he was best-known for his beloved detective Maigret. Simenon was an incredibly fast writer and could produce 6 to 8,000 words in one day and on average he would complete a novel in just 11 days. To continue to be so prolific Simenon stuck to a strict writing schedule, fuelled by pots of coffee, numerous tobacco pipes and wearing the same shirt for the entire period it took to compose the latest book.

Simenon became so famous for his speedy writing technique that when Alfred Hitchcock phoned him for a chat only to be rebuffed by his assistant as he was in the middle of writing a novel, Hitchcock was said to have quipped ‘Let him finish. I’ll hang on.’

8. Rasselas by Samuel Johnson: 1 week

Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Samuel Johnson c. 1772, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds

After the death of his mother, lexicographer Samuel Johnson needed to pay for funeral expenses, and in order to do so he did what every good writer would do – he wrote a book. Johnson sat and wrote every night for a week (no doubt taking the odd break to weep over his lost mother) until he had a completed novel. The resulting book Rasselas was Johnson’s only novel but proved to be successful enough to pay for his mother’s funeral.

Johnson’s life’s work was the compilation of A Dictionary of the English Language which listed some 40,000 words and took a rather more lengthy 8 years to complete. Although a great work for some puzzling reason Johnson’s dictionary contained no words beginning with the letter ‘X’. Under ‘X’ Johnson wrote: ‘X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.’ He had a point as X-rays weren’t discovered until 1895 and Xanadu wasn’t released until 1980 …

9. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: 3 days

Stevenson had long had the idea of writing a story based on the idea of a split personality but had been unable to find the right setting. Legend has it that Stevenson, desperately ill with tuberculosis and drugged out of his mind on medicinal cocaine fell into a drug-addled sleep in which the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him. On waking he sat at his desk and in 3 feverish days wrote out the first draft. His wife, Fanny, on reading the completed manuscript thought it was drivel and threw it into the fire, causing poor Stevenson to spend another feverish 3 days re-writing the manuscript once again. Thankfully this version was kept from the flames and went on to be a great success, finally allowing Stevenson to pay off his debts.

Original manuscripts by authors are usually highly-prized and are often gifted to national libraries or universities associated with the novelist, however unfortunately over half of Stevenson’s manuscripts have been lost. Descendants of Stevenson in need of some cash after World War I, sold most of his manuscripts including Treasure Island and The Black Arrow which have sadly never resurfaced.

10. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne: 2.5 days

When John Boyne came up with the idea of his holocaust-based story The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas he was so inspired he sat down and wrote it out, barely stopping for food, drink or sleep. At the end of two and a half days Boyne was done. The Irish novelist had already written a number of other books but took a rather more sedate four weeks to complete those first drafts, however he said that with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas the story just poured out of him. The book has since been made into a multi-award winning film.

If you enjoyed this post please check out my books, such as The Book Lovers’ Miscellany for more on books, writers and writing.