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.

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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.

Traditional Signs of Guilt

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard

In the time before DNA testing, dusting for fingerprints and blood-spatter analysis proving guilt or innocence was a rather less scientific matter. Folklore, superstition and religion ruled.

The high German epic poem Nibelungenlied, written in about 1200, features a scene in which the dragon-slayer Siegfried has been murdered and his body laid out. When his murderer, Hagen approaches, Siegfried’s wounds begin to bleed afresh, indicating Hagen’s guilt. This phenomena was known as cruentation, whereby a victim’s body would react should the murderer approach, and before forensic science developed in the early nineteenth century, this was one of the many methods used across Europe for proving guilt .

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard
From Tales of Terror (1808) via The British Library

Cruentation

The word cruentation comes from the Latin cruentatus, which means to ‘make bloody’. The method likely originated in ancient Germanic practices and from about 1100 spread across Europe. To carry out cruentation, the body of the victim would be laid out on a bier in the courtroom (hence the practice’s alternate names: bier-right or ordeal of the bier) in the belief that it retained some sentience after death. The suspect was then required to approach the body, perhaps circling it a number of times, or placing their hand upon it. If the suspect was guilty, the body would supposedly signal this by frothing at the mouth, bleeding from the nose or oozing from existing wounds.

In an indication of the pervasive nature of this belief, Shakespeare’s play Richard III (in Act I, Scene II) includes a scene of cruentation when Lady Anne confronts the murderer of King Henry VI, saying:

O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds

Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.

Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,

For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood

In reality modern science has shown that from about six hours after death all the blood in a dead body would have congealed. The fluid which may have leaked from these dead bodies (let’s face it its likely they would have been jiggled about a fair bit when getting them into the courtroom) was probably what’s delightfully known as ‘purge fluid’ which is created in the early stages of decomposition.

By the end of the seventeenth century British courts no longer used cruentation and the Germans followed suit by the end of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment saw Europe begin to turn away from superstition. However the Americans continued to occasionally employ the method right up to the mid-nineteenth century (for more on late American cases of cruentation see this wonderful post).

Trial by ordeal

Another method to uncover guilt was trial by ordeal. This was founded on the belief that God would protect the innocent from being falsely accused or intervene to show a sign of their guilt.

Trial by fire was used across the world in a number of different guises. The Indian epic poem Ramayana depicts Sita going through a trial by fire when Rama doubts her purity. Her innocence is proven after she stands in a circle of flames and remains entirely unscathed. Similarly in Europe the accused was often asked to plunge their hand into a fire to retrieve an object, or to hold a red-hot iron. Their innocence was proven as long as the wound appeared to be healing, rather than festering, within three days of the trial.

364px-Sita's_ordeal_by_fire_(cropped)
Sita’s ordeal by Fire via The British Museum

The most famous trials by water were seen in seventeenth-century Salem during the infamous witch trials. Here the accused were bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Those who sunk were deemed innocent and hauled out, those who floated were branded as guilty of witchcraft.

Witch-finding was a hotbed of superstition and a number of extremely dubious methods to extract ‘confessions’ or proof of guilt were utilised. This included: making the accused read aloud the Lord’s Prayer — any stumbling or mistakes and guilt was proven; bringing their bewitched victims before them and making the accused touch them, no reaction proved innocence whereas any ‘waking’ proved they had been under a spell; and ‘pricking’ supposed witches’ marks on the body of the accused, if they showed no pain, they were guilty.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III banned priests from cooperating with any trials by fire or water, a ruling which helped the practice to become less frequent in Europe, but witch trials during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the practice revive and it did not truly die out until after the American witch trials of the seventeenth century — indicating the extent to which folk belief pervaded all levels of society.

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

A Collection of Literary Orphans of Note

Illustration of Oliver Twist 'asking for more' by George Cruikshank (1839)

Literature is littered with orphans. The classic plot trope of the poor parentless child has appeared in numerous books across the eras, untethering our fictional heroes and allowing them to muster their resilience and overcome their tragic start.

For a bit of fun I thought I would collate some literary orphans of note here and record the dismal fate of their parents:

Anne Shirley

in Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Walter and Bertha Shirley died when Anne was just three months old after contracting typhoid fever. Verdict: Disease

Harry Potter

in Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling (1997–2007)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Harry’s parents Lily and James Potter were murdered by the evil dark wizard Voldemort using the Avada Kedavra curse when Harry was just a baby. Verdict: Murder

Mary Lennox

in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mary’s parents died in India from cholera when Mary was 10 but as they were generally too busy to pay much attention to her she was brought up by her maid and did not miss them. Verdict: Disease.

Oliver Twist

in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Oliver’s mother died in childbirth at the workhouse and his father died in Rome before he was born, leaving his mother destitute. Verdict: Childbirth/disease.

Illustration of Oliver Twist 'asking for more' by George Cruikshank (1839)
Oliver ‘asking for more’ by George Cruikshank (1839)

Becky Sharp

in Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Becky’s mother was an actress and opera singer who died (of unknown causes) when Becky was very young. Her father was an abusive alcoholic artist who died from delirium tremens (sudden alcohol withdrawal) when Becky was a teenager. Verdict: Unknown/alcoholism

Jane Fairfax

in Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s father Lieutenant Fairfax dies ‘in action abroad’ and her mother from consumption when Jane is just three years old. Verdict: War and disease.

Jane Eyre

in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Jane’s parents died from typhus which her father caught while helping the poor. Verdict: Disease.

Mowgli

in The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: Mowgli’s parents were killed (and quite possibly eaten) by a tiger. Verdict: Misadventure.

James Bond

in James Bond series by Ian Fleming (1953–1966)

Circumstance of parent’s demise: James’s parents died when he was 11 years old in a mountaineering accident in Chamonix. Verdict: Misadventure.

Conclusion

When researching this piece I came across numerous other literary orphans (such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Pip in Great Expectations, Pauline, Posey and Petrova in Ballet Shoes to name but a few) where the circumstance of their parent’s death was glossed over to such a degree it was impossible to decipher their cause of death. Indeed even in the books I included most of the parental deaths were alluded to in passing, only really in Harry Potter does the whole tragic scene (which is so central to the story) eventually get played out.

The device of making the main character an orphan immediately creates adversity and sympathy for them, often providing a motivation for their actions. Being an orphan also excludes a child from the usual family responsibilities, giving them the excuse to set off on exciting adventures and to live outside the norm.

My entirely unscientific analysis of fictional orphans leads me to conclude that the most common cause of death for literary parents is disease, a rather simple (and historically all too common) way of quickly dispatching superfluous parents.

Do you have a favourite literary orphan? If so please tell me about them below.

If you enjoyed this you might like to try my book The Book Lovers’ Miscellany which is full of facts on books, writers and writing.

 

The Tragic Lives of 5 Artists’ Muses

Black and white photo of the artist Camille Claudel

The Muses in classical mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Their very being inspired the creativity of artists, writers, poets and dramatists alike. However in more modern times being a muse was a less than blessed existence, with many finding themselves cast aside, their own ambitions thwarted by their association with a more successful (invariably male) artist. Below are 5 artists’ muses and their tragic tales:

Camille Claudel (1863–1943)

Camille Claudel was a sculptor in her own right but in 1885 she went to work as studio assistant to Auguste Rodin. This relationship was initially fruitful as Claudel was able to

Black and white photo of the artist Camille Claudel
Camille Claudel (1884), unknown photographer

work closely with the artist – getting access to nude models which during that period was often difficult for female artists, modelling elements of Rodin’s larger work (for example she created the hands and feet for Rodin’ Burghers of Calais) and acting as a model herself. By 1893 Rodin had achieved great fame and Claudel was struggling to emerge from his shadow so she left him in order to retreat to her studio to concentrate on her art.

Unfortunately Claudel’s mental health suffered and she became paranoid that Rodin was trying to spy on her and steal her ideas, causing her to destroy her own artworks. In 1913 Claudel’s mother had her committed to an asylum, where she remained until her death in 1943 despite regular pleas by her doctors that she no longer need be incarcerated. She was buried in a mass grave with no funeral. Today scholars have recognised the importance of her sensual sculpting style and in 2017 a museum showcasing her work opened in Nogent-sur-Seine. Ironically she now also has a room dedicated to her works at the Rodin Museum in Paris – providing recognition of a sort that still binds her inextricably with the man who over-shadowed her talent in life.

Victorine Meurent (1844–1927)

Victorine Meurent was a young working-class girl who posed for many of Manet’s most scandalous and famous paintings including The Street Singer (1862), Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863).

Olympia by Édouard Manet Olympia (1863) Oil on canvas 130.5 cm × 190 cm (51.4 in × 74.8 in) Held by the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Olympia by Édouard Manet Olympia (1863), held by the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Meurent had ambitions to be an artist herself and went on to study with portrait painter Etienne Leroy. Manet disapproved of her more traditional painting style and they drifted apart, however she found some success showing at the Salon a number of times and was inducted into the Société des Artistes Français in 1904. However making a living from art was not easy and she later fell on hard times. After Manet’s death in 1883 she wrote to his widow politely asking for some of the profits made from Manet’s paintings of her that the artist had promised her. But Madame Manet declined to reply. Only one of Meurent’s paintings survive today, Palm Sunday, displayed at a small provincial museum in Colombes.

Alice Prin (1901–1953)

Known as Kiki de Montparnasse, Alice Prin was a muse to many of the foremost artists, photographers and film-makers of 1920s Paris including Chaïm Soutine and Man Ray (who was also her lover).

Photograph of Alice Prin 'Kiki' in Nu au miroir, by Julien Mandel, 1910-1930
Alice Prin ‘Kiki’ in Nu au miroir, by Julien Mandel, 1910-1930

Prin was beautiful and bawdy, she sang cabaret in Le Jockey Bar in Montparnasse where artists, eccentrics and creators thronged. Here she caught the eye of Moïse Kisling who recreated her in Jeune Femme au Decollette (1922) and surrealist Óscar Dominguez, but it was photographer Man Ray who really forged a connection. For six years they were lovers and Man Ray would dress and make her up each day, creating an ever-changing look. But Prin was revered and reviled in equal measure for embodying the debauched and decadent world of 1920s Paris and her feisty character at times became too much – after an especially vicious bar fight for which she was arrested, Man Ray ended their relationship. As the roaring twenties drew to an end Prin struggled to find modelling work, returning to cabaret singing to fund her cocaine and alcohol habit. She remained a fixture of Montparnasse until her sudden death aged 52 in 1953 by then famous simply as a relic of a once vibrant scene.

Gala Diakonova (1894–1982)

Gala Diakonova met and fell in love with French poet and one of the founders of the surrealist movement, Paul Eluard, when they were both just 17. She went on to have an affair with the artist Max Ernst who painted her a number of times, and ultimately she remained in a relationship with both men (and many others) for some years. In 1929 she met Salvador Dali who was ten years her junior, they became lovers and were married in 1934. Diakonova became Dali’s leading muse so much so that he frequently signed his paintings with both their names in recognition of her part in inspiring his creativity. Due to her domineering personality and extremely promiscuous sex life Gala has not been kindly reflected in the history books and one historian quipped ‘to know her, was to loathe her’. However as Gala never spoke publicly we can only view her unconventional life through the judgemental prism of other’s impressions of her.

Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938)

Suzanne Valadon was indeed a muse and model to many celebrated artists including Renoir, Degas and Toulouse Lautrec but she also had her own successful career as an artist. Inevitably for a trail-blazing female artist hers was a bumpy road taking in affairs, an illegitimate son, broken marriages and scandal. Valadon moved to Montmatres in Paris when she was just a teenager and her bright blue eyes and small athletic figure meant she quickly became in demand as a model. Most famously Valadon modelled for Renoir, appearing in Dance at Bougival (1883) and Dance in the City (1883). She was a firm fixture of the riotous bohemian café culture of Montmatres, something that Toulouse Lautrec captured in his painting of her entitled The Hangover (1888). By the 1890s Valadon had met and befriended Degas, who became a champion of her work, encouraging her to pursue her own artistic ambitions. Through modelling and selling her own artworks Valadon managed to support her son Maurice Utrillo (himself a troubled but talented artist) and her mother, and in 1895 she married a stockbroker and was able to paint full-time. Ultimately respectability did not suit Valadon and she yearned to return to Montmatres and her Bohemian lifestyle.

Suzanne Valadon, Le Lancement du filet, huile sur toile, 1914, Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy
Casting the Net (1914) by Suzanne Valadon held at Musée des beaux-arts de Nancy

When she was 44 she embarked on an affair with her son’s 23-year-old artist friend Andre Utter, this volatile relationship was both fruitful (Utter modelled for Valadon’s well-regarded painting Casting the Net (1914)) and damaging (they fought frequently). As with many artists although Valadon achieved some recognition in her lifetime (she was the first female painter to be admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) it was only after her death that her importance as an artist was truly recognised.

If you enjoyed reading about these tragic muses do check out my post of the exhumation of Lizzie Siddal (muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti).

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