Now that the stress of moving is behind me, and boxes have been unpacked, flattened, and recycled, one of my books that was previously buried under a pile of paperbacks has reappeared: Robert Hendrickson’s Book of Literary Anecdotes. When it came out in 1990, it claimed to be “one of the most extensive collections of its kind ever published”.
They weren’t wrong. Hendrickson collected – and assembled alphabetically – more than 1,500 anecdotes dating back to Caedmon, the 7th century herdsman-turned-monk whose poems were said to be divinely inspired, to Agatha Christie, who said of her marriage to her second husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, “An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.”
The following are ten of the best in the book – or at least, to me, the most interesting. Spoiler alert: most of them have something in them about death, which either says something about literary types or, more likely, something about me:
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888): A cold, reserved man with uncompromisingly severe standards, he was also a government education official. A child once asked him if he would read to her. “It surprises me very much that a little girl of six should not know how to read, and expects to be read to,” he said, putting on his most serious tone. “It is disgraceful, and you must promise me to learn at once. If you don’t, I shall have to put your father and mother in prison.” The child learned to read in a few weeks.
When Arnold died, Robert Louis Stevenson remarked: “Poor Matt. He’s gone to Heaven, no doubt — but he won’t like God.”
Aphra Behn (1640?-1689): “The Incomparable Astraea”, as she was known, is said to have been “the first woman to make a living writing,” but her life remains a mystery. No one knows who her parents were, what year she was born, or even the right spelling of her first name. She served as a spy for England’s Charles II in the Netherlands during the Dutch War, but wasn’t paid and was soon after imprisoned as a debtor. Her debts forced her to write for a living and she produced a great number of popular plays, poems, and novels, including such tales of love and adventure as The Fair Jilt, The Rover, and The Amours of Philander and Sylvia. Her Oroonoko may have suggested the “noble savage” philosophy to Rousseau and was the first novel to express sympathy for oppressed Blacks. She is buried in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832): The eminent philosopher and author left a large sum to London’s University College on the condition that his own preserved body — which was fitted with a wax head made by a French artist and “enclosed in a mahogany case with folding glass doors, seated in his armchair and holding in his hand his favourite walking stick”– be displayed every year at the annual board of directors meeting. This was done for 92 years, until the body was finally made a permanent exhibit at the college.
Noel Coward (1899-1973): The actor and playwright tried to keep his homosexuality a secret, lest receipts from his plays should diminish. In the 1960s a biographer tried to convince him that he could reveal his sexual nature in a much more tolerant era, citing the example of drama critic T. C. Worsley, who had done so with no trouble. “There is one essential difference between me and Cuthbert Worsley,” Coward replied. “The British public at large would not care if Cuthbert Worsley had slept with mice.”
Coward was a great practical joker. It’s said that he once sent identical anonymous notes to the 20 most prominent Londoners: “All is discovered. Escape while you can.” All 20 left town by morning.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930): A French cab driver decided to play a joke on Sir Arthur when he picked him up at the railroad station. “Merci, Monsieur Conan Doyle,” he said after driving him to the hotel and collecting his fare.
“How do you know my name?” Sherlock Holmes’ creator asked.
“Elementary, my dear sir. I had seen in the papers that you were coming from the south of France to Paris; your general appearance told me that you were English; your hair had been clearly last cut by a barber of the south of France. I put these indications together and guessed at once that it was you.”
“That is remarkable. You had no other evidence to go upon?”
“Well,” said the driver, “there was also the fact that your name was on the baggage.”
Elinor Glyn (née Sutherland; 1864-1943): Glyn sent her first novel to a publisher with an attached note intended to impress him: “Would you please publish the enclosed manuscript or return it without delay, as I have other irons in the fire.” The publisher returned the novel quickly; his rejection slip read: “Put this with your other irons.”
Three Weeks (1907) was the biggest succès de scandale of all her sensational romantic novels, many of which were made into hit Hollywood silent movies. In this book, Miss Glyn, said to be as exotic in appearance as any of her characters, wrote a seduction scene that took place on a tiger rug. It wasn’t long before the following anonymous verse was being recited almost everywhere English was spoken:
Would you like to sin/with Elinor Glyn/on a tiger skin?/Or would you prefer/to err/with her/on some other fur?
James Joyce (1882-1941): Joyce’s handwriting, due to his blindness, was atrocious. So illegible was the Circe (brothel) episode of Ulysses that the husband of the third typist trying to decipher it mistook the manuscript for scrap paper and threw it in the fire. Luckily, New York collector John Quinn had a “fair copy” of the section and agreed to supply a photographic copy of this to Sylvia Beach, who first published Ulysses. It is said that before the brothel scene was thrown in the fire at least nine other typists found it so objectionable that they refused to work on it. One of them threw what she had done in Joyce’s face and refused to accept payment, while another threatened to leap out the window if he came near her.
Beatrix Potter (1866-1943): A lonely child, Helen Beatrix Potter kept a journal of more than half a million words written in an elaborate secret code that wasn’t deciphered until 22 years after her death. A number of her 30 or so books, including her first, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, began as letters to a young friend and were published at her own expense. So lonely and shy was the storyteller as a child that her only real friends were the rabbits, frogs, snails, mice, bats, and tame hedgehog that she kept hidden in her nursery and that later became the basis for many of her animal characters.
Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828-1882): When his beautiful wife, Elizabeth, died of an overdose of laudanum only two years after their marriage, the painter buried her with the little book in which he had handwritten all his poems, placing the volume close to her lips and wrapping it with her long golden hair. There the poems were meant to stay, for as Rosetti had said to his dead wife at graveside, the poems had either been written to her or for her. Yet after seven years Rosetti regretted having renounced poetry and wanted back the only perfect copy of the poems he thought were the most beautiful he could ever write. Finally obtaining official permission, he had his wife’s grave in Highgate Cemetery opened one night and in the light of a great fire built by the side of the grave (to prevent infection) the buried poems were taken from the coffin, drenched with disinfectants, and dried leaf by leaf. Rosetti noticed that his wife’s golden hair had continued to grow after death, filling the coffin, and the scene so unnerved him that he left instructions in his will that he be cremated and not buried beside Elizabeth.
Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): Author Alan Bennet made the following deadpan comment about Woolf: “Of all the honours that fell upon Virginia’s head, none, I think, pleased her more than the Evening Standard award for the Tallest Woman Writer of 1927, an award she took by a neck from Elizabeth Bowen.” When she committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse, she left the following note for her husband: “I have a feeling I shall go mad. I cannot go on longer in these terrible times. I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it but cannot fight any longer. I owe all my happiness to you but cannot go on and spoil your life.”
Hendrickson, Robert. The Wordsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes. (1990; 1997) Wordsworth Editions Ltd.