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Some Literary Facts in Honour of World Book Night

Today, 23 April, is World Book Night (sometimes known, confusingly, as World Book Day). It is also the birthday (according to convention; nobody knows for sure) of William Shakespeare, and also the date on which he died, in 1616. On different calendars, Miguel de Cervantes (author of Don Quixote) and William Wordsworth also died on this day, in 1616 and 1850 respectively. In honour of this literary event, we thought we’d compile 23 literary facts about the world of books, poetry, plays, novels, and other bookish delights for you to revel in and share today. We hope you enjoy them!

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The first detective novel in English is often said to be The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868). However, The Notting Hill Mystery (which, sadly, doesn’t feature Hugh Grant in Victorian gaiters going around on a killing spree) got there first, in 1862-3. The author of this – the bona fide first detective novel – is unknown, but it was published under the pseudonym Charles Felix. The novel came back in print last year, for its sesquicentenary.

Aesop’s fables gave us the phrases ‘to cry wolf’ and ‘sour grapes’. Some lesser-known fables by Aesop include ‘The Mouse and the Oyster’, ‘The Man with Two Mistresses’, and ‘Washing the Ethiopian White’ – this last has led scholars to propose that Aesop may have been an African slave. He may also have been disabled, if he ever existed.

Never mind protesting in the London streets: if you really want to voice your displeasure with the Government, take a leaf out of the Roman poet Virgil’s book. He is rumoured to have held a lavish funeral for a house-fly, which he claimed was his pet, in protest at the government’s plans to confiscate the lands of the rich to give to war veterans.

The first novel in English is often held to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). But many dispute this: some claim that Aphra Behn’s short ‘novella’ Oroonoko (1688), about a ‘royal slave’ from West Africa transported to South America, takes the honour. The debate continues.

One of the greatest English poems of the thirteenth century was The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem which treats, among other things, the subject of toilet training.

The three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights – Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor – don’t actually come originally from the 1001 Nights, but are ‘orphan tales’ which were added to the volume by Antoine Galland, the first French translator of the tales, in the eighteenth century.

Scholar Stephen Greenblatt has claimed, in his book The Swerve, that the start of the Renaissance can be traced back to the moment when a librarian discovered the manuscript of a classical Latin poem, De rerum natura (‘On the nature of things’) by Lucretius. This poem inspired many of the key figures in the Renaissance, and was ‘how the world became modern’.

Sir Thomas Elyot, ancestor to the poet T. S. Eliot, was the compiler of one of the earliest English dictionaries. He also coined the words encyclopedia, democracy, and education.

The girls’ name Pamela was invented by the poet Sir Philip Sidney in the sixteenth century.

Poet Fulke Greville (1554-1628), friend and biographer of Philip Sidney, was stabbed to death by a disgruntled servant while doing up his breeches as he returned from the toilet.

Playwright James Shirley died of shock following the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Poet Robert Herrick kept a pet pig which he trained to drink from a beer tankard.

Isaac Newton’s famous phrase, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, was actually a cliché even when he wrote it. The phrase has been found as early as the early twelfth century, and is credited to Bernard of Chartres. It is famous for adorning the £2 coin in the UK, and as the title of an album by rock band Oasis.

Three of the moons of Uranus are named after characters from Pope’s 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock. The other 24 are named after Shakespeare characters.

Horace Walpole wrote the first ever Gothic novel in 1764, and presented it to the public as a true story. He coined many words and phrases we use to this day, including fairy tale, serendipity, beefy, malaria, and souvenir.

Anne Bradstreet, author of The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America (1650), was the first published poet, male or female, from America.

According to legend (sadly, it probably isn’t true), as a young cadet, Edgar Allan Poe was expelled for reporting to a march wearing nothing but a pair of white gloves.

Herman Melville was almost completely neglected in his own life. His novel Moby-Dick is now recognised as a classic, and it even gave the coffee-house chain Starbucks its name (after a character in the novel), but it was a failure at the time both critically and commercially, and after its publication Melville’s reputation never really recovered. His last novel, the 1857 work The Confidence-Man, drew on the idea of a confidence trickster or con-man (then a new idiom in American society): the novel, which is all about a man who fools people, was set on one day, April Fool’s Day, and was appropriately enough also published on this date. However, the book was not a success and after this Melville gave up writing, and lived out the remainder of his life as a customs house official. His short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, is also a classic, which inspired the name of the book website.

Mark Twain is the first writer to have ‘written’ a book on a typewriter. However, many people think the book in question was Tom Sawyer, partly because Twain himself repeated the myth; it seems, on the contrary, that Life on the Mississippi should instead have that honour.

Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, liked to write naked. It was said to help with writer’s block.

The pioneering New Woman writer George Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne and was nicknamed ‘Chav’ throughout her life.

The phrase ‘lest we forget’ – often found on war memorials – is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem ‘Recessional’, which was critical of empire.

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, author of A Doll’s House, kept a live pet scorpion in an empty beer glass on his desk while writing his play Brand.

If you enjoyed these facts, do have a read of our other blog post (this time in honour of World Book Day) about the bestselling novels of all time among other interesting things.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on April 23, 2013, in Children's Literature, Fiction, History, Literature, Novels, Plays, Poetry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. Do you feature poetry books? If yes, please revitalise Shakespeare’s works particularly the SONNETS. I like them. The 16th & 45th sonnet(s). Thanks!

  2. Mark Twain may have written Life on the MIssissippi on a typewriter, but it is not a novel.

  3. Reblogged this on Tales From the Landing Book Shelves and commented:
    I’ve borrowed this from the brilliant blog ‘Interesting Literature’ as it will serve as a reminder to me that I really must get around to reading ‘The Swerve’. It has sat patiently on my bed-side table since its purchase a few months ago.

    Anyway, here’s wishing you all a happy World Book Day (Night)…

  4. Yet another fabulous blog post which had me ‘reaching’ for the websites to go check out your facts! Just looking up the Kipling poem now. So good, I just have to reblog this and recommend your blog to my own readers! :)

  5. Happy World Book Day and Night to All!!! And thanks for making mine a little happier with your tidbits. I think I’ll go train my dog to drink beer with me. It’s a little early here in the Yucatan in Mexico and the Colonies but I’m sure those of you in the British Isles and Europe won’t oppose the idea of giving homage to Geoffrey Fermin and Malcolm Lowry.

  6. Reblogged this on Merida's Night Writer and commented:
    A toast to World Book Night And Day and this blog from the land of Geoffrey Fermin and Malcolm Lowry. Salud!!! It’s alittle early but what the hell Geoffrey won’t mind I’m sure.

  7. Happy World Book Day! This is one of my favorite posts. Nudity, scorpions, planetary moons named after Shakespeare characters – this is how to start your day.

    Thanks!

  8. Wow. These facts further prove how the most influential writers were in fact insane, if in a good way. Holding a funeral for a house-fly? Writing naked? With great genius comes great…weirdness. Enjoyed this post.

  9. Reblogged this on Ann Fields and commented:
    Today is International World Book Day! I found this interesting and thought I would share. Read on…

  10. Historial walk down Literary Lane. Very interesting indeed!

  11. This is all news to me … good news. I had never heard about World Book Day. Thanks for this. Books are such a treasure!

  12. Hugo wrote naked? Is that truly the secret to literary excellence??? Someone who can afford the heating bill should give this a try and let me know if it works.

    • I have a reasonable tolerance for cold, and while I don’t know if my writing (which is all non-fiction, I should mention) is any better when I write naked, I certainly enjoy it more.

  13. Horace Walpole wrote the first ever Gothic novel in 1764
    It’s about time The Castle of Otranto got the Hollywood treatment: next year sees its 250th anniversary! Interesting, but a touch OTT.

    … and presented it to the public as a true story..
    Not many critics were fooled, according to my edition: too many anachronisms!

    He coined many words and phrases we use to this day, including fairy tale, serendipity, beefy, malaria, and souvenir.
    Now I didn’t know that! I must follow this up. Fascinating!

    Chavelita? Really? Not a late April Fool joke?!

  14. Very entertaining. My favorite is Victor Hugo writing in the nude–that would never occur to me to do, much less as a cure for writer’s block! On a side note, happy to learn a new word: sesquicentenary.

  15. Reblogged this on Just Saying… and commented:
    Bit late in re-blogging this but I think that it is an important and interesting piece, Just Saying…

  16. I have never heard of World Book Day/Night either. How are we supposed to celebrate?

    • I reckon the best way is to pick up that book on your shelf you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t owing to time constraints/being put off by how long it is or because it has a terrifying reputation – and start reading. I did that with Middlemarch (although I started earlier this month, in fairness – it’s 800 pages…)

  17. It makes me feel like a crabby old misanthrope but the reposting of this post has prompted me…the “first novel” debate goes well past 1688 as a google of “first novel in English” will make clear. Surely some of the Elizabethan works such as Lyly’s Euphues or Greene’s Pandosto would qualify for the title, and even before that there are candidates, one even jumping up and down waving its hand to earn the title of first gothic novel! Those 18th century pretenders should be ashamed of themselves and certainly would be if they were alive today…

    Some of my alleged friends think that if there were a means of ensuring writer’s block, I should adopt it.

    • Steve: Are your alleged friends exhorting you to put your clothes back on or don’t they mind a nude misanthrope?.Merida’s Night Writer…

      • Some say the misanthropic part is what gets them. Others reckon it’s the nudity that is illness-inducing and the remainder just wave the sick bag in my direction and whimper.

  18. I love it – naked Poe, scorpions in beer glasses, and debates about the history of writing! All in good humor and appreciation for the lovely tribute to World Book Night!

  19. Your post made my breakfast far more interesting. As I write in the morning room which is almost entirely glass I won’t take up Victor Hugo’s writing tip, I’ve only just got a good response to our new bird table and I don’t want to scare them all away.

  20. Given the high number of us who have remarked on Hugo’s cure for writer’s block I’m wondering if there might be a business opportunity here…The Victor Hugo Nudist Camp for Writers and Storytellers. If we were to go ahead with the creation of the camp we’d have to have some by-laws, RE: Erotic Crime Novels.

  21. I just found out where the phrase “the more the merrier” was first found in a written work. It is the medieval poem “Pearl,” author unknown, but believed to be the same poet who wrote “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”

  22. napperscompanion

    Thanks for the cool information. Victor Hugo naked–I may need to wash my eyes out! Thanks for checking out my blog. Following yours.

  23. Thanks for following my blog. I’m not sure that what I’m attempting to write fits into the category of literature but if I ever aspire to that level of writing someday I might offer something. I love your blog and will start following

  24. I never knew Edgar Allen Poe was so badass when he was young! Thanks for the follow :)

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