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!
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.