Seven Surprising Works by Famous Writers

What on earth was he doing writing that? In this post, we explore seven books written by authors more famous for penning other sorts of literary works. These works might be considered the anomaly among these writers’ oeuvres, though sometimes a connection can be glimpsed between the unusual text described and the character of its author.

1. T. S. Eliot, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It is perhaps Eliot’s most famous book, albeit only in an indirect sense (thanks to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical Cats). The book was published in 1939 and has made Eliot’s publisher, Faber and Faber, a fortune. And as we explored in our post on T. S. Eliot, the influence of Eliot’s cat poems on popular culture goes beyond Lloyd-Webber’s musical.

2. Jonathan Swift, Human Ordure. Although he is best remembered for his work of satirical fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Swift was also a prolific pamphleteer and seemed to be peculiarly fascinated by the subject of defecation. (See also his poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room‘.) Swift appears to have penned this treatise on human waste under the appropriate pseudonym ‘Dr Shit’ (though some deny that he authored the pamphlet). He may also have written a pamphlet on ‘the benefit of farting’.

Twain23. Mark Twain, 1601. We know him best as the author of The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Adventures of Huckleberry FinnThe Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain – real name Samuel Clemens – wrote much else besides. This short piece – known commonly as a ‘squib’ – was a work of pornographic fiction set during the year 1601, in the later part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. (More great Mark Twain facts here.)

4. Anthony Trollope, The Fixed Period. This 1882 novel was Anthony Trollope’s last to be published during his lifetime, and was published when the author was 67 – facts which are particularly apt when we know what the novel is about. It is a work of speculative dystopian fantasy set in the year 1980 on the island of Britannula, and concerns the idea of compulsory euthanasia for all citizens when they reach the age of 67 – the ‘fixed period’ of the title. As such, the novel predates more famous works such as Logan’s Run. It is considerably removed from Trollope’s usual world of nineteenth-century provincial conflicts or contemporary political affairs, and this is perhaps one reason why it is often overlooked – it is not considered sufficiently ‘Trollopian’. David Lodge has championed this neglected novel in a piece he wrote for The Guardian last year.

5. John Steinbeck, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. This 1976 novel is surprising because it comes from the pen of the American writer who had, perhaps more completely than any other, captured the feeling of the Depression era in such novels as The Grapes of WrathEast of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. The novel relies heavily on Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century Le Morte Darthur, like many modern retellings of the legend. We discuss Steinbeck’s Arthurian work, and his other work, in this post.

6. George Eliot, The Lifted Veil. A short work from 1859 – is it a novella or a short story? – this tale is, in many ways, a world away from the novelist’s major works such as Adam Bede and Middlemarch. The story concerns Latimer, a man who has telepathic abilities which inform him that his wife is plotting to kill him. (More facts about George Eliot here.)

7. John Milton, The History of Britain. Three years after the publication of his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, the poet published a history of Britain in 1670, though he never finished this prose work. Many of his sources were of dubious authenticity and so this ‘history’ is not all that reliable – which may explain why it is not much read, or known about, these days.

What other surprising or unusual works have authors written? Let us know which weird examples we’ve missed off the list…

Image: S. L. Clemens (Mark Twain), 1909, Bain News Service, publisher, public domain.


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  2. Annette Rochelle Aben

    LOVE Practical Cats! ALL my cats had (have) 3 names… knew about this long before I saw the play ~ cool

  3. Great fun, I didn’t know about 80% of those. The Jonathon swift one is disturbing. :)

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  5. And there’s always Zane Grey.

  6. Charles Dickens also wrote many journalism articles and a travelogue about his tour of America. It’s quite interesting and not what we’re used to thinking of with him.

  7. My most surprising discovery was Jane Austen’s “The History of England”, written when she was sixteen.

    • Good call! I’d forgotten Austen’s book, and how young she was when she wrote it. There’s also Dickens’s rather odd Child’s History of England – probably the least read of all his books now…

  8. Also, Martin Amis wrote ‘Invasion of the Space Invaders’ in 1982, which is rather a diversion from his usual novel-writing.

  9. Best known for his science fiction, H.G.Wells produced a large body of non-fiction work ranging from ‘A Short History of the World’ and books on socialism, to a textbook on biology.

  10. Most average readers think of “Brideshead Revisited” when they think of Evelyn Waugh (due to, I’m sure, the popularity of the BBC series and subsequent movie adaptations). But Brideshead is really unrepresentative of his other works, which tend to be much more satiric and acerbic. It’s definitely an outlier in his body of work. So, it’s a bit ironic that Waugh’s most currently “popular” work is really a fairly radical departure for him.

    • That’s a very good point. I must say I read Brideshead first, but you’re right that it’s decidedly atypical. I prefer his earlier novels, especially Decline and Fall, and I think you’re right that the big TV adaptation with Jeremy Irons et al must have helped to cement it in the popular consciousness as *the* Waugh novel. Kind of a shame, in many ways (much as I did enjoy Brideshead Revisited)…

  11. What a great list, and how wonderful to know these “classic” writers also work outside the box ;)

  12. Thackeray – The Rose and The Ring. Although a satirical novel, it is a Fantasy novel – and could almost be read as a children’s fairy story – in fact my memory of it is that I read it AS a fairy story when quite young!

  13. Reblogged this on Picasso Plate and commented:

  14. Agatha Christie wrote quite a few ghost stories alongside the sleuthing of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Some of them are actually pretty good.

  15. Like her character Jo in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote some sensational novels and stories, including A Long Fatal Love Chase and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment.

  16. A pleasant surprise. Thanks for posting!

  17. Steinbeck’s ‘The Short Reign of Pippin IV’ is a political satire set in France – and a hoot

  18. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conchologist’s First Book” is so un-Poe-like, and his role in it is a bit uncertain, that it remains quite intriguing.

  19. Edith Nesbit, best known for her children’ books, wrote a collection of ghost stories called Tales of Terror which I dip into now and again.

  20. Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth.