The most significant events in the history of books on the 4th of December
1131: Omar Khayyám dies. This Persian poet and mathematician wrote the Rubaiyat (or ‘quatrains’), later translated into English by several Victorian poets, most famously by Edward FitzGerald.
1835: Samuel Butler is born. This unusual Victorian novelist is best known for The Way of All Flesh (1903), a semi-autobiographical novel that attacked Victorian hypocrisy and religion so vehemently that Butler arranged for the novel only to be published after his death. But his 1872 novel Erewhon casts a similarly satirical eye over Victorian attitudes – essentially an ‘anti-utopian’ novel, in many ways it’s an early example of dystopian fiction. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, it turns Victorian England on its head, reflecting the Victorians back at themselves through a looking-glass.
1849: Charlotte Brontë meets William Makepeace Thackeray. The two writers had a mutual fondness for each other’s work: ‘Currer Bell’ had dedicated the second edition of her novel Jane Eyre to Thackeray, who had devoured the novel with enthusiasm (reportedly being so affected by it that he broke down in tears in front of his butler). Brontë met Thackeray in London on 4 December 1849, at seven in the evening, having eaten nothing all day since her light breakfast that morning. Was she nervous? It appears so. ‘Excitement and exhaustion made savage work of me that evening’, she wrote to her father.
1872: The crewless American ship the Mary Celeste is found, having been mysteriously abandoned for nine days. It’s a testament to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s skill as a storyteller that much of the mystery surrounding the abandoned ship was down to him – even the common misspelling of its name as Marie Celeste was his invention. In the 1884 story ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, which was published in the Cornhill magazine, Doyle – following, one suspects, Edgar Allan Poe‘s hoaxing lead – fashioned an entirely fictional account of the crew’s disappearance. (You can read the story here: essentially, a man named Septimus Goring, who has a hatred of the white man, has all of the crew killed except for Jephson.)
1875: Rainer Maria Rilke is born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in Prague. One of the most significant German-language poets of the twentieth century, Rilke also wrote novels, including the excellent The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), which is presented as a diary detailing a fictional flaneur’s time in Paris. An important work of modernist literature, it’s available in a good annotated edition: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics).