Category Archives: History

Facts about Bloomsday and Joyce’s Ulysses

Every year, 16 June marks Bloomsday, the day on which fans of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses celebrate this modernist masterpiece. June 16 was selected for this celebration because it is the day on which all of the events in the novel take place (June 16th 1904 to be precise). Here are some interesting facts, in honour of the event, and the novel it commemorates.


Joyce’s novel is by no means the only novel to use the device of setting its happenings on just one day: Herman Melville had already done this in his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man, the first novel to be about the new phenomenon of the ‘con man’ (a term that had only recently been coined). Melville’s novel was published on April 1st 1857, and would appear to take place on this date too (April Fools’ Day – because of the link between con men and fooling people). Joyce’s fellow modernist, Virginia Woolf, also set one of her novels, Mrs Dalloway (1925), on one single day, also in June (though in her case the year was 1923). Other novels to adopt the ‘set over one day’ device are Ian McEwan’s Saturday (set on 15 February 2003, the day of an anti-Iraq invasion demonstration) and, perhaps most famously, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

Joyce chose this date, 16 June 1904, for the events of Ulysses because it was the date on which he went on his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle. In fact, it could be argued that it was their second date, not their first: their first date had never happened, as Nora had failed to make it, and had left Joyce standing (aptly) outside the house of the father of Oscar Wilde, in Merrion Square. But on this second date, things progressed smoothly, with Nora … ahem, manually pleasuring Joyce to orgasm on a park bench in Dublin. As Joyce put it in a later letter, ‘you who slid your hand down inside my trousers and pulled my shirt softly aside and touched my prick with your long tickling fingers and gradually took it all, fat and stiff as it was, into your hand and frigged me slowly until I came off through your fingers, all the time bending over me and gazing at me out of your quiet saintlike eyes.’ Well…!

This gives an insight into why masturbation plays such an important role in Ulysses: not only does the hero, Leopold Bloom, pleasure himself on a beach during a fireworks display, but the novel ends with a long stream-of-consciousness monologue from Leopold’s wife Molly, while she pleasures herself to orgasm, and to the final words of the novel: ‘and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Such concerns seemed to be of great importance to Joyce, and he did not shy away from treating them in detail in Ulysses. A stranger in a cafe in Zurich once seized James Joyce by the mitt and said, ‘May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?’ Joyce replied, ‘No – it did lots of other things too.’


It was because of such content, among other things, that Ulysses was banned in Britain until the 1930s, more than a decade after it was published. (It was similarly banned in the US until 1934.) However, it was available across the Channel in Paris, where it was published in 1922 by Shakespeare and Company – and those in the know, particularly other writers, got a copy and read it. Some were unimpressed. Virginia Woolf, for instance, likened the novel to ‘a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples’, while Edith Wharton, author of The Age of Innocence, said that it was ‘a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & thought can make a work of art without the cook’s intervening.’ But others have been decidedly more impressed: Samuel Beckett, who worked as Joyce’s secretary while Joyce completed his next (and last) novel, Finnegans Wake, was to be hugely influenced by Joyce and by this novel, and that latter-day Wilde, Stephen Fry, has famously praised the novel as his favourite, claiming to reread it every year.

The novel, as its title suggests, is a retelling of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, about Greek hero Odysseus’ return home from the Trojan Wars (a journey which took him ten years). Joyce had been interested in the figure of Odysseus (Ulysses being the Roman name for the hero) since his schooldays, and organised Ulysses around eighteen episodes, each of which is devised to echo one of the episodes from Homer’s epic. Not only that, but each section of Joyce’s novel has its own colour, its own symbol, its own organ of the body. Joyce’s attention to detail was impressive. The opening line of the novel reads: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’ The first nine words, as Joyce scholar Hugh Kenner observed, mimic the dactylic hexameter of Homer’s Greek verse.

This attention to detail is only part of Joyce’s wider interest in, and skill with, language in the novel. He also gets swearwords in there, sometimes through wordplay. The Prison Gate Girls sing the following piece of verse: ‘If you see kay / Tell him he may / See you in tea / Tell him from me’, where the first and third lines spell out ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’. But he also simply uses the latter word too, when Leopold Bloom talks about ‘the grey sunken cunt of the world.’ This is another reason – arguably the chief reason – why Ulysses could not be published in the UK in 1922. But Joyce was an artist of principle (and also wildly egotistical at times) who refused to cave in to editors’ and publishers’ demands, and would not have countenanced the word’s removal.

The Modern Library Publishing House has named Ulysses as the best novel of the twentieth century (with The Great Gatsby second). If you wish to read more about Joyce’s novel, then allow us to recommend this post by friend of IL and blogger extraordinaire, the Argumentative Old Git, who goes into more detail than this introductory smorgasbord has allowed. Happy Bloomsday, all!


Interesting Facts about Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll (1832-98) is celebrated around the world as one of the great purveyors of ‘literary nonsense’: his books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) have entertained countless readers since they were published nearly 150 years ago. For many, the name ‘Lewis Carroll’ is synonymous with children’s literature.


But ‘Lewis Carroll’ was really a man named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford. As such, he led something of a double life: to the readers of his Alice books he was Lewis Carroll, while to the world of mathematics and to his colleagues at the University of Oxford he was (Reverend) Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a man who formed his pen name by reversing his first two names (‘Charles Lutwidge’ became ‘Lewis Carroll’).

There is a famous anecdote about Carroll and Queen Victoria. Victoria enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so much that she requested a first edition of Carroll’s next book. Carroll duly sent her a copy of the next book he published – a mathematical work with the exciting title An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Unfortunately, like most good anecdotes, this one isn’t true: Carroll himself refuted it. However, such a story does highlight the oddness of Carroll’s double life. Carroll, despite the radical nature of his nonsense fiction, was a conservative mathematician who resented and dismissed many of the new ideas emerging in mathematics during the nineteenth century.

Was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland intended as a scathing satire on these radical new ideas in nineteenth-century mathematics? Melanie Bayley thinks so, and published an article in the New Scientist in 2009 in which she set out her thesis. You can read Bayley’s article here.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published just two years after Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863), another fantasy novel for children written by a reverend. The similarities between the two are  interesting: both feature a child leaving behind the real world for a fantasy world where normal logic and systems are inverted; Kingsley’s novel features a lobster (inspiration for the Lobster Quadrille in Carroll’s book?) and the phrases ‘grinning like a Cheshire cat’ and ‘as mad as a March hare’. We at Interesting Literature find these crossovers suggestive, at least. One key difference is that, whereas Kingsley’s novel was intended to provide a moral message for readers (drawing on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Kingsley proposed a moral ‘evolution of the soul’), Carroll detested moralising in his work for children.


Alice Liddell is well known to have been the inspiration behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but what is less well known is that she wasn’t the girl who inspired the Alice in the follow-up book, Through the Looking-Glass: the ‘Alice’ in that book’s subtitle, And What Alice Found There, refers to Carroll’s five year-old cousin, Alice Theodora Raikes. The reason for this was that, by the time he wrote the sequel to the first Alice book, Carroll was no longer on speaking terms with the Liddell family. Through the Looking-Glass was published in 1871, but it was postdated to 1872, meaning that both years are technically ‘correct’ for the book’s publication.

One persistent stain on Carroll’s literary reputation is the tricky subject of child photography and the precise nature of his ‘relationship’ with these young girls, such as Alice Liddell. It is true that he photographed many young girls, and some of these are nude photographs. But Karoline Leach has argued, in her 1999 book In the Shadow of the Dreamchild, that there is a ‘Carroll myth’ which has become more powerful than the facts. Leach and others have argued that accusations of paedophilia against Carroll are unfair and inaccurate. Other scholars, such as Hugues Lebailly, have argued that the nude photography should be viewed in the context of Victorians’ idealisation of the child as a figure of innocence. Modern sensibilities are likely to find the matter a rather thorny one, however. It remains a contentious issue.

Carroll was a shy man who suffered from a stammer throughout his life and from being deaf in one ear (the result of a fever he suffered from in childhood). Carroll identified himself with the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, leading some to suggest (though it remains only a suggestion) that this was because of Carroll’s own difficulty in pronouncing his last name (‘Do-Do’, from Dodgson).

Carroll returned to children’s literature in The Hunting of the Snark (1876), a long narrative nonsense poem, and Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), an 800-page novel which, it is generally felt, was something of a failure. It certainly was in terms of its sales: it sold just 13,000 copies, which, given Carroll’s literary reputation and success by the 1890s, was a relative flop. Here at Interesting Literature, we are in a minority in seeing value in this later work of Carroll’s. It’s a compelling mixture of science, poetry, parody, plays, psychical research, romance, and silliness, albeit with the occasional dull spell. It is also frequently funny, too. It is available in The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.

What is also less celebrated is Carroll’s talent as an inventor: he not only invented the words ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ (both in the poem ‘Jabberwocky’) and the term ‘portmanteau word’ (for words such as ‘brunch’ and ‘motel’, which blend the sounds and meanings of two existing words), but also an early version of the word game Scrabble, a new system for parliamentary representation, and a device he called the nyctograph, which enabled the user to note down ideas at night in the dark without getting out of bed. The Oxford English Dictionary seems uncertain as to whether the sense of ‘mimsy’ in common use (‘feeble, weak, lightweight’) is derived from Carroll’s earlier use of the word in ‘Jabberwocky’; the two subtly different senses of the word are given two separate entries in the OED.

If you enjoyed these Lewis Carroll facts, check out our analysis of his classic poem ‘Jabberwocky’ and our facts about the poem here. You might also enjoy our fascinating facts about Dr Seuss and our compendium of Edward Lear facts.

If you enjoyed this literary trivia about Lewis Carroll, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

You can get the complete illustrated Alice collection in this fantastic volume: The Complete Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Ten Facts about Sherlock Holmes

This post is the first part of a two-part bumper post featuring interesting facts about Sherlock Holmes. If you like these facts, have a read of the sequel to this post which gathers together further little-known facts about the great sleuth. For more great facts about popular fictional characters, check out our pick of the most interesting Harry Potter facts and our fascinating facts about Romeo and Juliet.

1. Sherlock Holmes was originally going to be called Sherrinford. The name was altered to Sherlock, possibly because of a cricketer who bore the name. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Holmes (of course), was a fan of cricket and the name ‘Sherlock’ appears to have stuck in his memory. Doyle was also a keen cricketer himself, and between 1899 and 1907 he played ten first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club – quite fitting, since Baker Street is situated in the Marylebone district of London. For more on the creation of Holmes, see the detailed ‘Introduction’ in The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes.

sherlock22. The first Sherlock Holmes novel was something of a flop. The detective made his debut in the novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), written by a twenty-seven-year-old Doyle in just three weeks. Famously, Doyle was inspired by a real-life lecturer of his at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Joseph Bell, who could diagnose patients simply by looking at them when they walked into his surgery; the other important influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes was Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, two of whose adventures we include in our pick of Poe’s best short stories. Doyle wrote the book while he was running a struggling doctor’s surgery down in Portsmouth. The novel was rejected by many publishers and eventually published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual (named after the husband of Mrs Beeton, of the book of cookery and household management). It didn’t sell well, and more or less sank without trace.

3. The second Sherlock Holmes novel was the result of a dinner party with Oscar Wilde. One person who had admired the first novel was the editor Joseph Stoddart, who edited Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. He convinced Doyle, at a dinner party in 1889, to write a second novel featuring the detective, for serialisation in the magazine. Wilde, who was also present, also agreed to write a novel for the magazine – his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in 1890, the same year as The Sign of the Four, Doyle’s novel.

4. Sherlock Holmes didn’t wear a deerstalker. Much. The famous image of Holmes wearing a deerstalker hat is a product of the celebrated images which accompanied the short stories, which appeared in the Strand magazine from 1891 (beginning with the wonderful story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’). It is when the stories began to appear that Sherlock Holmes became a worldwide sensation. Sidney Paget, who drew the illustrations, had Holmes wearing a deerstalker when the detective went into the country to investigate mysteries at country houses and in small rural villages, but most people think of the detective as always donning the hat when off to investigate a case.

5. Sherlock Holmes is the most-filmed fictional character. According to IMDb, Holmes has appeared in 226 films and been played by dozens of different actors since the advent of cinema in the late nineteenth century. It’s hardly surprising that the sleuth’s popularity inspired a raft of other writers to create rivals to Sherlock Holmes.

6. Sherlock Holmes is not the most-filmed fictional character. That is, not if you include non-humans (or partial humans). Dracula has been filmed more times than the great sleuth, at 239 times, but since Dracula is part-man, part-vampire, Holmes is the most-filmed fully human character.

sherlock17. Sherlock Holmes didn’t make deductions. At least, not most of the time. Instead, and if we want to be technically accurate, he used the logical process known as abduction. The difference between deductive and abductive reasoning is that the latter is based more on inference from observation, where the conclusion drawn may not always necessarily be true. However, in deduction, the conclusion drawn from the available data is always necessarily true. But then again, since Holmes’s reasoning always seems to be correct, perhaps it is deduction after all!

8. Holmes never says ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. Not in the ‘canon’ of original Conan Doyle novels and stories. Holmes says ‘Elementary!’ and ‘my dear Watson’ at various points, but the idea of putting them together was a later meme, which possibly arose because it neatly conveys Holmes’s effortless superiority to his ‘dear’ friend and foil. The first recorded use of this exact phrase is actually in a P. G. Wodehouse novel of 1915, Psmith, Journalist.

9. The Sherlock Holmes Museum both is and isn’t at 221B Baker Street. Although the museum in London bears the official address ‘221B’, in line with the celebrated address from the stories, the museum’s building lies between 237 and 241 Baker Street, making it physically – if not officially – at number 239.

10. There’s more to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle than Sherlock Holmes. Much more, in fact. Among other achievements, his legal campaigning led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was knighted for his journalistic work during the Second Boer War, not for his achievements in fiction, law, or medicine. We owe the word ‘grimpen’ to him (from Grimpen Mire, in The Hound of the Baskervilles). He wrote historical novels (such as The White Company and Sir Nigel, set during the fourteenth century) which he prized more highly than his detective fiction. Winston Churchill agreed, and was a devoted fan of the historical novels. Doyle also wrote science fiction romances, such as The Lost World (1912), which would inspire Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, and, subsequently, Steven Spielberg’s film (the sequel to the novel and film being named, in homage to Doyle, The Lost World). Doyle also took up legal causes himself: read Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur and George for his most famous real-life case. We’ve detailed some of Conan Doyle’s other extraordinary achievements in this post all about Doyle and his writing.

If this post has whetted your appetite, why not get hold of some of the greatest detective stories ever written? We recommend Sherlock Holmes Boxset (containing 10 Titles), which includes all five volumes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories, the four full-length novels, and a collection of other Sherlock-inspired fun. In other words, the entire Sherlock Holmes ‘canon’. Well worth reading. We also have more about Sherlock Holmes, and a host of other literary curiosities, in our book The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.

Fans of detective fiction might also enjoy our fascinating Agatha Christie facts, featuring an interesting anecdote involving a hedgehog.

Images: Top: ‘Sherlock Holmes’, © 1904 Sidney Paget, public domain. Bottom: ‘Benedict Cumberbatch filming Sherlock’, © 2011 Fat Les, free licence.