Blog Archives

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle gives us a taste of the interesting trivia to be found in his new book…

I spent a lot of time looking into treacle earlier this year. Not literally. But, as it were, literarily. You see, there’s more to treacle than meets the eye. (If treacle ever does meet your eye, I recommend washing it out immediately.) Take Treacle Mines. They don’t exist. At least, not really. But in fiction, they do. It all began at St Frideswide’s Well in Binsey, Oxfordshire, a small village immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘Binsey Poplars’. One notable visitor to this well was Charles Dodgson, who worked nearby at Oxford University. One of his companions was probably a girl named Alice Liddell, of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You see, Charles Dodgson was also Lewis Carroll. (Alice’s nurse, the wonderfully named Miss Prickett, came from Binsey.)

To locals, St Frideswide’s Well was known as Binsey treacle mine, from the original meaning of ‘treacle’ denoting any curative fluid or medicine. The word ‘mine’ was a sort of joke, conveying the idea that treacle could be ‘mined’ like gold or lead or coal. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), the Dormouse Read the rest of this entry


Seven Things You May Not Know About Punctuation

In this special guest post, Caroline Taggart offers some little-known facts about punctuation marks, to mark the publication of her new book, The Accidental Apostrophe: … And Other Misadventures in Punctuation

Did you know

1. The Victorians were crazy about hyphens?

Jane Austen’s nephew Edward Austen Leigh, composing a biography of his aunt in the 1860s, had occasion to mention the joys of spring in the country, including early primroses, anemones and the first bird’s-nest. That hyphen makes it absolutely clear that he means the first nest (of the season) belonging to a bird, rather than a nest belonging to the first bird. A bit over-precise by today’s standards, you might think.

2. Charles Dickens could work six semi-colons into a single sentence?

It’s right at the beginning of Great Expectations, and it’s a masterpiece: Read the rest of this entry

Who Wrote the First Novel in English? And Other Surprising Literary Firsts

Surprising firsts from the world of books

We recently wrote a book, The Secret Library: A Book Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, which aims to uncover the best hidden facts and stories about classic and not-so-classic works of literature. One of the most fascinating things we discovered was how wrong we’d been on the topic of ‘firsts’. It seems there are a fair few origin myths out there, which are often taken as fact. Who wrote the first English novel? We thought we knew. Who compiled the first English Dictionary? Dr Johnson, surely! Turns out we were wrong on that one too. To celebrate the publication of our book in the US this month, here are a few of our favourite surprising firsts from the world of literature which we uncovered during our research for the book, which goes back several years.

Who compiled the first English dictionary? Samuel Johnson often gets the credit for compiling the first dictionary of the English language, but in fact his Dictionary of 1755 wasn’t even the first one to be published in 1755! (The Scott-Bailey Dictionary also appeared in the same year.) Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century (albeit without definitions), and in 1604 Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall had appeared. But in the early eighteenth century, dictionary-making was all the rage. Johnson’s Dictionary drew heavily on Nathan Bailey’s A Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), but Johnson’s definitions were a considerable improvement on the work of his precursor. Bailey’s Dictionary, for instance, had defined ‘cat’ as ‘a creature well known’; ‘goat’, meanwhile, was ‘a beast’ and ‘strawberry’ was described simply as ‘a well known fruit’. ‘Black’ was ‘a colour’. Read the rest of this entry