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Five Little-Known Facts about Britain’s Literary Heritage

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle offers a taste of the literary trivia on offer in his new book about literary Britain

Today, this blog turns five years old. I’d like to thank everyone who’s supported it since its beginnings on 1 December 2012, whenever you happened to discover us. And as it’s our five-year anniversary, today seems like a nice moment to tell you a bit more about my new book, which is full of interesting literary trivia about Britain, and which I unveiled in a fact-filled blog post last month.

British history is steeped in interesting literary associations and connections. My new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape (John Murray), gathers together some of the lesser-known and more surprising facts about Britain’s literary past. For instance, did you know…

A Manchester librarian invented the world’s most famous thesaurus as a way of coping with depression. The terms ‘Roget’ and ‘thesaurus’ have become, happily, synonymous: although dictionaries of synonyms existed before Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his Thesaurus in 1852, Roget was the first person to apply the term ‘thesaurus’ to such a book. By the time Read the rest of this entry

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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