Author Archives: Horatia

About Horatia

Horatia is a writer and editor.

The million-dollar tidy-up: a prime example of housekeeping

We tend to think of the ribbon of history being pulled into its pattern by large events: a shot ringing out one Sarajevo morning, a wall rising up one Berlin night. The influence of housekeeping on history is a sadly neglected field of study, but perhaps the prime example is a house-clearance in Göttingen.

Bernhard Riemann was a shy, devout German mathematician. He only ever published one paper on number theory, and that ran to a mere nine pages. However, his 1859 Ueber die Anzahl der Primzahlen unter einer gegebenen Grösse (On the Number of Prime Numbers less than a Given Quantity) was an instant hit, and continues to run and run.

Back in 300 BC, in Greece, Euclid had proved that the number of prime numbers is infinite. (A prime number is a number that can only be divided by itself and 1 with nothing left over.) Euclid could not find a way to predict where these numbers would appear in a sequence. Neither could anyone else.

Mathematics is above all else about patterns. Mathematicians hated the fact that they couldn’t predict when the next prime number would pop up. They all agreed that the numbers couldn’t just turn up at random intervals. But they kept on doing so. You could have a big gap, and then two primes almost next to each other.

At the core of Riemann’s 1859 paper was an idea — a hypothesis — that seemed to reveal a magical relation between primes and other numbers. Riemann argued that his hypothesis was very likely to be true. But it was just that: a hypothesis. He couldn’t prove it.

(That’s as much as you’re going to get on the hypothesis itself. I, being a mere mortal, soon got lost among Riemann’s zeta functions, his non-trivial zeros and his complex planes. There is a useful round-up of resources here.)

As well as being shy and devout, Riemann had a couple of other marked traits. One was ill health. In the autumn of 1866, on a visit to Italy with his wife and daughter, he developed tuberculosis. He died, aged only 39, and was buried in the cemetery in Biganzolo.

He was also a very messy worker. He filled pages and pages with scribbles. On hearing of his demise, his housekeeper, back home in Göttingen, took this golden opportunity to clear out the papers in his office. She merrily consigned hundreds of pages to the flames before the mathematical members of the university arrived to stop her.

Did Riemann have a proof for his hypothesis that was lost forever in her kitchen fire? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that, over 150 years later, no-one has yet proved Riemann’s hypothesis, although the legions of mathematicians who have tried is impressive. Computers have generated prime numbers a million digits long, which still fulfil the hypothesis, but don’t prove it. Attempts to disprove the hypothesis have been equally unsuccessful; not one prime number yet encountered doesn’t behave in the way the hypothesis predicts.

In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute chose the Riemann hypothesis as one of its seven Millennium Problems; the first person to prove it will receive a prize of one million dollars.

Does it matter? Does it matter at all if someone proves a mathematical prediction from 1859?

Computer error messsagePerhaps. Every time you use a cash machine or use a credit card to pay for something on a secure website, huge prime numbers encrypt the information that you send. These security systems are based on the unpredictability of prime numbers. A proof the hypothesis could lead to an easy way to predict prime numbers, and thus, potentially, an easy way to break our everyday encryption.

The one-million-dollar prize would be peanuts. You could make many millions more simply defrauding the banks before breakfast.

Maybe, somewhere in Göttingen, lives a housekeeper’s descendant with a lost manuscript, a neat little proof, and a finger poised above SEND.

The Adventure of the Southsea Sorting Office

It’s not a great start to a literary career. The manuscript of your first novel is lost in the post. Your second, The Mystery of Cloomber, isn’t much of a success, either; it languishes in obscurity and isn’t published in Pall Mall magazine until 1888. By then, however, people were taking an interest in your work because it really was third time lucky. Your third manuscript, published in 1886, cemented your literary reputation forever by introducing to us for the first time, in A Study in Scarlet, Dr John Watson and his friend Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, in 1883. Off he sent it to a publisher. The manuscript was never seen again. As Conan Doyle remembered years later: “The publishers never received it. The Post Office sent countless blue forms to say that they knew nothing about it, and from that day to this, no word has ever been heard of it.” (Taken from his article “My First Book” in The Idler magazine, 1893.)

Conan Doyle began to rewrite the lost Narrative, but abandoned it in mid-conversation. He was on to higher things. That might have been the end of it. Probably Conan Doyle hoped that was the end of it. In that same article in The Idler, he goes on to say: “My shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print.”

Yet his abandoned rewrite did appear in print. The manuscript turned up in one of the 15 cardboard boxes that had been gathering dust in the corner of a London office, while lawyers for the various surviving Conan Doyle heirs argued about to whom the boxes belonged. Two of the boxes went to the British Library under the terms of the will of Conan Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean Bromet. The contents of the other thirteen went for auction at Christie’s in 2004, despatched thence by the three beneficiaries of Anna Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur’s daughter-in-law, who had inherited her property when she died in 1990. The auction caused a certain amount of brouhaha: protestors campaigned to stop it on the grounds that such a sale might be illegal and would scatter across the world, into the hands of private buyers, a collection of materials that might never be seen again, thus lost to scholarship for ever.

The British Library, however, made a successful bid (£47,800) for Lot 11, Conan Doyle’s incomplete rewritten manuscript of The Narrative of John Smith. In 2011, they published it, around 130 years after it was written.

The trouble is, the novel isn’t very good. The 50-year-old John Smith is confined to his bedchamber after an attack of gout. He has various conversations with visitors on topics ranging from war to religion. That’s it.

It’s interesting, of course, because the book sheds light on the literary development of one of the most widely read authors in the world, but it’s not going to keep you page-turning until midnight.

Young girl with a paper fairy

Perhaps the fairies Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed in will also turn up one day

Still, while it’s always nice to have a lost manuscript partially back in the world, perhaps, on some dark shelf in a sorting office in Southsea (where the youthful Conan Doyle was living when he penned his original oeuvre), the first Narrative of John Smith still awaits discovery.

Get out your blue forms and your lanterns, posties, and take another look? Not very probable but not impossible. Elementary.

Strange case of a missing allegory

There are few authors who add phrases to our everyday language, but the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson managed it. In 1885, in the soft southern town of Bournemouth — whence he had repaired so that his ill health could benefit from the fresh sea air and warmer climate — he wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

(The definite article is missing from the original title. No-one is sure why, but it adds to the strangeness.)

Stevenson may have given us the phrase Jekyll and Hyde, but we furiously mispronounce it. He intended for the first name to be enunciated as all good English families enunciated it: GeeKill, with a long E. (Perhaps we’re just contrary.)

The manuscript has its own history of good and evil. The author’s wife burned the first draft, it is well known. Or Stevenson himself did… Or someone did, didn’t they?

The splendidly named Frances Matilda Van de Grift — known as Fanny — was Stevenson’s American spouse. She had earlier been married to Samuel Osbourne, a union which had produced the children Isobel and Lloyd. She and Stevenson met in Grez, a retreat in Fontainebleau. Fanny was studying art and Robert was completing a French canoe voyage with Sir Walter Simpson (as you do). Robert and Fanny married in California in 1880.

“Strange Case” came about because publisher Charles Longman asked Stevenson for a ghost story for the Christmas edition of his magazine. Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, remembered the writing of the tale well: “Louis came downstairs in a fever; read nearly half the book aloud; and then, while we were still gasping, he was away again, and busy writing. I doubt if the first draft took so long as three days.” 1

However long that first draft took, it didn’t matter. It was, so all the stories tell us, burned. When Fanny, Lloyd’s mother, read it, she told Stevenson that it was “utter nonsense” and he had “missed the allegory”. On contemplating this criticism, Stevenson cast the draft onto the fire. “Imagine my feelings,” wrote Lloyd, “as we saw those precious pages wrinkling and blackening and turning into flames.”

If we are to believe Lloyd, the next draft also took another mere “three days of feverish industry”. Stevenson’s letters show that the writing actually took around six weeks. A full draft of the work is still in existence (at the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, while there are 24 pages at Yale and some at Princeton).

Did any burning at all go on? Yes, but none of it by Fanny Stevenson.

Her criticism, however, is fascinating. In what way had Stevenson’s first draft “missed the allegory”? What is the book an allegory of? By day, the good Dr Jekyll goes about his work as a scientist; by night, the evil Mr Hyde wreaks violence on the streets of London. Are we all monsters beneath our thin coating of civilisation? Do we all have it in us to kill? It’s because the book makes us consider these questions that it is still read today, many years after we have learned the original “twist”, that Jekyll and Hyde are the same being.

A double exposure photograph showing the actor Richard Mansfield in Jekyll and Hyde mode in 1897

Richard Mansfield played Jekyll and Hyde on stage

We will never know what the first draft contained, as it is in ashes, all agree, even if not all agree as to the who and the why. However, the story as published is certainly toned down from what we can read in the surviving second draft. In the draft, we learn that Jekyll became “in secret the slave of certain appetites“. 2 (The appetites are not enumerated.) In the published book, the doctor is guilty merely of “a certain impatient gaiety of disposition”.

Was the first draft full of appetites spelled out in detail? Is that what so shocked Fanny, rather than a (usually less chilling) lack of allegory? Did a rational desire to protect his reputation as a children’s author (A Child’s Garden of Verses) cause Stevenson to hurl a series of sordid sexual shenanigans into the flames?

We can speculate all we like. We’ll never know. But that’s the fun.

1 Balfour, Graham (1912). The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. pp. 15–6.
2 Dr Jekyll MS at the British Library

1066 in the back of a taxi

The book 1066 and All That has one of my favourite subtitles: “A memorable history of England, comprising all the parts you can remember including 103 good things, five bad kings, and two genuine dates”.

According to the short Preface to the Second Edition: “A first edition limited to 1 copy and printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards and signed by one of the editors was sold to the other editor, who left it in a taxi somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and the Bodleian.”

The preface does not specify whether it was Walter Carruthers Sellar or Robert Julian Yeatman doing the signing or the losing. Nor does the Compulsory Preface (this means you) cast further light upon this circumstance, either, although it is more specific as to the purpose of the book. History is “…what you can remember.” This salient volume certainly does contain the history I remember, including the Venomous Bead, the Disillusion of the Monasteries, and the Industrial Revelation.

The two dates are, of course, 1066 (it’s in the title and is memorable for the Battle of Hastings; this post published on around about the 948th anniversary of that Battle) and 55 BC (when Julius Caesar master-minded the first Roman invasion of Britain). However, Caesar was compelled, the book reminds us, to invade Britain again the following year– 54 BC, not 56 — owing to the peculiar Roman method of counting backwards. The ever-informative book’s preface mentions that originally the authors planned to include two other dates, but last-moment research (at the Eton and Harrow match) revealed that they were simply not memorable.

If the first edition printed on rice paper and bound in buck-boards ever turns up in the back of a taxi, I will be very surprised.


The saints include St Pancra and St Ive

Test Paper I

If this mythical manuscript did turn up in the back of a taxi, would it be worth:

a) A surfeit of lampreys?
b) A wave of saints?
c) Agincourt?

(Be vague.)

In which Page 49 goes missing for 34 years

For many years, a manuscript circulated among science-fiction fans. It was a transcription of an original piece of fiction. It was copied, retyped, and often passed on without including the name of the original author. Some disputed that there ever was a single original author. Special events were held at science-fiction conventions concerning this manuscript. None who read it would ever forget its fervid grip.

What made this piece of fiction such a perennial hit? What made the exploits of Grignr, a barbarian, so relentlessly popular? Was it the wooden characters, the hackneyed plot? No. People generally agreed that it was the prose: the prose was spectacularly appalling. The special events at the science-fiction conventions were competitions: who could read the story aloud for the longest before beginning to laugh uncontrollably and thus be unable to continue?

The author of this work has a touch of genius for picking the wrong word, an acquaintance with spelling that is sometimes distant, and often dispenses with the grammatical rule that adjectives generally have to bear at least a slight relation to the object they are describing. The gem that gives this work its title — The Eye of Argon — is a “many fauceted scarlet emerald“. The wench who catches Grignr’s eye in the opening tavern has “stringy orchid twines of hair swaying gracefully over the lithe opaque nose“. In The Eye of Argon, the author has created a world where heads are loped off, barbarians have moments of carlessness, hair prickles “yawkishly” and when women say things, they may do so “bustily” or “whimsicoracally”. From the first line of dialogue (“Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian”) this fiction wove its spell, to the final chilling moment when the scarlet emerald has transformed itself into a blood-sucking blob that has sloozed up Grignr’s leg and…


For decades, that was where the circulated copies and photocopies ended. Did Grignr prevail, or did the blob exsanguinate him? No-one knew. The origins of the story had become obscure. Some thought it a pastiche, or a joke.

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

The dust racked climes of the baren land which dominates large portions of the Norgolian empire

It was not. The Eye of Argon was first published in 1970, in OSFA (the mimeographed magazine of the Ozark Science Fiction Association) in St Louis, Missouri. In 2003, there was great excitement; a copy of this fabled periodical was found in the Paskow Collection at the library of Temple University, Philadelphia. Sadly, however, this library copy was missing page 49, the one with story’s ending on it; page 49 was also the inside back cover of the original magazine and it had become detached. Staple-management techniques in the 1970s — in Missouri, at least — obviously hadn’t reached the dizzy heights they have today. Was the last page of The Eye of Argon destined to remain a lost manuscript forever throughout the stygmatic pool of time (like the last page of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards)?

Happily, no.

In November 2004, Gene Bundy, administrator of the Jack Williamson SF Library at Eastern New Mexico University, found on his shelves an intact copy of the crucial edition (10) of OSFA. In December 2004, the ending had its first public reading after 34 years at Philcon (the world’s first and longest-running conference on science fiction, fantasy, and horror) in Philadelphia. All were pleased to discover, after decades of doubt, that Grignr was victorious. “The thing was gone forever. All that remained was a dark red blotch upon the face of the earth, blotching things up.”

At long last, as “the weary, scarred barbarian trooted slowly off into the horizon to become a tiny pinpoint in a filtered filed of swirling blue mists”, the name of the author became clear beneath the ur-text:

by Jim Theis.

Jim was 16 when he wrote The Eye of Argon, 17 when it was first published, 48 when he died in March 2002. He wasn’t too happy that the SF world celebrated his adjectival originality in the manner in which it did and vowed never to write anything again.

Jim Theis, I salute you. As long as people talk about science fiction, they will mention The Eye of Argon. It is a manuscript that deserves to be unlost. I am glad it is.

You can read the circulating internet text complete with updated ending courtesy of Ansible as well as a pdf (large file) of the original mimeograph.

Long leave the king!!!!

Something sensational to read on the train

The source of all the confusion in Oscar Wilde’s 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest is a lost manuscript. Miss Prism’s self-penned three-volume novel, in fact. Despite it being a fictional work, this literary treasure has raised unanswered questions for serious scholars of Wilde. (Oh, fine then, just me.)

When we meet Jack Worthing, the protagonist of the play, he is pursuing unsuccessful matrimonial ambitions. He wants to marry Gwendolen Fairfax but is failing on two counts. One: Gwendolen will only marry a man named Ernest (“a name that inspires absolute confidence”). Two: His parentage has not proved sufficiently sophisticated to win the approval of Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. Instead of being able to intimate that he will inherit an estate in Shropshire, for example, Jack’s antecedents are uncertain. As a baby, he was found in a handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station (the facility for the Brighton Line).

Upon the arrival of the governess, Miss Prism, Jack’s antecedents become more apparent. Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell informs us, left Lady Bracknell’s sister’s house 28 years ago in possession of a baby in a perambulator. Neither Miss Prism, the perambulator, nor the child returned. “Prism!” Lady Bracknell demands to know. “Where is that baby?”

The wretched Miss Prism is forced to confess that she had confused the baby in her charge with a manuscript, a work of fiction that she had composed during her (few, she mentions) unoccupied hours. One item was to go in a capacious handbag suitable for the transport of many leaves of paper, the other in the perambulator. “In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself,” says Miss Prism, “I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the handbag.”

The handbag, of course, she had left at a cloakroom at Victoria Station (the Brighton Line). (People are always leaving manuscripts at train stations; they just can’t help it.) Immediately, Jack is revealed to be the lost baby, the son of Lady Bracknell’s sister, Mrs Moncrieff, and therefore acceptable breeding stock after all, as well as happily restored to his kin. Also, hey presto! Turns out his given name really is Ernest, after all. So that’s the marriage with Gwendolen sorted.

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Mrs George Canninge as the original Miss Prism, with Evelyn Millard as Cecily Cardew in the 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest

Miss Prism’s novel (“of more than usually revolting sentimentality”, according to Lady Bracknell) was discovered at midnight, still in the perambulator, standing by itself in a remote corner of Bayswater.

We know little about Miss Prism’s history. We know, according to the scars on her handbag, that she was involved in (as a very early suffragette, perhaps?) “the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days”. We also know that she chose to deposit the handbag containing the baby at the rather more fashionable side of Victoria Station.

The east side was the home of the London, Chatham and Dover Railway and its platforms. To the west lived the more upmarket London, Brighton and South Coast Railway — the Brighton Line — from which one could travel to Worthing, the flourishing seaside town to which the gentleman who found lost baby Jack was travelling (and after which resort the boy was temporarily named).

The distinction remains today. You can ask cabbies to drop you at the Brighton Line, and they will make their way unerringly to the station entrance in Buckingham Palace Road, steering clear completely of the Eastern proletariat trains for commuters to Gravesend and beyond.

Still, I wonder about Miss Prism. What could have caused such a monumental moment of misperception in Victoria Station to deposit an infant in a fashionable left-luggage office and take a stroll around London with a bundle of paper dripping with sentiment?

Above all, what was she doing in Bayswater? It is an indeterminate district, unsure even of its postcode at times. What further nefarious actions, perhaps involving more omnibuses, could have caused this upright governess to abandon her perambulator in darkness? The play leaves this rich field unharvested. As, upon reflection, do I. Instead, I like to think that Miss Prism married the Reverend Chasuble and they took the train to Worthing and pioneered the caravan park.

The original story of Moby-Dick: A mere 108 years between manuscript and publication

Your name is Thomas Nickerson. You are fourteen years old when you set sail from Nantucket Harbour in August 1819 on a ship called the Essex. The expedition is part of the murderously efficient industry of this Massachusetts town: the hunting of whales.

You do hunt whales. You sail across to the Azores then down the coast of South America. The crew sees and despatches its first whale somewhere between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, then continues round Cape Horn into the Pacific Ocean.

On 20 November 1820, after many months at sea, you witness an incident that would later inspire Herman Melville to write his epic Moby-Dick. It was something of which whaling crews had never heard before, never seen. Two of the small whaling boats that the Essex carried were off at the hunt at the time, harpooning whales. You, Thomas, in fact, are steering the ship towards the boats when you see it: just off the port bow, an enormous whale. An enormous whale not doing what whales usually do — getting out of the range of a whale ship as rapidly as possible — but watching you.

This enormous whale then swims directly towards your ship and rams it. As if in revenge for the bloody murder being wreaked upon its cousins.

Recovered from the blow, the whale turns round and, with fury and with malevolence, rams your ship again. Within moments, the ship founders under your feet and the Essex sinks and is lost.

The crew split into the three surviving whaling boats, taking what provisions from the wreck that they can. You join the boat of the first mate, Owen Chase, himself aged only 23. The aim is to ration the provisions and sail to South America, a journey of several thousand miles.

Twenty men leave the wreck of the Essex; eight survive. Some succumb to starvation, some become food for the remainder.

Sea foam against a boat

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink

You return home to Nantucket almost two years since you left, in June 1821, on the Eagle. The crowd on the Nantucket docks meets you and your fellow survivors in silence.

No wonder, when someone suggests that you write down this tale of hunger and cannibalism and fortitude, you do.

But Thomas Nickerson did not write his tale for many years. Amazingly, the optimistic teenager set sail again, serving on other whale ships and eventually becoming a captain in the merchant service. Owen Chase, meanwhile, was busy penning his memoirs, with the aid of a ghost-writer, and described the crew’s adventures in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, which was published just four months after his return home.

Upon retiring from his seafaring life, Thomas Nickerson ran a guest house in Nantucket. One of his summertime guests was the writer Leon Lewis, who encouraged Nickerson to write his version of the Essex story. In 1876, Nickerson sent his manuscript to Lewis, who lived in Penn Yan, New York. Lewis, however, did nothing with the work, having creditors, debts and sailing to England to escape them, alongside his 14-year-old niece, on his mind. Nickerson died in 1883, his manuscript lost.

In 1960, Nickerson’s manuscript was re-discovered. Before a sale of Leon Lewis’s property to pay off some of his creditors, a friend of Lewis, Darius Ogden, took possession of several of his items, including Nickerson’s manuscript. At some point, someone put the manuscript in the attic of Darius Ogden’s house, and that is where it stayed as the house passed down through the generations. There it was in the attic when a family member retrieved it in 1960. She kept it in her study, thinking the story was make-believe. Not until she visited Nantucket in 1980 did she decide to check its authenticity. Nantucket whaling expert Edouard Stackpole duly did authenticate the manuscript.

Just over a century after his death, in 1984, the Nantucket Historical Association published an abridged version of Nickerson’s manuscript, using his original title: The Loss of the Ship “Essex” Sunk by a Whale and the Ordeal of the Crew in Open Boats.

Herman Melville heard about the malevolent whale that sank the Essex while he was serving on a whale ship, in 1834, before he began his literary career; he met the son of Owen Chase, who was serving on another whale ship, not far from where the Essex originally sank. Chase gave his father’s account of the incidents to Melville, who read it at sea and pondered a whale capable of violence, of retribution: a white whale, at that.

Moby-Dick, published in 1851, ends with the sinking of the Pequod. As Ishmael alone survives the whale’s malevolence, the book does not explore the subsequent horrors of abandonment, loss and cannibalism that Nickerson and Chase describe so honestly and well.