Author Archives: Horatia

About Horatia

Horatia is a writer and editor.

Herman and his codex

The largest medieval manuscript in the world was created in the early thirteenth century in the Benedictine monastery of Podlažice (then in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic). This enormous work had just a single scribe — one Herman the Recluse. Handwriting experts confirm one hand was involved and a signature in the text (“Hermanus monachus inclusus”) also indicates that just one man — Herman — was responsible.

Why did Herman spend his days so painstakingly scribing? One version of the story says that Herman had committed such outrageous sins (not specified) that he was walled up alive and forced to inscribe holy texts to atone for those sins. It would take you about thirty years to write the entirety of the manuscript, so perhaps that’s true. If so, Herman did a lot of atoning.

Another version of the story says that yes, Herman had committed outrageous sins (again not specified) and yes, he was walled up, but this time the punishment was simply that he starve to death. However, Herman persuaded the abbot to keep him alive for a year and promised that in that time he would create a book that would glorify the monastery for ever. If Herman did so, said the abbot, he could live.

Herman the Recluse wrote day after day, night after night. As midnight of the last night of the year approached, he realised he was nowhere near the end of the book. Death at dawn awaited. So the enterprising monk blazed a trail others would later follow (Faust, Robert Leroy Johnson, etc) and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a finished book.

It’s the second of these stories that gives the manuscript the name it is commonly known by. For while its official name is the Codex Gigas (in English: the Big Book; codex just means it’s a hand-written book), many more people know it as The Devil’s Bible. Partly because of the story surrounding its creation, partly because there is a large illustration of the devil within its pages. Put there, some say, by Herman as a thank-you to his satanic saviour. Put there, some say, as a selfie by Lucifer himself.


That’s not a diaper, that’s an ermine loin cloth. Ermine is the clothing of royalty and this is the Prince of Darkness. Unusually, he is depicted alone, on an entire page

So why is The Devil’s Bible turning up on Planet Lost Manuscripts when it is plainly not lost? Because some of it is lost. The Big Book is made up of 310 leaves of vellum, but initially it contained 320 sheets. Who took out the ten other leaves? And what was on them?

At one point in its history, the codex was appropriated by the Swedes (responsible for other crimes in the annals of Lost Manuscripts) and housed in the Royal Library in Stockholm. In 1697, when a fierce fire broke out at the castle, someone strong and quick-thinking (more probably two of them; the thing weighs around 75 kilograms) thoughtfully rescued the codex from the flames by chucking it out of a window. Did some of the vellum flutter away in the fall? Probably not, as the National Library of Sweden states that the pages have been cut out, rather than blown away.

The rest of the book contains (in Latin, with rather lovely illuminated letters) the old testament and the new, a list of brothers living in the monastery, a calendar of saints, a short history of Bohemia, and some instructions on the exorcism of evil spirits. So the possibilities of what could have been on those missing pages are multiple.

You don’t have to trawl the web for long to discover various conspiracy theories about the lost content: secrets too explosive for mere mortals to know; magic spells; instructions for the apocalypse. Yet I suspect that the legend surrounding the creation of the codex is colouring people’s imaginations. The Swedish Library suggests that the missing pages contain the Rule of St Benedict, the founding father’s guidance on monastery life. Why? Because when the Benedictines of Podlažice fell into financial difficulties, they borrowed some money from the Cistercians in exchange for the codex. The note in the codex that records this loan also states that the Rule of St Benedict is inscribed in the book. So the Rule was there once, and now it isn’t.

There could have been other text, too (the Rule is quite short) but it’s likely to be a transcription of sacred words rather than a diabolic diatribe. We don’t know who excised the leaves, or why, or where they now are.

(In a recent fictional outing, on the podcast The Black Tapes, the missing pages of the codex are ripped out by Soběslav, Herman’s imaginary apprentice, who blamed the Benedictines for forcing Herman to sell his soul to the devil.)

In a way, Herman kept his promise — if ever he made one. The “inclusus” that follows his name in the text may indicate merely that he was a recluse who preferred a solitary life, rather than being forcibly constrained within brick walls. However, the legend tells that Herman promised to write a book that would glorify the monastery of Podlažice for ever more. Almost a thousand years later, we’re still talking about Podlažice, about his book, and wondering what was on its missing pages.

You can view the entire — and fascinating — digitised text of the codex at the website of the National Library of Sweden.

Codex Gigas digital images by Per B. Adolphson from the National Library of Sweden used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


A rather fancy illuminated L


The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible

Manuscript news caught my eye this week (February 2016). I learned that the Russian consul in Edinburgh, Andrei Pritsepov, had presented a copy of The Chronicles of Ivan the Terrible to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre, part of the University of Edinburgh. “How did Mr Pritsepov manage that?” I wondered, given that this epic medieval manuscript had supposedly vanished and been “lost for more than 400 years“. (You can see what caught my attention.)

The answer took a little finding out.

Ivan Grozny, the first tsar of all the Russias, is perhaps nowadays better known as Ivan the Terrible. “Terrible” might to our modern ears imply that he was a spectacularly bad tsar of all the Russias, losing territories, devaluing the rouble, under-counting serfs etc. Yet, before translation, the word has more of a sense of “inspiring terror” or “terrifying”. Both of which Ivan certainly was. He had laudable triumphs: he commissioned the construction of St Basil’s cathedral and instituted Russia’s first printing presses, for example. He had less laudable moments, too. As well as perpetrating cruel and senseless slaughter in a paranoid campaign against any perceived traitor, he also managed to accidentally kill his own son.


One of Ivan’s better moments: St Basil’s cathedral. (Sorry, it was a grey day in Moscow when I visited.)

When he wasn’t annihilating thousands of innocent people, Ivan Grozny had an eye on the future. He commissioned The Chronicles: a series of handwritten illuminated manuscripts created between 1568 and 1576. The manuscripts were stitched into ten separate volumes. This “Tsar Book”, as it became known, covered all of world history from Adam and Eve to Ivan’s own reign. Ivan intended the chronicles to provide an education for his children; a sort of How to be a better Tsar.

Sadly, the educative purpose failed, despite the manuscript’s 16,000 illustrations. Shortly after Ivan died in 1584, Russia was plunged into a chaos eloquently described as “The Time of Troubles“. The troubles involved famine (about two million people died; one-third of the population), war and general unrest.

Yes, yes, but how does a set of medieval manuscripts disappear for more than 400 years?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t.

In those troubled times, the volumes of the original work were removed from the Kremlin, separated, scattered in various regions of Russia, but not exactly lost. The Historical Museum in Moscow had volumes 1, 9 and 10. The rest of the volumes lounged in the libraries of St Petersburg. They simply have never been brought together again as one since The Time of Troubles. Until now.

Step in The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers.

This Russian charity is also known in English as The Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature or The Lovers of Ancient Script or, sometimes, simply The Society of Ancient Literature, with no love of any description involved. Prince Pavel Vyazemsky established the society in 1877. Its main purpose is to “publish Old Russian manuscripts remarkable in literary, scientific, artistic terms or in terms of everyday life, and re-print rare books” (Charter of the Society of Lovers of Ancient Literature, Saint Petersburg, 1877).

The Society of Ancient Literature Lovers has faithfully recreated the Tsar Book as a rather lovely facsimile. The ten volumes in Edinburgh are a newly created copy. Valuable, beautiful, an astonishing gift from Russia; but, despite the original headlines, not the first appearance of the chronicles in 400 years.

Lost Manuscripts: Reporting from the news headlines for you when things aren’t even, it turns out, lost.

What’s that you say? A new book out today?

It’s been quite the season for lost manuscripts coming to light. Earlier in July, we were treated to the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, whose pages lay forgotten and mouldering in a “secure location” for fifty years. Now we have What Pet Should I Get? This new book went on sale today. (You can read it in a house! You can read it with a mouse!) Theodor Seuss Geisel’s last work, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! came out in 1990, 25 years ago. You’ll perhaps know the author better through his pseudonym: Dr Seuss.

What Pet Should I Get? features a brother and a sister visiting a pet shop — which, this being a Dr Seuss book, naturally contains imaginary animals alongside the beribboned kittens and smiling fish — where they struggle to decide which of the many cute creatures to take home with them. Readers will be familiar with the snappy rhymes in which the story is told and the distinctive cartoon illustrations.

The manuscript was amongst papers set aside by Geisel’s widow, Audrey, shortly after his death in 1991. It was rediscovered in 2013 when she and his secretary, Claudia Prescott, were clearing out the author’s office in the Geisels’ home in La Jolla, California.

Of course Random House were going to publish it. Why wouldn’t they? The Cat in the Hat alone has sold over 10 million copies since that anarchic feline arrived on our bookshelves in 1957. Geisel’s work stays fresh and, more importantly, still helps children learn to read, and to learn to love reading. His books use a limited number of words, many of single syllables, and the rhymes help children anticipate and decode the words, however innocent they may be of anapestic tetrameter (a beat of two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable, a signature rhyme scheme of the Dr Seuss books).

Yellow elephant statue in London

Not a Vent, which needs a tent, but a not-quite-rhyming elephant

Why did Dr Seuss never publish What Pet Should I Get? while he was alive and could have fished it out of his pool? He could have done. He was Random House’s president of their “Beginner Books” line, after all. We’ll never know for certain. However, he used some of its ideas in 1960’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish — that book contains the same two siblings, which means it was probably written about the same time. In that long-ago era, pet shops were quite ordinary. As a sign of how times have changed, the “Notes From The Publisher” at the back of the new book urges today’s pet-focused children to adopt an animal from a rescue centre instead.

So another lost manuscript sees the light. It wasn’t the only one in that office, either. Random House plans at least two more Dr Seuss books based on the manuscripts his wife found. To which we can only say: Kids, do not doubt! There’ll be another one out!

Go Set a Cat Among the Pigeons

It’s a big month for lost manuscripts, July 2015. Midnight parties around the world to celebrate the publication of Go Set a Watchman. This is the first novel from Harper Lee since the universally beloved To Kill a Mockingbird was published by JB Lippincott on 11 July 1960, exactly 55 years ago today. (Universally beloved and one of the bestselling novels of the 20th century: it’s never been out of print and is a favourite with exam boards, which means that schools purchase new copies year after year.) The new novel has a strange history.

The story is this: Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted for publication. Set in the 1950s, it features the character known as Scout in Mockingbird as an adult woman. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, much taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded Lee to write a novel from the point of view of the young Scout. As a first-time writer, Lee said: “I did as I was told.”

After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee shunned celebrity and the literary world; she stopped giving interviews to the press in 1964. She just got on with whatever she wanted to do for the rest of her very private life. She shared a home with her sister, Alice, in Monroeville, Alabama, where she had been born in 1926. She had no need to work: her first publication saw to that.

Orange cover of paperback edition of To Kill A Mockingbird

My own, much read copy of Lee’s novel, dating from the days when it had only sold 11 million copies

We know she began another manuscript, tentatively entitled The Long Goodbye, but she never completed it. She told a close friend she had two reasons not to write another book: “One, I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money. Second, I have said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again.”

So Harper Lee might have happily remained in that small but distinguished category of authors who have published only one work of fiction. Then two things happened. One: Lee’s lawyer, Tonja Carter, went through all her papers in 2014 and discovered the lost manuscript. It was in “a secure location”, affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two: Lee’s sister Alice, for many years her protector, died in November 2014 at the age of 103. Pretty quickly thereafter, Tonja Carter negotiated a deal with (who else?) HarperCollins for publication.

The book’s title is from the Bible: For thus has the LORD said to me: Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees. (Isaiah 21:6) (The watchman saw “a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels” among other things.)

Pretty quickly, people were declaring what they could see all over the place. They declared calumny, mainly. Lee had said she never want to publish anything else so why, at the age of 88, had she suddenly changed her mind? If the book wasn’t good enough to pass the whip of her editor at the time of submission, why was it suddenly good enough now? Why, back in the 1960s, after Mockingbird had been such a tremendous success and the author was being dilatory with a follow-up, didn’t the publishers dust off the manuscript already in their hands and bring it out as a sequel?

Lee, who had a stroke in 2007, suffers from memory loss, has severe hearing and vision problems, and lives in residential care. Speculation about her state of mind was instant and rife. Had she really consented to publication? If she wanted the book published, why didn’t she set about it smartly some time ago? She said she had forgotten writing it. “How can you forget a whole novel?” people wondered. “Especially when it is 50% of all the novels you ever wrote?”

A compelling question, one might think, but not without precedent. When Graham Greene published The Tenth Man in 1985, he stated in the preface that he had “forgotten” writing it in the 1940s while he was working for MGM. (I can’t recall anyone speculating whether Mr Greene was doo-lally when he mentioned this.)

In a statement to the New York Times, Tonja Carter said that Harper Lee was “extremely hurt and humiliated” at suggestions that she had been pressured into publication. Nevertheless, The Alabama Securities Commission launched an investigation under their remit to help prevent financial fraud against the elderly. After talking with her, they concluded that Lee wanted the book published.

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” says Atticus Finch.

Is Go Set a Watchman a bluejay or a mockingbird? Guess we’ll soon find out. Publication  is on 14 July. The initial print run? Two million copies. A triumphant lost manuscript, indeed.

* Statement from Harper Lee in Harper Collins Press Release 3 February 2015: Press Release

* As quoted by the Rev Dr Thomas Lane Butts of the Monroeville Methodist Church in an interview with Australia’s Sunday Telegraph

* Even that is disputed. The New York Times reported that Justin Caldwell, Sotheby’s rare-book expert, discovered the typescript of Go Set a Watchman during a visit to Alabama in 2011. At that meeting, to appraise a Mockingbird manuscript for insurance purposes, both Tonja Carter and Samuel Pinkus, Harper Lee’s then agent, were present. Tonja Carter acknowledged that she had been there but she said that was out of the room running “an errand” during the crucial time and therefore knew nothing about the new manuscript. “Really?” some people said.

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.

While he was a struggling young doctor in Portsmouth, in 1883, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first novel, The Narrative of John Smith. Off he despatched 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; they 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.

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


The cover of the first edition of Strange Case. The definite article is definitely missing. Strange.

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.