Category Archives: Burned manuscripts

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.


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

From Anatomy to Atlantis

Olaus Rudbeck (also known as Olof Rudbeck the Elder) was a frighteningly brilliant philosopher, scientist, anatomist, inventor, and professor of medicine at Uppsala University. As an enthusiastic teenage student, he was one of the first to discover the form and function of the lymphatic system. His findings were published in the paper Nova exercitatio anatomica in 1653. (The established Danish anatomy professor, Thomas Bartholin, published similar findings in the same year, however, and claimed priority.) Rudbeck built Sweden’s first anatomical theatre, in the face of public outrage, which you can still see today in its distinctive cupola on top of the main university building. When not dissecting corpses, Rudbeck pursued the noble art of botany, and established Uppsala’s Botanic Garden, now named after his successor, Carl Linnaeus.

Copper engraving of Olof Rudbeck

Rudbeck points out the location of Atlantis (northern Sweden)

Rudbeck’s main obsession, though, was Atlantis. He shared Plato’s belief that this lost civilisation was real. More than that, he advanced the theory that the fabled city was actually situated somewhere in the north of Sweden. He was assiduous in his search for archaeological evidence, so bustled tirelessly about his native land studying rune inscriptions, excavating natural landmarks, and collecting folklore and tales from the Norse sagas. In the course of these expeditions, he invented stratigraphy, a method for dating artefacts by soil strata, which is still in use today.

The resulting book, Atlantica, outlined in detail Rudbeck’s patriotic theory that Sweden was indeed the cradle of civilization, settled after the flood by the descendants of Noah. Many contemporaries considered the professor bats.

Atlantica was published in parallel columns of Swedish and Latin, and thus could be read by scholars deficient in the Scandinavian languages. (Every decent scholar had Latin in those days.) In four volumes, and running to over 2,000 pages in length, it was a work of undoubted scholarship as well as excited imagination.

Having set the world to rights, Rudbeck found time to work with his son (fortuitously named Rudbeck the Younger) on the hugely ambitious and poetically titled Campus Elysii — the Elsyian Fields — a botanica that aimed to survey and illustrate, in their natural colours, every plant so far discovered in the world. Sadly, thousands of woodcuts and many copies of Atlantica were lost in the fire that destroyed most of Uppsala on the 16th of May, 1702. While his house was burning down and his manuscripts were being reduced to ashes, Rudbeck stood on the roof of one of the university buildings and shouted fire-fighting instructions at the people of the city below.

Rudbeck died shortly after the fire, some say from despair and disappointment caused by the loss of his great work.

Or possibly because documentary proof that Sweden was indeed the first and lost cradle of mankind perished in the conflagration.

For more information see: Isis, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Feb., 1939), pp. 114-119

The real Lowry lost manuscript

Malcolm Lowry was born in 1909, in New Brighton, a small town for which I have a soft spot, just “over the water”, as we say, from Liverpool. He was a restless spirit who wanted to write, and did not want to follow his three older brothers into the family cotton-broking business. At the age of 18, he set sail from Liverpool as a deck-hand on a freighter bound for Yokohama.

Lowry’s first novel, Ultramarine, appeared in 1933 when he was 24 years old. Contrary to popular belief, Lowry did not leave the manuscript of this first novel in a taxi. The manuscript was stolen, yes, but it was in a briefcase taken from the convertible car of the publisher’s editor, Ian Parsons. Lowry alleged that he was forced to re-write the entire work in a matter of weeks because of this loss, but a carbon copy existed, supplied by his friend, Martin Case, who had typed the final manuscript then kept the carbon copy which Lowry had chucked in the bin.

Ultramarine tells the story of a young man growing up during a voyage to the Far East — so far, so autobiographical. Ultramarine was not a commercial success; Lowry was accused of plagiarism* and he spent much of the rest of his life trying to suppress the book.

After Ultramarine appeared, Lowry began travelling through Europe with his friend and mentor Conrad Aiken, got married to the writer Jan Gabrial in Paris, and, in 1935, began a novel called In Ballast to the White Sea.

Albert Finney as the consul in Under the Volcano

Albert Finney as Geoffrey Firmin in the 1984 film of Under the Volcano

Also in 1935, Lowry moved to New York. He had begun a deep and meaningful relationship with alcohol at an early age, and this relationship continued while he and Jan moved to Los Angeles, then Mexico. In Mexico, Lowry began what would turn out to be his masterpiece, Under the Volcanothe work of genius that he sobered up long enough to write.

By 1937, Lowry’s drinking caused Jan to leave him, and he was jailed, then deported from Mexico in July 1938. In Los Angeles, he met Margerie Bonner, an aspiring writer and former silent-film child star. When Lowry moved to Canada after his American visa expired, Bonner followed him. They were married in December 1940. For the next 14 years, they lived as squatters in a cabin without plumbing or electricity at Dollarton, up-inlet from Vancouver.

The cabin was an isolated place. The Lowrys had little money, apart from Lowry’s life-long allowance from his father. In 1944, their house burned down, immolating almost everything they owned, including what had become a 1,000-page re-draft of In Ballast to the White Sea, nine years of literary labour, which Lowry never re-wrote again.

In February 1956, Lowry and Margie came to live in another seaside town: Ripe, on the south coast of England. They were not happy. When Lowry threatened Margerie with a broken bottle (she said), she fled. She returned to the house on the morning of 27 June 1957 to find Lowry dead from an overdose of sleeping pills.

In a nice twist on the planet of lost manuscripts, before T. E. Lawrence burned his personal library, he saved the books he liked. One of these was a relatively unknown seafaring novel called Ultramarine. What would T.E. have made of the truly disappeared In Ballast to the White Sea?

Update October 2014: An early draft of the novel turned up in Jan Gabrial’s papers when she died in 2001, and her estate went to the New York Public Library. Lowry had given a copy of the manuscript to Gabrial’s mother. That early draft was finally published in October 2014, in a scholarly edition by the University of Ottawa Press.

But the manuscript of Dollarton, the one that might have been a masterpiece, is truly gone.

* Lowry was accused of plagiarising Nordahl Grieg’s The Ship Sails On, published by Knopf in translation from the original Norwegian in 1927. Lowry actually admitted in a letter to Grieg in 1938 that “Much of Ultramarine is paraphrase, plagiarism, or pastiche from you.” See: Harvey Breit and Margerie Bonner Lowry (Eds.) The Selected Letters of Malcolm Lowry, London, 1967, p16.

The French Revolution

In 1834, the philosopher John Stuart Mill discovered that, although he had signed a contract with his publisher to produce a general history of the French revolution, he was actually too busy with other commitments to come up with the promised work. So he proposed to his friend Thomas Carlyle that Carlyle write it instead. Carlyle, struggling to make ends meet, and unwilling to stoop to mere journalism, took on the project with a fury — it was, he hoped, the work that would make his literary reputation.

Throughout 1834, Carlyle slaved over his history of the French Revolution with passion late into the night. When he had completed Volume One, he sent it to Mill to for his review.

On the evening of the 6th of March, 1835, Mill turned up at Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Walk, looking, Carlyle later wrote, “the very picture of desperation”.

Mill had left the manuscript at the house of his friend, Mrs Taylor. Her servant, who could not read, had used it to light the fire. All that was left of Carlyle’s passion and fury were a few charred leaves. Mill brought the leaves, as confirmation.

While most of us would greet this circumstance with hysteria and retribution, Carlyle was the epitome of politeness. Mill was beside himself with grief and self-recrimination. Carlyle probably offered him some tea. Mill offered to pay Carlyle for the damage, but Carlyle refused, saying that he could simply start again. Mill stayed very late, meaning that Carlyle, and his wife, Jane, had to stay up late, too, to comfort him.

Title page of Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution

Title page from the 1837 first edition

When Mill left, Carlyle’s first words to Jane were: “Mill, poor fellow, is terribly cut up. We must endeavour to hide from him how very serious this business is for us.” And it was serious. The Carlyles had no money, and Thomas knew he could never write that book again. He had destroyed his notes and could not remember what he had written: “I remember and can still remember less of it than of anything I ever wrote with such toil. It is gone.” He would have to tell Mill he couldn’t carry on.

That night, however, he had a dream. His father and brother rose from the grave and begged him not to abandon the work. The next morning, Carlyle told Mill that he would take the money after all. He used it to buy paper, and started writing again.

First, he wrote volumes two and three. Then, he recreated volume one. Carlyle wrote the entire manuscript from memory, words that came “direct and flamingly from the heart”.

The three-volume work — a heroic undertaking which charts the course of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1795 — was completed and published in 1837. It has never been out of print and is still in print nearly 200 years later.

Carlyle kept the charred leaves in his study for the rest of his life.