Now we know: The first English woman dramatist was born in 1537 and her name was Joanna Lumley!
- Author Dr Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University
- More crucially he is a 'tireless researcher of bizarre, book-related facts'
- He seeks to answer questions about books you hadn’t even thought to ask
THE SECRET LIBRARY
by Dr Oliver Tearle (Michael O’Mara £12.99)
The Secret Library is the first out-and-out Christmas gift book I have seen this year, but fortunately it’s a cracker.
Oliver Tearle is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University, but more crucially he is a fine and funny writer and a tireless researcher of bizarre, book-related facts.
He seeks to answer questions about books you hadn’t even thought to ask.
'The first English woman dramatist was born in 1537 — she translated Euripides’s Iphigenia In Aulis and was called Joanna Lumley'
Has science fiction ever accurately predicted the future? Who was Euclid and what did he do that was so groundbreaking? Who was the first playwright to write a play called Hamlet? It wasn’t Shakespeare, that’s for certain.
It was a man called Thomas Kyd, who wrote a play called Hamlet 12 years before the Bard of Avon penned his. It was focused on the theme of revenge, and even featured a ghost. Sadly — or maybe fortunately — it has not survived.
American money bears a Latin phrase, e pluribus unum, taken from a recipe for pesto, possibly written by Virgil.
No one knows anything about Homer: who he was, when he lived, whether or not he wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Victorian novelist Samuel Butler thought he might have been a woman.
The great, epic poem Beowulf was virtually unknown and forgotten about for nearly a thousand years. Until the 19th century it existed in a single manuscript which survived burning houses, the Civil War and general neglect before someone made another copy in 1815.
The Montagues and Capulets, the warring families in Romeo and Juliet, actually existed and featured in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which, as well as stuff about religious doctrine and talk of sin and redemption, features a surprising amount of farting.
‘Malacoda, one of the demons who helps Dante and his trusty guide, the Roman poet Virgil, to negotiate the various circles of Hell, makes a trumpet of his backside and farts at his fellow demons.’
Dante is said to have taught his cat to hold up a candle for him while he was eating or reading.
The Secret Library by Dr Oliver Tearle (Michael O’Mara £12.99)
The first English woman dramatist was born in 1537 — she translated Euripides’s Iphigenia In Aulis and was called Joanna Lumley.
John Evelyn’s 1699 book Acetaria was the first ever written about salad.
Samuel Johnson’s dictionary left out the f-word and the c-word, but included ‘bum’, ‘arse’ and ‘turd’. He also left out ‘aardvark’, as Edmund Blackadder would later observe. But he couldn’t really be blamed for this: the earliest citation for the word is 1785, the year after Johnson died.
‘Bah! Humbug!’ is a universally recognised catchphrase, but how many times did Scrooge use it in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol? Just twice.
Charles Darwin was obsessed with worms. His book on the subject, The Formation Of Vegetable Mould Through The Action Of Worms, With Observations On Their Habits, outsold On The Origin Of Species in his lifetime. Some earthworms have ten hearts.
Each of these 99 gobbets is connected to another in at least one way, which gives the impression of reading a seamless and interconnected history, even if we’re not really.
The first Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, in 1864, didn’t have enough cricket to fill it, so Mr Wisden included the rules of quoits and the dates of the Civil War to bump things up a bit.
George Eliot’s first book was a translation of a German work that suggested the Bible should be read as myth rather than as a straight factual account. The Earl of Shaftesbury called it ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’.
Edgar Allan Poe’s bestselling book in his lifetime was a bit of hackwork he did about molluscs. Between 1863 and 1887, Moby-Dick sold an average of 23 copies per year. Hans Christian Andersen was such a pessimist that, when staying in hotels, he always carried a coil of rope with him in case he needed to escape from a fire.
If you love books, you’ll need this one, pronto.