I was called to the glittering, bustling metropolis of Turlock for a conference, which is a charming seven-hour drive through LA from the cow-town I call home, so Jane volunteered her trusty heat-seated Honda and we peeled out at 4:45 a.m. After a pit-stop in Castaic, where I was informed that I would not be allowed to order my breakfast burrito sans gravy and cheese, we scooted up the 99 and I took out Curiosities of Literature, by John Sutherland. (Traffic on the 5 and lack of coffee make Jane really edgy, so no Atlas Shrugged for us.)
I opened up the book and decided to read the first chapter that I came to, which was Sex and the Victorians. (How refreshing.) It was here that we learned that sex began in 1964, and that considering Ian McEwan’s TMI descriptions of a Victorian couple’s wedding night, it was probably close to 1984 before the veil of feminine mystique was finally lifted before his pathological eyes. There were a few other gems of literary interest, such as the fact that George Eliot’s second husband (twenty years her junior) attempted to commit suicide on their wedding night and that Gabriel Rossetti deposited a few poems addressed to a prostitute in his wife’s coffin, only to later have her disinterred so he could get them back. Jane and I had a spirited debate about the desirability of a wedding night wherein one’s groom to attempt suicide in contrast to the post-mortem insult of having him leave poems he’s written to his trollops in one’s final resting place.
Thrilling as it was to read about the influences of sexual dysfunction in Victorian literary society (since we know nothing of that in this enlightened age), I decided that maybe chronological order was the better way to go, so I flipped back to Chapter 1 after lightening the atmosphere with Florence and the Machine.
Chapter 1: Literary Baked Meats. Spam, it turns out, has a long and intellectual history, beginning with E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, when Len and Jacky sit down and enjoy ‘soup square and freckled tongue’ (read: a boullion cube and pre-The Jungle tinned, processed-meat with a square of fat), and that Bovril’s name finds its etymology in the Latin word for meat (‘bos’) and the quasi-electrical body-fluid (‘vril’) of the flying, quasi-reptilian alien females portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s practically-unknown novel, The Coming Race.
From the consumption and marketing of various food products, the author (logically, if not tastefully) takes us to the history of their digestion and defecation among the literary greats, citing Henry James’ chronic constipation and the poignant death-scene of the poet Robert Henryson. Henryson, who was succumbing to the ravages of dysentery, had, in his extremity, called in a medium. Her inspired and original prescription for his ailment was to tell him to walk around the whikey tree in his yard, chanting, ‘Whikey tree, whikey tree, take away this fluxe from me.’ Infuriated by this facile suggestion, he used what little strength he had left to sarcastically inquire if it wouldn’t do as well to walk around his kitchen table the same number of times, chanting, ‘Oken burd oken burd Garre me shite me an hard turde.’ Being an author himself (and therefore mindful of just how great is the influence of one’s reputation on one’s royalties), Sutherland assures us that there was nothing improper in the fixation of Chaucer, Shakespeare, et. al. with their bowels, and even cites Martin Luther’s less-well-known one liner: “Warum rülpset und furzet ir nicht, hat es euch den nicht geschmecket?”
Not wanting even the faintest remnants of my girlish illusions about these heroes of the English language to remain intact, I crossed my fingers and said, “I hope we get to talk about vomit next!” I didn’t get my wish, but I did get something rather like it, as I happened upon the legend of Thomas Hardy’s heart, which says that the coroner left his heart in a biscuit tin, which was prised open by his cat, Cobweb, who ate the heart. Apparently, the gravedigger found out about it, wrung the cat’s neck, and buried it in Hardy’s place. Sutherland here evinced keen deductive skill (not commonly found in novelists) and debunked the legend by pointing out not many cats possess either the willpower or dexterity to be able to prise off the lid of a biscuit tin.
Here are some other little known facts:
- Ian Fleming plated his typewriter in gold.
- John Stuart Mill’s housemaid deliberately burnt up the first 261 pages of Carlyle’s manuscript of his The French Revolution. When it was due to the publisher’s in a week. And he hadn’t made any copies. FHL.
- Tolstoy’s wife, Sophie, copied out War and Piece 7 times. 560,000 words. 7 times.
 Ian McEwan was the author of On Chesil Beach and Atonement, the latter of which was made into a film with Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy.
 Bulwer-Lytton was the guy who said, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’
 ‘Oaken board oaken board go on and s*** me a hard turd.’
 “Why do you not belch and fart; did you not enjoy the meal?”