Just For Fun Friday: Literary Anecdotes

Happy Friday, chaps! Hooray for the weekend and an opportunity for literary indulgence. It’s been a beautifully rainy day today and, deciding that I had earned a day off, I chose to devote myself to a little reading time. A cup of tea, pouring rain, and some Jane Austen – what could possibly be better? I have, however, extricated myself from fictional bliss to deliver another Just For Fun Friday post. This week, I share with you some of my favourite literary anecdotes – taken from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by John Gross.

William Shakespeare

“His father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style, and make a speech. There was at this time another butcher’s son in this town that was held not at all inferior to him for a natural wit, his acquaintance and coetanean [contemporary], but he died young.”

John Aubrey, Brief Lives, late seventeenth century.

Lord Byron

Between 1805 and 1807 Byron was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge:

When he returned to Cambridge in the autumn, be bought a tame bear and lodged him in the small hexagonal tower above his rooms. He enjoyed the sensation he made when he took bruin for walks on a chain like a dog. He announced with pride to Elizabeth Pigot: ‘I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, ‘he should sit for a fellowship’.”

Leslie Marchant, Byron: A Portrait, 1971

Charles Dickens

“Once – tremendous moment – my mother was asked to a neighbour’s house to meet Charles Dickens, but – it really distresses me to record it – she did not like him. That is to say, she did not like his waistcoat which was of spun glass and shone like all the rainbows of the heavens reflected in all the diamonds of Golconda. It dazzled her; she could not ‘beyond it find the Man’; there seemed to be nothing but flaming, scintillating waistcoat. A veil of spun glass was between her and the great and beloved creator of half our best friends, and she could not break through it. 

To atone for this insult to his blessed memory I must set down an unrecorded remark of Dickens, overheard by a friend. A lady was showing him some new and many-coloured chair-covers and begging his opinion thereon. Said Dickens, after grave consideration, ‘They look as if they had been sat upon by a damp Harlequin’.”

Graham Robertson, Time Was, 1931

Oscar Wilde

Early in his literary career Arthur Conan Doyle was invited to dinner in London by the agent for the American magazine Lippincott’s. One of his fellow guests was Wilde:

His conversation left an indelible impression upon my mind. He towered above us all, and yet had the art of seeming to be interested in all that we could say. He had delicacy of feeling and tact, for the monologue man, however clever, can never be a gentleman at heart. He took as well as gave, but what he gave was unique. He had a curious precision of statement, a delicate flavour of humour and a trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning, which were peculiar to himself. The effect cannot be reproduced, but I remember how in discussing the wars of the future, he say: ‘A chemist on each side will approach the frontier with a bottle’ – his upraised hand and precise face conjuring up a vivid and grotesque picture.

His anecdotes, too, were happy and curious. We were discussing the cynical maxim that the good fortune of our friends made us discontented. ‘The devil’, said Wilde, ‘was once crossing the Libyan Desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure and then he stepped forward to give them a lesson. “What you do is too crude”, said he. “Permit me of one moment.” With that he whispered to the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. “That,” said the devil to his imps, “is the sort of thing which I should recommend”‘.”

Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 1924

George Bernard Shaw

“Shaw and Bertram Russell first met when they were on holiday with Beatrice and Sidney Webb in Monmouth in 1895:

At this time he and I were involved in a bicycle accident, which I feared for a moment might have brought his career to a premature close. He was only just learning to ride a bicycle, and he ran into my machine with such force that he hurled through the air and landed on his back twenty feet from the place of the collision. However, he got up completely unhurt and continued his ride. Whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train. It was a very slow train, and at every station Shaw with his bicycle appeared on the platform, put his head into the carriage and jeered. I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism.”

Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory, 1956

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