Found: A Long-Lost Copy of John Donne's Fart-Filled Satire

Courtesy of Westminster Abbey
Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

If you’ve studied the writings of John Donne, the 17th-century English poet and priest, you know that many of his verses are filled with sexual innuendo that's masked with religious symbols and imagery. There’s nothing subtle, however, about the socially charged work by Donne recently rediscovered in the archives of Westminster Abbey, according to The Guardian.

Found buried inside a tin trunk among hundreds of fragments of documents, the handwritten manuscript is the earliest-known copy of Donne’s The Courtier's Library. The mock library catalog satirizes Jacobean England, public figures, and religious corruption, and could have led to the writer’s downfall if it had been seen by anyone aside from his most intimate confidants.

Two pages of the handwritten manuscript by John Donne
Two pages of the handwritten manuscript by John Donne
Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

Donne wrote The Courtier’s Library—still a relatively obscure work— in the early 1600s, and this particular copy has been dated back to 1603 to 1604. While not in Donne's own handwriting, the find is important. “It gives us important new clues about the life and writing of one of our most important writers,” said Daniel Starza Smith, a lecturer in early modern English literature at King’s College London, according to a news release.

Matthew Payne, who works as the keeper of documents at Westminster Abbey, found the lost Donne manuscript in fall 2016 while perusing the tin trunk’s unsorted contents. The truck mostly contained fragments of administrative records dating back to the late medieval and early modern period, but amid the mouse-eaten papers Payne found one complete document that had no title or author listed. The work was written in Latin, and with the help of Google, Payne identified it as Donne’s Catalogus Librorum Satiricus, or The Courtier’s Library.

The tin trunk where the handwritten manuscript by John Donne was discovered at Westminster Abbey.
The tin trunk where the handwritten manuscript by John Donne was discovered.
Courtesy of Westminster Abbey

Donne wrote The Courtier’s Library when he was a young, bitter man working as a lawyer to make ends meet and support a growing family. He’d recently lost his title as the secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, England's Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, after he’d secretly marrying Egerton's niece, Anne More. More’s father, a courtier and parliament member, disapproved of the relationship, and when he learned of his daughter's union, Sir George More briefly imprisoned Donne and stripped him of his post.

Donne circulated The Courtier’s Library among his friends and patrons, but didn’t dare to print it during the reign of King James I, when anti-Catholicism was on the rise. (Donne was raised Catholic but eventually converted to Anglicanism.) In addition to poking fun at religion, it made fun of real public officials. One of the scandalous catalog’s imaginary books features "the many confessions of poisoners given to Justice Manwood, and used by him afterwards in wiping his buttocks, and in examining his evacuations.” The manuscript also contains sections called “Ars Spiritualis Inescandi Mulieres" ("The Spiritual Art of Enticing Women"), “On the Nothingness of a Fart,” and “Concerning the method of emptying the dung from Noah’s Ark.”

Nobody quite knows how the early copy of The Courtier’s Library made its way to Westminster Abbey, but experts say its rediscovery is timely, given today’s political climate. “We might think of ‘fake news’ as a modern phenomenon, but Donne saw something similar happening around him,” Smith said. “He was horrified at the corruption of truth by the powerful, greedy, and willfully ignorant, and he responded with this vicious satire, which was too dangerous to print until after his death. This discovery helps us understand how it circulated furtively among his trusted friends.”

An essay describing the find will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Review of English Studies. The manuscript itself will go on display from November 13 to November 18 in St Margaret’s Church, which is next door to Westminster Abbey.

[h/t The Guardian]

Rare First Edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone Sold for More Than $56,000

UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
UBC Library Communications and Marketing, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Publishers weren't very optimistic about the future of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone when they printed it in 1997. Only 500 first edition copies were made, 300 of which were donated to libraries. As anyone who's been to a bookstore, movie theater, or theme park in the past two decades knows, that prediction couldn't have been further off.

Book one of the Harry Potter series spawned one of the most successful literary franchises of all time and earned millions for author J.K. Rowling. That means those rare first edition prints are exceedingly valuable today, and one of the most pristine copies ever discovered just sold for $56,500 at auction, BBC reports.

The sellers, an anonymous couple from Lancashire, England, had stored their copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone—along with a first edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—in a code-locked briefcase for safekeeping. The plan wasn't to wait for the books to accrue value over time; originally, they had wanted to protect them and pass them down as family heirlooms.

The couple changed their minds after learning that another first edition copy of Philosopher's Stone had sold for $35,000. That turned out to be a smart move. By locking it away, they managed to preserve one of the best first edition copies of the book experts had seen. The book also contained two errors that made it an even more appealing item for collectors. Its value was placed between $30,700 to $37,000.

At the auction, however, bidders blew past those numbers. It sold for a winning bid of approximately $56,500. The buyer will end up paying $70,000 in total to cover additional fees and taxes.

That's a significant amount to pay for a book, but it's not even the highest figure that's been bid for the title. Earlier in 2019, a first-edition print of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone with several errors sold for $90,000.

[h/t BBC]

When Bram Stoker Adapted Dracula for the Stage

Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For one of literature’s most enduring works, Bram Stoker’s Dracula didn’t receive much of an audience turnout when it was first adapted for the stage. The classic 1897 novel was transformed into a play by Stoker the same year it was published—and only two paying customers showed up to its debut.

In Stoker's defense, it wasn't supposed to be a grand production; it was a copyright reading of the script, which was slapped together by the author in a hurry so he could submit it to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for approval and licensing and retain the dramatic rights. The play, titled Dracula: or The Un-Dead, was held on May 18, 1897—eight days before the novel was released—and was only advertised for a half-hour before the performance began. Considering that the play had a prologue, five acts, and 40 scenes, it’s unclear whether an audience would have felt compelled to stay for the entire thing anyway.

The dramatic reading starred actress and pioneering suffragette Edith Craig as Mina Murray. Stoker had originally wanted the actor who helped inspired the character of Dracula—the dark, mysterious Henry Irving—to act alongside Murray. However, Irving reportedly refused to get involved, telling Stoker that the script for Dracula: or The Un-Dead was "dreadful."

The play faithfully adhered to the novel Dracula’s plot, although many of the epistolary work's lush details were condensed for time purposes. A series of character monologues help move the story forward; Greg Buzwell, who serves as curator for Printed Literary Sources, 1801–1914 at the British Library, points out that they might have sounded wooden because Stoker was better at scenic details than straight-up dialogue.

Following Dracula's stage debut, Stoker’s bloodthirsty Count didn’t reappear in theaters until 1924. However, the original play’s script offers a peek into Bram Stoker’s artistic process as he translated his characters from page to stage. You can check out the hodgepodge of personal handwriting and galley proofs over at the British Library’s website, which gives a great overview of the play's historic legacy.

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