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Bloomsbury (A Bibliography) // Table (iStock)

19 Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts About the Harry Potter Books

Bloomsbury (A Bibliography) // Table (iStock)
Bloomsbury (A Bibliography) // Table (iStock)

In Philip W. Errington’s J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, the author herself writes that the 514-page book is “slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling.” That it is: A Bibliography includes everything from original interviews and snippets of emails to errors and corrections from one edition of the Harry Potter books to the next, shedding light on the editorial process of this beloved series. Here are a few fascinating things we learned from Errington’s book about Harry Potter’s road from manuscript to sensation.

1. ONE BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEE CHAMPIONED THE BOOK IN AN UNUSUAL WAY.

Rowling’s former agent, Christopher Little, brought three chapters of what would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Bloomsbury’s Barry Cunningham, who distributed the chapters among the staff. The marketing manager on the publishing team, Rosamund de la Hey, loved it, and wanted to show the editorial team that the book was something special. So, according to Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, she made 10 copies for the staff, rolled them into scrolls, “sellotaped one end, filled it with Smarties, sellotaped the other end and put a red ribbon around the scroll. That was their way of saying to us that they thought the book would win the [Smarties Book Prize] … which funnily enough it did.”

2. THE FIRST EDITIONS FEATURED A RANDOM WIZARD ON THE BACK COVER.

The cover of Philosopher’s Stone was created by Thomas Taylor in just two days; it was his very first professional commission. Bloomsbury also asked him to “provide ‘a wizard to decorate the back cover.’ So I did,” Taylor wrote in a blog post on his website, which Errington quotes in A Bibliography. “The books are full of magical characters and sorcerers, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure up one of my own.”

Readers frequently asked Bloomsbury who the wizard was, though, so they asked Taylor to come up with a replacement. “The original picture was quickly replaced by a clearly recognizable illustration of Dumbledore, probably appearing first on the eighteenth impression,” Errington writes. Taylor said that, until the publisher asked, it had “never even crossed my mind to depict Dumbledore.”

3. THE ADULT EDITIONS WERE INSPIRED BY A BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEES COMMUTE.

The staff member reported that he’d seen someone on his commute reading the book behind a copy of The Economist. “One of us—it might even have been me—repeated this to a journalist … who made a thing of it,” Newton told Errington. “And then we thought, well why don’t we produce an adult edition? It was quite clear that this book was being read just as much by adults.”

The adult editions featured understated photographs instead of illustrations; the first—which had a photo of an American steam locomotive from the Norfolk & Western Railway Train on the cover—was published in September 1998.

4. THE AMERICAN VERSION OF THE FIRST BOOK COULD HAVE HAD A MUCH DIFFERENT TITLE.

Publisher Arthur A. Levine had just launched his imprint at Scholastic when he heard about Philosopher’s Stone. When he acquired the rights for the book, he knew he’d have to change the title: It needed to have a little more magic in it for American readers. “I certainly did not mind Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but I can see … why a book that is titled Philosopher’s Stone might seem more arcane or something,” Levine told Errington. Harry Potter and the School of Magic was suggested as a new title; when Levine brought the idea to Rowling, she “very thoughtfully said, ‘No—that doesn’t feel right to me … there are objects that I would like. What if we called it the Sorcerer’s Stone?’ And that completely does it.”

5. LEVINE CAME UNDER FIRE FOR CHANGES MADE TO THE ORIGINAL PHILOSOPHER’S STONE MANUSCRIPT.

According to Errington, “There were around 80 word changes and some significant alteration in the placing of commas.” Levine told him, “I did not do anything to the text. Every change was something I discussed with Jo.”

6. NEARLY HEADLESS NICK ALSO NEARLY HAD A SONG.

When the manuscript for Chamber of Secrets came in, Bloomsbury editor Emma Matthewson wrote to Rowling that the book was “going to be absolutely brilliant! … [N]o danger of the sequel not coming up to the expectations of the first.” But the manuscript was “over-long,” so some things had to go—including a song for Nearly Headless Nick, which began “It was a mistake any wizard could make …” Rowling noted during edits that “this was ‘a wrench’ but admitted it was ‘superfluous to requirements,’” Errington writes. She later posted the lyrics to “The Ballad of Nearly Headless Nick” on her website; it’s no longer there, but you can read it here.

7. A GLOSSARY WAS SUGGESTED, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.

Early in the editorial process of Chamber of Secrets, someone at Bloomsbury suggested “an ‘information/glossary/history’ at the end of the book for those who hadn’t read Philosopher’s Stone,” Errington writes. “This idea, evidently, was abandoned.”

8. THE SCHOLASTIC VERSION OF CHAMBER OF SECRETS MESSED UP A PREVIEW FOR THE NEXT BOOK.

The publisher’s blurb said it was Aunt Petunia would be inflated in the next book, but that was a gaffe: It was Aunt Marge, Uncle Vernon’s sister, who Harry accidentally inflates.

9. PRISONER OF AZKABAN REQUIRED A LOT OF EDITING.

With its complicated time travel plot, it’s probably not surprising that the third entry in the Harry Potter series needed a closer eye than the two books that preceded it. The process took at least three months, and at one point, Rowling wrote to Matthewson, “I’ve read this book so much that I’m sick of it, I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time …” Later, she noted that “I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it.” Among the edits included bumping up the presence of the dementors.

10. GOBLET OF FIRE HAD A NUMBER OF POTENTIAL TITLES ...

They included Harry Potter and the Death Eaters, Harry Potter and the Fire Goblet, and Harry Potter and the Three Champions.

11. … AND THE TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED SOMETHING ELSE.

The Doomspell Tournament, to be exact. Matthewson suggested the change in a letter to Rowling dated March 8, 2000. (This letter also included the alternate titles.)

12. THE BOOK ALSO MARKED SOME OTHER FIRSTS.

Goblet of Fire was the first Harry Potter book released at midnight, and the first where Levine and Scholastic weighed in on edits during Bloomsbury’s editorial process.

13. NEWTON RECEIVED ORDER OF THE PHOENIX IN A “DEAD DROP” …

Newton had a clue that he would be receiving Rowling’s next manuscript when Little called him and suggested they meet for a drink at The Pelican—the same place the agent had delivered the manuscript for Goblet of Fire. Newton told Errington that he went to The Pelican “in a state of high alert. And I went in and there was a massive Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag at his feet … he said nothing about that and I said nothing … we stood at the bar and drank our pints and said nothing about Harry Potter. But when we left I walked out with the carrier bag. It was a classic dead letter drop.”

14. … AND HE WAS TERRIFIED TO HAVE IT.

The series was so huge at that point that Newton said he was “almost frightened to be in physical possession” of its next book. He couldn’t tell anyone—not even his wife and kids—that he had the manuscript, so he hid it under his bed. Then, Newton stayed up all night reading it, disguising it by putting four pages of another author’s manuscript on top. (He did eventually tell his wife what was going on.) He stashed portions in the safe as he went; the next morning, he delivered it to Matthewson. “I was so relieved to hand it over,” he told Errington. Matthewson, meanwhile, had to edit the manuscript on a computer that wasn’t connected to the internet.

15. BLOOMSBURY COMMISSIONED A “HARRY POTTER BIBLE.”

In September 2004—not long before Rowling would deliver the manuscript for Half-Blood Prince—Bloomsbury began putting together a file, called the “HP Bible,” enlisting people outside of the company to help. The file, Errington writes, “was to assist with consistency across the series.” 

16. THE DEATHLY HALLOWS MANUSCRIPT HAD SOME GREAT CODE NAMES.

To keep the highly anticipated book under wraps, a file of an early set of proofs was titled Edinburgh Potmakers. “This was not the only spurious title given to the novel,” Errington writes. “Another print-out of the text in the editorial files at Bloomsbury is entitled The Life and Times of Clara Rose Lovett with the thrilling sub-title, ‘An epic novel covering many generations.’”

17. THERE WERE QUESTIONS ABOUT CONSISTENCY JUST BEFORE THE BOOK WAS FINALIZED.

In an April 23, 2007 email, Matthewson made several queries including one about Harry’s healing abilities. Writes Errington, “within paragraph four of page 11 Rowling had written ‘He had never learned how to repair wounds’ and pointed out that Harry had used ‘Episkey’ on Demelza’s lip on page 267 of Half-Blood Prince. The question was therefore asked ‘But this is ok as it is not really learning properly to repair wounds?” (It seems it was OK: The sentence stayed, unaltered.) Proofs were finalized on May 4, 2007.

18. LEVINE HAD 71 QUESTIONS FOR BLOOMSBURY DURING THE COPYEDITING PHASE.

“I truly hope it won’t be stressful for Jo,” Levine wrote to Matthewson in the email, noting that the queries “are merely a result of the absolutely PHENOMENAL level of detail in Harry’s saga, and the extraordinary depth of her imagination.”

There was also discussion of Britishisms versus Americanisms. “If you mean underpants and not trousers here,” one note from Scholastic read, “can we spell out ‘underpants’ for the U.S., so readers understand fully how embarrassing this is for Ron?” The request was granted.

19. BEEDLE THE BARD GOT AMERICANIZED.

In 2001, Rowling wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages for charity; those books, which were supposed to be Harry’s textbooks, went out with the Britishisms intact. But for Beedle the Bard, written by Rowling as Dumbledore, the publisher wrote in a note that “we’ve decided that this book seems more like the U.S. edition of a wizarding classic, and therefore we’re using American spellings.” The American edition also included a footnote from Dumbledore explaining Christmas pantomime.

This list focused on Harry Potter, but there's so much more in A Bibliography—including details on Rowling's books written under pseudonyms and things she's written for various periodicals—making it a must-have for any Rowling fan. You can buy it here.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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6 X-Rated Library Collections
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
The reading room of the British Library, circa 1840
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the 19th century, some librarians became preoccupied with the morality (or lack thereof) of some of their titles. As a result, a number of libraries created special collections for "obscene" works, to ensure that only readers with a valid academic purpose might access them. Below are six examples, adapted from Claire Cock-Starkey’s new book A Library Miscellany.

1. THE "PRIVATE CASE" // THE BRITISH LIBRARY

At the British Library (or British Museum Library, as it was called then), it was John Winter Jones, Keeper of Printed Books from 1856, who was responsible for the creation of the “Private Case.” Titles that were deemed subversive, heretical, libelous, obscene, or that contained state secrets were kept out of the general catalog, stored in separate shelving, and marked with the shelfmark category “PC” (for private case). By far the majority of books in the private case were pornographic or erotic texts; it's rumored that by the mid-1960s the case contained over 5000 such texts, including George Witt’s collection of books on phallicism and Charles Reginald Dawes’s collection of French erotica from 1880–1930.

What was unusual about the Private Case was that it was so secretive: None of the books were recorded in any catalog, as if the collection didn’t exist. But starting in 1983, all books once in the Private Case have been listed in the catalog, and many have been returned to the main collection—although librarians may still check that a reader has academic reasons for consulting some of the more scandalous titles.

2. L’ENFER // BIBLIOTHEQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE

General stacks of the Bibliotheque nationale de France
FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

L’Enfer, which translates as “the hell,” was created in 1830 to house the French national library’s large collection of erotica and other books that were considered “contrary to good morals.” Many of the works were obtained by the library through confiscation, but fortunately the librarians had the foresight to preserve these scandalous texts. The collection—which still exists—has been largely kept private and was only fully cataloged in 1913, when about 855 titles were recorded.

Modern pornographic magazines and erotic fiction do not get cast into L’Enfer: It is only for rare works or works of cultural significance, such as a handwritten copy of the Marquis de Sade’s Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1787) and The Story of O by Pauline Réage (1954). In 2007, the library put on a public exhibition of some of the more fascinating (and titillating) texts in L’Enfer, finally granting the public a glimpse of this hidden collection.

3. TRIPLE-STAR COLLECTION // NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY

The New York Public Library Main Reading Room
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At the New York Public Library, some obscene works were once hand-marked with "***", which indicated that readers who wanted to consult those volumes had to be supervised. (Librarians regularly collected erotica, including from nearby Times Square, as part of their "mandate to collect life as it was lived," according to The New York Times.This system began in the mid-20th century and caused certain titles to be locked in caged shelves; it also meant that the items could only be consulted in a small restricted part of the reading rooms after special permission was granted.

4. PHI COLLECTION // OXFORD'S BODLEIAN LIBRARY

Radcliffe Camera building, part of the Bodleian Library
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The restricted collection at the Bodleian Library was created by E. W. B. Nicholson, who was head librarian from 1886–1913. No one is quite sure why it was named after the Greek letter phi, but some have suggested it was because it sounds like “fie!” which you might exclaim when asked to retrieve a book from this collection. Or, perhaps it stems from the first letter “phi” of the Greek “phaula” or “phaulos,” meaning worthless, wicked, or base. The collection included pornography alongside works of sexual pathology, and students needed to ask a tutor to confirm their academic need for a book before the librarians would let them consult any texts with a phi shelfmark. Today, many of the books have been reclassified into the general collection, but the phi shelfmark still persists.

5. "XR" COLLECTION // HARVARD’S WIDENER LIBRARY

 Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University
Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

The Widener Library still holds its restricted collection behind a locked copper door in the basement of the library—not because they still want to hide it, but simply because (it's said) no one has the time to redistribute the collection back into main circulation. The collection was thought to have been set up in the 1950s, after a sociology professor complained that many texts he needed for his class were missing or defaced (the Playboy centerfold was apparently always going astray), and thus the restricted collection was created to protect and preserve rather than to censor. The collection was only added to for a 30-year period and is now closed; however, its classification reveals something of the social attitudes of the times towards titles such as The Passions and Lechery of Catherine the Great (1971) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). The X part of the shelfmark does not stand for X-rated but indicates that the books are unusual; the R part stands for “restricted.”

6. THE ARC // CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

Trinity College Library, Cambridge University
Central Press/Getty Images

As library collections are frequently made up of a series of smaller collections donated to the institution, they may often acquire titles that the library may otherwise have not chosen to collect—such as some of the more risqué works. Cambridge University Library felt it had a duty to students to protect them from some of the more offensive books in their collection, and for this reason the Arc (short for arcana—meaning secrets or mysteries) classification was created. As with other restricted collections, Cambridge’s Arc provides a fascinating insight into changing moral attitudes. Some of the highlights included what is considered by some historians as the first gay novel, L’Alcibiade fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the Schoolboy), published in 1652; a 1922 copy of Ulysses by James Joyce (notable because at that time the book was being burned by UK Customs Officers); and a misprinted copy of the Cambridge Bible.

BONUS: "INFERNO" // THE VATICAN LIBRARY

The Sistine Hall, once part of the Vatican Library
Michal Osmenda, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

There has always been a rumor that the Vatican Library holds the largest collection of pornographic material in the world, in a collection supposedly known as the “Inferno,” but in fact this honor goes to the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research in Bloomington, Indiana. It is thought that the Vatican Library’s collection was created from the thousands of erotic works that have been confiscated by the Vatican over the years. However, no evidence for the collection has been found, and the (admittedly incredibly secretive) Vatican librarians deny its very existence.

This article is an expanded version of an entry in Claire Cock-Starkey’s A Library Miscellany, published by Bodleian Library Publishing.

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