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12 Facts About Brian Jacques and the Redwall Series

Jam-packed with characters and conflict from the shores of tumultuous Abbey Pond to the mountain fortress of Salamandastron (and filling 22 novels), the realm of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series was a huge place for both heroic woodland creatures and avid young readers alike—ultimately, one “as big or as small as you want it to be in your imagination,” Jacques once told Scholastic.

So whether you were forever aligned in heart and deed with the mores of Martin the Warrior or found yourself secretly cheering for the Feral Cat Army of Green Isle, there’re probably a few epic secrets about the books’ noble species, vermin, and creator that you never uncovered in your journeys around Redwall Abbey.

1. BRIAN JACQUES’ SURNAME IS PRONOUNCED “JAKES” (YES, REALLY).

Born James Brian Jacques in Liverpool, England in 1939, the prolific author’s last name is pronounced “jakes,” like “makes” or “takes,” as The New York Times and Washington Post pointed out in 2011 after Jacques passed away. And while the surname’s spelling seems to suggest French heritage somewhere along the way (and Jacques would often say his father was half-French), the family isn’t sure of its origin.

2. IN HIS YOUTH, JACQUES WORKED AS A MERCHANT MARINE, A POLICE CONSTABLE, A BOXER, AND MORE.

The renowned writer was “reared by the Liverpool docks,” according to the Times, and showed early promise at the age of 10 with “a fine short story about a bird and a crocodile.” Sadly, however, his teacher thought it was too good (to be written by a child, that is) and caned Jacques as punishment for the perceived plagiarism.

By the age of 15, Jacques had had his fill of school (and his father), and signed on for work as a merchant seaman—the first of various jobs he’d hold over the next few decades, which included work as a longshoreman, a boxer, a bus driver, a stand-up comic, and a “bobby,” or police constable.

3. HE GOT THE IDEA FOR REDWALL WHILE VOLUNTEERING WITH BLIND STUDENTS ...

In the years before Redwall, the series’ first book, was published in 1986, Jacques was working as a milkman in Liverpool and volunteering as a reader for students at the Royal School for the Blind, a regular stop on his route. According to The New York Times, however, he found the reading material to be “dreadful” and “preoccupied with the ‘here and now’ of teenage angst and divorce.” So he set out to create better children’s lit for these students—the proper kind, with heroes, villains, and the former’s adventurous triumph over the latter. He told the Times,

"I thought, 'What's wrong with a little bit of magic in their lives?' … So I went home and wrote on recycled paper. It took me seven months, each night. And it came to 800 pages because I just used one side. I had all of these pages in a supermarket bag.

4. ... AND GOT PUBLISHED AFTER A FRIEND SECRETLY SUBMITTED HIS MANUSCRIPT.

Jacques handed off this supermarket bag to Alan Durband, a friend and retired teacher, to get his thoughts on it. Durband sent the story off to several English publishers, landing Jacques a first contract for around $4000—an offer so modest that, according to the Times, Jacques “was so cautious about the future that he continued working as a stand-up comic while writing books” for the next four years.

5. MANY ANIMAL CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON PEOPLE JACQUES KNEW ...

Various characters in the long series are direct tributes to people in Jacques' life. A self-described “people watcher,” Jacques told Scholastic that nearly all his characters are “people or amalgamations of people [he] met in [his] life,” while many of their adventures are based on real-life encounters of him and his friends, too.

For example, his grandmother inspired the character of Constance, the badger guardian of Redwall, while Mariel the mousemaid is based on Jacques’ oldest granddaughter. Some whole species are based on real-life groups of people, too; as the Chicago Tribune reported, the hares in Jacques' books make reference to World War II bomber pilots, the shrews echo the dockworkers that Jacques lived among throughout his life, and his heavily accented moles take cues from “the ‘very old men’ in the villages of Somerset.”

6. ... BUT THE STORY’S MAIN HEROES REPRESENT BRAVE KIDS EVERYWHERE.

Jacques' experiences being a very frightened kid during the last years of WWII helped him bring some of the mice’s most terrifying and triumphant moments to the page. "My stories are written from the viewpoint of a kid, sitting in the movie house while World War II is on, watching all this magic come on the screen,” he told The New York Times.

To set the stage properly, Jacques worked to create what he called “interesting baddies” among the vermin and villains of Redwall Abbey and Mossflower Woods—ones that evoked the same fear he felt during childhood while watching the newsreels of the devastation of the war. But when it came time to pick the heroes, his choice was an easy one: “I like mice!" he told Scholastic. "Mice are my heroes because, like children, mice are little and have to learn to be courageous and use their wits.” With regard to the fierce clashes between heroes and villains in his stories, Jacques told the Times:

"My values are not based on violence. My values are based on courage, which you see time and time again in my books. A warrior isn't somebody like Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger. A warrior can be any age. A warrior is a person people look up to."

7. GONFF THE MOUSETHIEF, ON THE OTHER HAND, IS JACQUES HIMSELF.

Jacques has frequently gone on the record about identifying closely with the lock-picking Gonff, who called both friends and enemies "matey." "Again I go back to me childhood," he told the Times. "He was a ducker and weaver, and so was I. There was nothing around, but if you came from a poor family and there was something left around, you picked it up. I came from the docks. Gonff tried to help others."

8. MANY BOOKS WERE WRITTEN UNDER AN APPLE TREE IN A REAL-LIFE PASTORAL HAVEN LIKE REDWALL.

Jacques mentioned in a Redwall teacher’s guide that his favorite place to write was “a corner of [his] garden, up near the angle of the wall,” where he’d settle in a little hut that he built for his granddaughter, preferably in the spring. When rain hit, he’d simply “go back under the lilac bush.”

9. REDWALL WAS ADAPTED INTO A TV SHOW AND A RADIO PLAY …

During Jacques’ life, the series was responsible for over 20 million books sold and was translated into 29 languages, but fans still couldn’t get enough. So, among other things, Redwall and two other books were adapted into a three-season animated series that aired between 1999 and 2001, while Jacques himself (along with his son, Marc, and a number of British voice actors) recorded a three-part audiobook called The Redwall Radio Play for fans’ enjoyment.

10. ... AND EVEN AN OPERA (A GENRE THAT JACQUES ADORED).

In 1998, Opera Delaware staged Evelyn Swensson’s Redwall: The Legend of Redwall Abbey, a two-act musical based on the series’ first book and which later toured for European audiences. It’s perhaps no surprise that Redwall was able to make waves in operatic form given that Jacques, a lifelong opera fan, spent years hosting a radio program called “Jakestown” on BBC Radio’s Merseyside station, and which featured many of his all-time favorite pieces and voices.

11. THERE’S A REDWALL-INSPIRED COOKBOOK.

The Redwall Cookbook offers recipes for many of the sumptuously described dishes in the series, including Mole's Favourite Deeper'n'Ever Turnip'n'Tater'n'Beetroot Pie, Applesnow, and Crispy Cheese'n'Onion Hogbake. Written by Jacques himself, the book is divided into the four seasons and also features small tidbits about Redwall's characters.

12. STILL WANT MORE REDWALL? YOU CAN PLAY TWO TEXT-BASED GAMES ONLINE.

Jacques passed away in 2011, but thanks to his many legions of fans, the universe he created is still going strong. Two text-based online games still offer access to role-playing and chat with other Redwall fans: Redwall: Warlords and the Redwall MUCK (or Multi-User Chat/Created/Computer Kingdom).

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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
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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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