There are some things we will just never know: why do we have so many unmatched socks, and what do all those keys we carry around actually unlock? But bigger than all of these mysteries is one of the ultimate ones…the loss to humanity of some possibly important works of literature. This week, Megan Gambino, writing for Smithsonian.com compiled what she deems to be the Top 10 Books Lost to Time. While there is a chance some of these manuscripts might be located someday, it is a slim chance indeed. Here is a synopsis of her argument:
1. Homer’s Margites
Sadly, absolutely no extant copies exist, though authors such as Plato and Aristotle quote from Magrites in their own works. Interestingly, Magrites was a comedy. Aristotle held it in as much acclaim as The Iliad and The Odyssey.
2. Lost Books of the Bible
These are not the texts which were discarded from the canon, but works actually lost. These books are referenced within the Bible that we know, but no copies have ever been discovered. “The Book of Numbers, for instance, mentions the ‘Book of the Battles of Yahweh.’ The First and Second Book of Kings and the First and Second Book of Chronicles names a ‘Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel’ and a ‘Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah.’ There are over 20 titles for which the text is missing,” Gambino says.
3. William Shakespeare’s Cardenio
Intriguingly, this play is known to have been performed by Shakespeare’s company, but no copies survive. The plot is said to involve a character named Cardenio who appears in Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
4. Inventio Fortunata
Inventio Fortunata is the work of an unknown 14th century Franciscan monk who charted the Arctic and described in detail what he believed to be the North Pole. A Flemish author incorporated parts of the work into his own book, Itinerarium, but then that book too went missing. In 1577, the verbiage copied from the monk and then the Flemish writer was once again copied by Gerard Mercator, a leading 16th century cartographer. The information he provided, third hand, was 200 years old.
5. Jane Austen’s Sanditon
Jane Austen did not live to complete her final novel, Sandition. She finished eleven chapters but no one knows exactly how she would have resolved it. One author, Anne Telscombe, tried to complement Austen’s style and finish the work, but the effort was met with a decidedly chilly reception. A reviewer for Time magazine sniffed that if “Janeites take their author like warm milk at bedtime,” then Telscombe’s book is “watery milk.”
6. Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross
Melville’s novel about a shipwrecked sailor and the woman who falls in love with him was rejected by his publisher, Harper’s, for reasons unknown. The manuscript has never resurfaced.
7. Thomas Hardy’s The Poor Man and the Lady
This was Hardy’s first novel, which was rejected by publishers. We know roughly what it is about because of transcripts that exist between the elderly author and the poet Edmund Gosse, a conversation that took place in 1915, some fifty years after the fact. Hardy was fuzzy on the details, but knew it was about a romance between the daughter of a squire and the son of peasants. Hardy thought it to be one of the most original things he had ever written.
8. First draft of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Rumor has it that Stevenson wrote his novel of 30,000 words in three days, but his wife criticized it, and he got upset and chucked it in the fireplace. Other rumors say that his wife was responsible for the destruction. Either way, or in any other way, the manuscript no longer exists or at least has never been found.
10. Sylvia Plath’s Double Exposure
Plath had completed 130 pages of this novel when she took her own life in 1963. Her husband, Ted Hughes, claims there were only about 70 pages, and that her mother took them. But Hughes admits to having burned one of Plath’s last journals, claiming it was too much for their children to ever be exposed to, so it is unclear if Hughes was being truthful in this regard or not.