“Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order.” ― Anatole France

We have received a fascinating item at Adrian Harrington Rare Books – the FIRST EDITION two-volume folio complete set of Johnson’s Dictionary, from 1755. Or rather, A Dictionary of the English Language; In Which the Words are Deduced From Their Originals; and Illustrated in Their Different Significations, by Examples From the Best Writers. To Which are Prefixed A History of the Language, and an English Grammar. In Two Volumes. 

With this book, Dr. Johnson performed the most amazing, enduring and endearing one-man feat in the field of lexicography.

Johnson's dictionary in first edition (1755).

Johnson’s dictionary in first edition (1755).

Adam Smith in one of the earliest reviews of the book in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ 1755, compared it favourably with the best international dictionaries of modern languages then available, those of the French Academy and those of the Accademiadella Crusca, both of which ‘were composed by a numerous society of learned men and took up a longer time in the composition than the life of a single person could have well afforded’; whereas the English dictionary was ‘the work of a single person and composed in a period of time very inconsiderable when compared with the extent of the work’. In fact, it took Johnson less than ten years from writing his first prospectus in 1746 to publication day , 14th June 1755 , when the two folios went on sale at £4.10s. The dictionary was originally the project of a group of publishers and booksellers and the great Scottish printer William Strahan. They recognised that the time was ripe to bring to fruition the idea of a standard English dictionary which the Royal Society had entertained as far back as 1644. A committee was appointed in that year for the improvement of the English language.

Pink edges, exquisite gilt detailing

Pink edges, exquisite gilt detailing

Johnson’s Dictionary is divided into four parts. In the preface, Johnson expounds the aims and problems of lexicography. The second and third sections detail a history and a grammar of the English language; indeed, both are of interest if only in that they show the vast ignorance of eighteenth century philologists before Sir William Jones and his successors in this field. Section four encompasses the dictionary proper. The preface ranks among Johnson’s finest writings; the history and the grammar, which did not interest him in the least, are dull rehashes of older compilations. It is the dictionary itself which justifies Noah Webster’s statement that ‘Johnson’s writing had, in philology, the effect which Newton’s discoveries had in mathematics’. Johnson introduced into English lexicography principles which had already been accepted in Europe but which were quite novel in mid-eighteenth-century England. He codified the spelling of English words; he gave full and lucid definitions of their meanings (often entertainingly coloured by his High Church and Tory propensities); and he adduced extensive and apt illustrations from a wide range of authoritative writers. [ From: PRINTING IN THE MIND OF MAN 201]

Title page

Title page

Johnson’s dictionary was mostly derived from the dictionaries of his predecessors. Other definitions were added ‘by fortuitous and unguided excursions into books, and gleaned as industry should find, or chance should offer it, in the boundless chaos of a living speech’. Nevertheless, Johnson omitted a great number of the words supplied by these dictionaries and never found by him in any book. Others he inserted upon his own attestation, claiming the same privilege with his predecessors ‘of being sometimes credited without proof’. [From: COURTNEY & SMITH: A Bibliography of Samuel Johnson].

Detail and materials

Detail and materials

Our online listing is as follows: Item #44506, £12,500Titles in red and green labels. Original speckled tan calf with marbled endpapers, all edges flecked in red, expertly respined to style by Trevor Lloyd Bindery, subtle repairs to corners. A beautiful, sympathetic binding which employs a style of decoration that is handsome and highly appropriate. Vol 1: internally clean with neat ink initials ‘JH’ [Sir Joseph Hawley] to first blank, soft horizontal crease and tiny (3mm) edgetear to title; Vol 2: internally clean but for faint spotting to first and final leaves, some soft folds to corners, neat soft vertical crease to title, minute repair to very tips of corners of same, marginal (later) ownership also. This is an attractive and complete copy of this cornerstone of the English language. Internally clean, some marginal wear to prelims volume I, a few light spots here and there and the armorial bookplate of the Graham of Gartmore to the verso of both title pages. An impressive set.

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21st Century Girl: Anne Frank’s ‘Diary of a Young Girl’.

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In June, our sister bookshop Hall’s tweeted that Anne Frank began her diary 73 years ago, on the 14th June 1942. As the years continue to pass by and we move further away from the war that changed the world, I’ve started to wonder where a book like Diary of a Young Girl takes its place in the Information Age. At times it can seem like everything has changed since Anne Frank was a young woman, from notions of gender and class to identity and personal relationships. Consequently, there is a tendency to locate Frank’s diary within a sturdy framework of artefacts and documents of war – a tendency which only grows stronger with time, more recent human tragedies, and emotional distance. To feed this trend, I feel, is both sweeping and rather short-sighted. If we limit Frank’s writing in this way, we uncomfortably gloss over the importance of her actual written content (of course, this danger is only intensified by Frank’s marginalised position). Moreover, we deny her ‘three-dimensionality’ – Frank existed as an opinionated individual, not only as a victim of war, and this should be celebrated.

Writer Harry Mulish – himself famous for a novel based on real events in the German-occupied Netherlands – called for the creation of a new category of writing in 1985, which was neither literature nor historical document – an ‘object [sic] trouvé’. Mulish suggested that, had Frank survived the war and made a novel out of her material, she would not have become as influential as she is today. Other critics have engaged with her diary as a pure, ‘unspoilt’, harrowing human document, remarking upon its striking honesty, but similarly defining it as “purely and simply, the diary of a young girl”. It seems clear that, like any great work, Diary of a Young Girl can (and should) be read in any number of ways – as a woman’s expression, Jewish writing, Dutch document, a work in translation, and many more. Most pressingly, all of these readings intersect and diverge in fascinating ways.

Where does this debate leave us, as readers and as subjects of a history prone to repeat itself? How can we use Anne Frank’s diary, 73 years after the start of its production? My search led me to Janet Pickard-Kremenitzer’s educational work; Pickard-Kremenitzer has designed a 10-week curriculum component under the title ‘Emotional Intelligence/Anne Frank Aesthetic Education Program’, aimed toward Years 5 & 6. The course also incorporates initial Emotional Intelligence training for teachers and staff. The Diary of a Young Girl is central to this project, in which Pickard-Kremenitzer utilises modes such as self-portrait, journal writing, digital photography and creating narratives in the graphic tradition in order to establish links between the students’ lives and Frank’s development in her diary. Simultaneously, the children become finely attuned to self-expression and emotional reflection, whilst strengthening artistic, research-based, and IT ability. According to its creator, the programme results an ’emotionally intelligent school culture’. The mission places great faith in the power of The Diary of a Young Girl in encouraging global educational diplomacy, primarily due to its rooted status in a world-wide consciousness. From this perspective, to frame Frank’s diary as an artefact denies a glorious, wide-reaching beam of social and personal growth which can be actively employed in schools and beyond. It seems clear that in the 21st century, the book is worth so much more.

Moreover, it is becoming clear that as society progresses and essential questions of censorship and equality continue to dominate the fray, we can learn a great deal from looking at our recent past; we now know that the diary underwent several dramatic revisions before its release, and this reveals compelling (and perplexing) contextual attitudes. Frank feverishly rewrote almost all of her diary entries of the previous two years between June-July 1944; indeed, in making her first revision, Frank removed significant portions – including a one-page description of her own genitals. Clear differences appear between translations, too, as the Dutch version omits Frank’s desire to kiss and feel the breasts of her friend. Only in recent times have critics agreed that childlike innocence and chastity are suggestive of a purity that does not apply to Frank’s writing.

From 1945 onwards, Otto Frank edited the diaries and made them into one text. Feminist critics have focused on this editorial process, underlining the dangers of silencing aspects of Anne Frank’s voice as a woman. [For those interested, other dramatic changes include: the culling of passages on puberty, menstruation, sexuality, anger towards her mother (Otto deemed this unfair to the mother’s memory), and Frank’s conversations with Peter about sex.] Further parts of the diary were removed because they were considered simply not interesting enough for the post-war audience at its time of publication.

As a bookshop before all else, it seems fitting to end on perhaps Frank’s largest influence – books. Finding the Venus de Milo in an art history book prompted Frank to express her own feelings about the female body. In reading historical biographies, a desire to live on after death was realised. Frank was not constrained to Western canonical texts, but popular culture in print; for example, Frank had a penchant for film magazines. Diary of a Young Girl offers evidence that popular novels like Joop ter Heuf were of equal importance in Frank’s identity as a writer as the more traditional German novels she shared with her father. Readers in the 21st century can benefit from this ‘blur’, approaching the mingling of high and low culture as a visceral force, rather than a ‘contamination’.

Frank’s diary retains its global popularity, and for good reason. It seems, that as history moves on at startling pace, one needs to wrestle with questions of authorship and the process of writing more than ever before. The book is of near unparalleled symbolic and historic status – but perhaps more than anything, we should rejoice in the sheer power of self-expression and words-to-paper.

And so, we pay our respects to a young girl.

– Tabitha

Arthur Conan Doyle: Social Justice Warrior

Doyle in Fetching Boater

Doyle in Fetching Boater

Arthur Conan Doyle was hardly a meek man, nor one prone to seeking diplomatic solutions when dramatic alternatives were available. When he attempted to enlist in the military forces he wrote that “I am fifty-five but I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.” This audible voice proved to be very significant for two individuals in particular; George Edalji and Oscar Slater. My interest in these two men was sparked by our recent celebration of “Arthur Conan Doyle Week” at the end of May in honour of his birthday. Fortunately or otherwise, the Olympia bookfair has prevented me from typing up some of the more fascinating aspects of Doyle’s life that I discovered during that week.

Sherlock HolmesRecently novelised by Julian

Barnes as Arthur and George and then adapted as a television drama of the same name, the story of Arthur Conan Doyle’s real-life detective work has fired innumerable imaginations, and further blurred the line between the author and the world’s most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.Doyle is most famous for his privately-conducted PR campaign on two cases: the first, that of astigmatic and myopic solicitor George Edalji, accused of savaging a pit pony and conducting a poison pen letter campaign against his own family; and the second, that of Oscar Slater, in which a German Jewish immigrant was falsely accused of murdering an 83 year old spinster during a botched robbery before fleeing to the United States. In each case, there was significant evidence that a combination of police incompetence and police corruption had given rise to the charges, and Doyle was instrumental in uncovering and then proving that this was the case.

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George Edalji

The case against Edalji ran as follows. When George was twelve, a series of threatening letters were sent to his father, the vicar Shapurji Edalji. These events, in which George was considered a possible suspect despite being a child, culminated in the firing and conviction of the Edalji’s maid-of-all-work. A second wave of poison pen letters arrived four years later, in which Shapurji was accused of, amongst other things, “gross immorality with persons using Vaseline in the same way as did Oscar Wilde”. This campaign also subsided, though public opinion in the village of Great Wyrley, where the Edaljis lived, had begun to favour either the Shapurji or George as the culprits. This view was also taken up by Police Constable Upton, who Shapurji had earlier praised for his investigation into the first poison pen letter case, and expressed by Chief Constable of the county, Captain Anson. It seems clear that Anson had decided this primarily on racist grounds, and his views may have put pressure on those beneath him to adopt similar views. In 1903 there were a series of animal maimings, and investigation of these rapidly turned to George, although there was slim evidence that he was involved. When Doyle became involved with the case, after Edalji had served three years in jail and then been paroled, the chief evidence that he thought established George’s innocence was his eyesight. The maimings had occurred at night, and required physical strength and manual dexterity – in turn dependent on visual acuity. George’s eyesight was so poor that he had to hold a newspaper inches from his face in order to see it clearly. On the basis of his medical training in ophthalmology, Doyle thought it impossible for George Edalji to have been responsible for the maimings. This evidence had been available to Edalji’s defense team, but they thought it obvious that the prosecution’s case was a farce that would be thrown out and made no mention of it during proceedings.

As a direct result of Doyle’s public campaign into the circumstances of Edalji’s arrest and trial, the Home Office conducted a parliamentary review. That review found that the evidence provided to establish Edalji’s guilt, compounded by the fact that the police sought only evidence to incriminate Edalji rather than evidence pertinent to the case, made the conviction unsafe, and recommended that the Home Secretary overturn his conviction, in spite of the recently passed guidelines concerning the issuing of pardons. However, the jury and the magistrates leading the enquiry both felt that Edalji was likely to have brought the trouble upon himself by conducting the poison pen letter campaign, which, from a modern perspective also looks to be a false accusation. As a direct result of this, while the Home Secretary restored Edalji’s professional standing and issued a royal pardon proclaiming his innocence, he refused to compensate him for his three years of imprisonment.

Oscar Slater, c.1908  Private Collection

Oscar Slater, c.1908 Private Collection

By contrast, Oscar Slater was a known pimp and a gangster, very much one of the usual suspects. During a ten minute window of opportunity when the maid of 83 year old Marion Gilchrist left her mistress on her own in the house, Gilchrist was beaten to death and one of her brooches was stolen. The evidence implicating Slater was slim, to say the least. A person had called at Gilchrist’s house several days before looking for “Anderson”, one of Slater’s previous aliases; someone reported seeing Slater trying to sell a pawn ticket; and Slater had left the country five days after the murder.

When informed that the Scottish police were seeking his extradition, Slater returned voluntarily from the US. During his trial, an alibi was provided for his whereabouts at the time of the murder, and further evidence was provided establishing his plans to travel to the United States had been made long before his alleged flight. Regardless, the jury voted to convict 9-5, and he was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life imprisonment as a result of public outcry.

Persuaded by research conducted by William Roughead, Doyle wrote passionately in defense of Slater. Two years later, in 1914, a private enquiry was held, during which evidence provided by one of the original detectives on the case that showed Slater to be innocent was disregarded, and John Thompson Trench, the detective in question, was dismissed from the force. It would be another 14 years before Slater was pardoned in 1928.

Two hundred years on, Napoleon Bonaparte is still much more interesting than Arthur Wellesley

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Equestrian statue of Napoleon in Rouen

Second Charlemagne, or Bogeyman? Super Man or Tyrant? Whether you’re a fan or a critic, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the 30 year career of Napoleon Bonaparte, who fought and lost his final battle at Waterloo 200 years ago today. Appointed Brigadier General at the age of 24 for his inspired use of artillery at the siege of Toulon in 1793, it soon became obvious that Napoleon was Republican France’s most gifted young commander. Over the following 20 years he helped expand the borders of France to include parts of Spain, the Netherlands and Italy, and subdued all the great powers of mainland Europe in a series of enormous battles the scale of which had not been seen since Antiquity. Over the whole period it has been estimated that up to 5,000,000 combatants were killed, having a greater relative impact on the population of France than the First World War.DSCN0471

Despite astonishing and terrifying the world with his lightning manoeuvres and remorseless expenditure of human lives, Napoleon and Republican France were ultimately crushed. Exhausted by constant total warfare rather than strategically defeated on the battlefield, Napoleon left France economically ravished and decisively toppled from its position as the most powerful European nation. Thus this final battle, Waterloo, is rightly regarded as one of the most pivotal moments in Modern British history, ushering in a century of rapid economic and colonial expansion, and global naval domination. It is perhaps no coincidence then that our recent post-colonial age has seen these wars and their principle players romanticised by novelists such as Bernard Cornwell, Patrick O’Brian, C. S. Forester, and Douglas Reeman. These patriotic pseudo-historical accounts, often based on extensive research, present the British armed forces at their best – fighting as heroic under-dogs for the last time while saving the rest of Europe from French Republican autocracy. Cornwell’s creation, the Richard Sharpe series, is perhaps the most interesting of these, since the eponymous protagonist manages to be present not only at most of the important battles of the Peninsula War in Portugal and Spain, but also at the Siege of Copenhagen, the naval battle of Trafalgar, and of course the coup de grace, Waterloo.

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And yet, for all this British smugness (one might even whisper “propaganda”) it is Napoleon, not Wellington, who remains the enduring, compelling, endlessly fascinating character. While Wellington appears in the Sharpe series as the straight man – the ‘M’ to Sharpe’s 007 – Napoleon is the unseen evil, or Blofeld, to complete the analogy. The secret to his success is of course the ambiguity of his character. It is impossible to make a definitive judgement. In the nineteenth century this simmering question gave rise to a whole sweep of challenging literature, including Alexandre Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’, Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, and Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Dostoevsky’s contribution is particularly interesting because he pares the question right back to its bare essentials: what is ‘greatness’; at what cost is it achieved; and what good is it? The brilliant but poor Raskolnikov carefully plans the murder of an old and widely disliked old woman with a great deal of money he believes he could make better use of. But when the repellent act itself causes hesitation and confusion and he is forced to clumsily murder her sister, who becomes an unexpected witness, the central character spirals into a pit of self doubt and madness. Raskolnikov wished to emulate Napoleon by rising above the normal confines of morality – rising to become like a god, with the power and the right to commit murder, even of millions if necessary, for higher ideals. In the event he discovered such a thing was impossible; his natural good nature was fundamentally incompatible with such viciousness.

Those of us thankfully not burdened with such delusions of grandeur, however, would do well to think twice before writing Napoleon off as a Nietzschean super man, or Hitler-prequel. It was his devotion to Republican France, rather than a personal quest for power, which drove him to use what Thomas Carlyle later described as a ‘whiff of grapeshot’ against royalist forces during the battle of 13 Vendémiaire in 1795. We would do better by Napoleon in comparing him to Alexander the Great – a brilliant general who proved to the whole world that nothing is impossible. Although their two careers seem fundamentally different in the sense that Alexander never suffered a defeat, it is important to remember just how young he died. In the end, both these brilliant men learned the same lessons in the same ways. Astonishing success was followed by a sudden incomprehensible end to it all. The extract which follows is from the poem ‘Hercules Epitrapeszios Novi Vindicis’ by the Roman poet Statius. It is about a tiny but near-perfect statue of Hercules. I consider it a masterful unravelling and depiction of the immateriality of the things which drive some people, like Napoleon or Alexander, to be brilliant. This is precisely what Dumas’ ‘Count of Monte Cristo’ is all about as well, and they demonstrate that it is the moments after the unravelling of these mysteries which decide our moral qualities. The translation is my own.

‘…There is a worthy story to go with the sacred work. The Pellian king [Alexander]

Used to have this venerable deity on his happy tables,

Carrying him as a friend East and West,

And he would grasp him with the hand which a moment before had

Taken and bestowed crowns, and raised great cities to the ground.

He always used to seek courage for the next day’s battle from it;

Victorious, he would recount to it the successful actions;

Whether he had taken Indians away from Bromius in chains;

Or broken open closed Babylon with his great spear;

Or overwhelmed the lands of Pelops and Pelasgian freedom [Greece] with

War. And from that great rank of celebrated actions he

Was forced to make excuse for so great a triumph over the Thebans [Hercules’ home city].

Even when the Fates were cutting short his great deeds

As he was taking a draught from the fatal unmixed wine, grave under

The dark cloud of death, he was unsettled by the strange expression

Of his deity sitting on his last table, and the bronze which

Seemed as though it was about to sweat from real flesh.’ (lines 59 – 74).

James Murray, 18/06/15

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy – An Exhibition Review

Membrane with genealogy of the kings of England.

Membrane with genealogy of the kings of England. Showing King John and his children.

2015 is a significant year of anniversaries in all sorts of fields, but perhaps the most important, at least in the Anglophone world, is the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta – the Great Charter and peace treaty agreed between King John and the rebel Barons in June 1215. Ironically, the Charter was almost immediately annulled by Pope Innocent III, sparking a renewal of the rebellion and the invasion of the French Prince Louis in May 1216. Unlike the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the American Bill of Rights, this treaty was in no way intended as a bench-mark legal document; it was in fact more a testament to the wild fluctuations of Political Realism than the idealism it is now associated with. It is important that the story of this historical accident is engagingly told, and in my opinion the British Library has done a pretty good job.

No exhibition, however, is perfect, and I do have some criticisms. The dark atmospheric entrance hall with its giant print facsimile of the Charter and loud audio/visual introduction seems like a good start, but unfortunately the increasingly infuriating voice and backing track are still audible on their interminable loop half-way through the exhibition. A simple temporary partition would have been very welcome. The overall narrative, necessarily simplified, is also perhaps a little too traditional in its characterisation of John as a Tyrant. Conversely, though a comparison between his use of Scutage and Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax would have been brilliantly piquant, the Library has sensibly but disappointingly chosen to limit its endorsement of political satire to some Blair-era attacks on anti-terrorism laws.

There is a great deal to see concerning the famous document and the period in which it was produced, though the emphasis is clearly on the influence it had on later periods, particularly the English Civil War, and the American Declaration of Independence. The illuminated manuscripts at the beginning are the real stars of the show for me. It is an absolute joy to see the intricate details and gilding on these priceless 800-year-old sheep hides, and fascinating to puzzle through the strange Norman-French descriptions of John and his predecessors on the early 14th century family tree known as Royal 14 B VI.

Further on, the weary visitor encounters some slightly surreal video footage of a 1930’s re-enactment of the fabled meeting at Runnymede, and a scene from an 1899 production of Shakespeare’s King John. There’s even a corner dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which, in a strange and hard-to-explain way, was the highlight of this second section for myself and my companion. Eventually the two original manuscript copies of the 1215 document come into view, and in truth, it’s an anticlimax. This may be an intended effect, however, since the magnificence of Magna Carta is in the substance of its respect for the rights of the individual, rather than the style of its composition or artwork. This reviewer gives it 4 quills out of 5.

James Murray, 18/05/15

Dead Kings and Authors-Errant Rise Again.

Bibliophiles extraordinaire, and purveyors of fine rare, antiquarian, and generally serendipitous literary items – Adrian Harrington Rare Books valiantly returns to the Blogosphere, recently burst from its chrysalis of relocation. We will be sharing pearls of wisdom and curiosities from our collection, alongside general literary news and comment, and stories from the mysterious world of book-selling.

This week seems as auspicious as any to begin, being the anniversary of the death of both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote.

Harold Bloom in an article from 2003 identified these two authors as the stand-out literary titans of modern European literature, but claims the top spot for Cervantes, popularly credited as the father of the modern novel, though much less widely read today. As a reader not graced with the ability to appreciate Cervantes’ work in the original language, I cannot help but agree with much of Bloom’s praise for this extraordinary author, as well as the scope and originality of his work.

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For me, Don Quixote is visceral, often uncomfortably so, in its depiction of the prosaic realities of life in early seventeenth-century Spain. More significantly, it is also intensely Christian in its portrayal of the central eponymous character. Quixote is a martyr to the causes of errantry, courtly love, loyalty, and chastity; combining elements from popular Mediaeval stories such as Abelard and Heloise, the Song of Roland, the Arthurian Romances, and the Life of Gerald d’Aurillac.

Yet, set in the ‘real world’, the causes for which Quixote loses his teeth and ruins his health turn out to be elaborate absurd fantasies. He seems ridiculous to most of the people he meets on his travels, though of course, as the distressing little episodes which make up the story progress, it becomes ever more clear that Quixote is better than any of them. Whereas in The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a gentle invalid is destroyed by the relentless egoism of the world around him, the awkward and ageing Quixote is energetic enough to fight back and occasionally gain some minor victories. Indeed, it is this element of the story which explains the timeless appeal of Cervantes’ literary creation – its playful ambiguity. As Bloom has so deftly noted, the authorial voice never influences the reader in their interpretation of Quixote’s actions. He is both the romantic fool and a paragon of virtue – an anomalous curiosity capable of great wisdom as well as incredible stupidity. Holding the treacherous mutability of the physical universe to account until the very last, Quixote briefly regains his former identity and repents of his career as knight-errant before he dies. For me, this is simply the final indignity piled upon noble Quixote. Was he perhaps not a man, but the embodiment of an idea; living more authentically in print than in real life?

Perhaps Cervantes wrote Don Quixote precisely because he knew through bitter experience that such a man could never have lived. As the high-tide of Ottoman conquest continued to sweep over Eastern Christendom, courtesy of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and his immediate successors, the naval battle of Lepanto (1571), in which Cervantes himself fought with distinction, was the one united victory a divided Europe could claim. Yet for all this desperate virtue and heroism, no lasting advantage was gained. As Bloom surmises, ‘The knight [Quixote] is Cervantes’s subtle critique of a realm that had given him only harsh measures in return for his own patriotic heroism.’ Cervantes, it seems, was writing primarily as a disappointed man; and yet, through all of the thick irony of his novel, it is clear to me that he saw something of the divine in Quixote’s madness.

It seems particularly ridiculous, then, that Cervantes’ profile has risen recently on account of the purported discovery of his final resting place at a convent in Madrid which had helped ransom him from Moorish pirates in 1580, after five years of slavery in Algiers. Anyone who is interested in the physical remains of such an author has surely missed the point, especially when a definitive identification is currently impossible. Comparisons have obviously been made with the recent discovery and re-burial of Richard III, subject of the historical play of the same name by Shakespeare. This was also a bizarre series of events, but it did at least allow historians to dispel once and for all the myth that the King was seriously physically disfigured by his spinal condition. In my opinion, this was actually good for Shakespeare, in the sense that it will allow audiences to appreciate the themes in the play, without having to worry about its relation to historical reality. It is more clear than ever now that there is little or nothing of the real King Richard in Shakespeare’s dramatisation – first and foremost the character is a vehicle for the playwright’s critique of raw ambition. Lying behind modern cultural phenomena such as Game of Thrones, Shakespeare’s creation is now more than ever his own glorious achievement.

James Murray, 20/04/15