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12/08/2014 08:13 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Gone For Good: The Long Lost Works Of English Literature

Sadly it's not uncommon for writers and authors to leave manuscripts unfinished at the time of their death. Charles Dickens's Mystery of Edwin Drood ends without the mystery ever being solved. The 11 surviving chapters of Jane Austen's final novel Sanditon suggest that, had she lived to finish it, it might have become her greatest work. And Mark Twain famously attempted numerous versions of his Mysterious Stranger in the late 1890s and early 1900s, but completed none of them before his death in 1910. But in some cases, a frustrating and tantalizing gap can appear in an author's back catalog when an existing work is lost or destroyed, either intentionally or accidentally, leaving us with little more than fragments or descriptions of its content. From ancient to modern, covering almost three millennia, the stories behind 10 of literature's most intriguing long-lost works are explored here.

Margites, Homer
Relatively little is known of Homer's life other than that he lived sometime around the 8th century BC, but even less is known about his long-lost poem Margites. Predating both The Iliad and Odyssey, Margites was a grand comic poem whose eponymous hero -- in stark contrast to Achilles and Odysseus -- was a foolish imbecile, who "knew many things, but knew them all badly." Only fragments of the poem remain, including a handful of quotes in later works by Plato and Aristotle, making it all the more frustrating that it seems to have been held in particularly high regard in Ancient Greece: according to Aristotle, "as are The Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies."

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Aesop's Fables, Socrates
Aesop's Fables were already almost 200 years old by the time Socrates turned his hand to composing his own verse versions of the moralistic tales in the late 5th century BC. At the time, Socrates was in prison on a charge of impiety (or "not believing in the gods of the state," according to Plato), and accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with his radical philosophy. To pass the time, he reworked several of Aesop's most famous fables -- which had, even by his time, become an integral part of Greek folklore -- as poems. What happened to Socrates's versions is unknown, but it's likely that they were destroyed after him execution in 399BC.

The Isle of Dogs, Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe
In the summer of 1597, the playwrights Jonson and Nashe collaborated on a new satirical comedy called The Isle of Dogs. Taking its name from that of a real island (now attached to the mainland) in the east end of London, some accounts claim the play controversially ridiculed Queen Elizabeth I and her court, comparing the councillors of her Privy Chamber to dogs kept in the royal kennels. After just a handful of performances, unsurprisingly Elizabeth's councillors demanded that the "lewd play," "contanyinge very seditious and scanderous matter," be banned and "plucked down" from London's theaters. Jonson and two of the play's performers (including Gabriel Spenser, whom he would murder in a duel the following year) were consequently imprisoned, and Nashe (who reportedly admitted to having only written the first act) had his home ransacked and his papers confiscated. Both writers later distanced themselves from the work, and no record of the text has ever been found.

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Cardenio, William Shakespeare
Sometime in the early 1600s, William Shakespeare collaborated with his friend John Fletcher (with whom he also wrote Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen) on a play called The History of Cardenio. Thought to be a retelling of a story lifted from Cervantes's Don Quixote, Cardenio was performed for King James I by Shakespeare's King's Men theatrical company in 1613, but no version of the play's text has even been found. The best alternative that we have is a play called Double Falsehood produced more than a century later, in 1727, by the English writer and editor Lewis Theobald. According to Theobald, his text was partly based on three manuscripts of a lost and untitled Shakespearean work, presumed by some to have been Cardenio; recent productions of Double Falsehood have even part-credited the text to Shakesepare and Fletcher.

Adam Unparadiz'd, John Milton
Several years before he embarked on writing Paradise Lost, John Milton apparently attempted to tell the same story (or at least a similar version of it) as a stage play, Adam Unparadiz'd. Written sometime in the early 1640s, copies of Milton's early notes and designs for the play still exist, but its first two acts -- the only portion he ever completed -- are now lost. Although it is unclear precisely what happened to the manuscript, it seems likely that the Puritans' closure of all of London's theatres in the mid 1600s put Milton off completing the project and he instead adapted it as an epic 10,000-line poem, now regarded as one of the greatest works in English literature. With Milton's blessing, however, Paradise Lost was finally adapted for the stage by John Dryden in 1671 as the libretto for an opera entitled The State of Innocence.

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Memoirs, Lord Byron
Just weeks after Byron's death in 1824, the Irish writer Thomas Moore (an executor of his will) presented his publisher in London, John Murray, with a copy of the poet's handwritten memoirs. Instead of printing them, however, Murray carried out one of the most notorious acts of literary censorship in history: page by page, he tore the memoirs up and threw them into the fireplace of his offices on Albemarle Street in Mayfair, London. Murray was terrified that the memoirs' scandalous content would destroy Byron's reputation (as well as his own and that of his company, should he choose to print them) and so the books were unceremoniously destroyed. We have no record at all of what the salacious content of Byron's memoirs actually was, and both Murray and Moore -- who for the rest of his life endured criticism that he could have done more to save them -- refused ever to disclose it.

The Bleeding Hand, August Strindberg
Although his entire creative output included everything from novels and essays to photographs and even paintings, it's as the writer of some of the theater's most powerful and challenging plays, like Miss Julie and The Ghost Sonata, that Sweden's August Strindberg is most widely celebrated. He was also responsible for popularising the so-called "chamber play" (a relatively short work for a small cast and requiring limited scenery) in the early 1900s, and wrote four in his lifetime -- but it could so easily have been five. In a letter to his friend and translator Emil Schering in April 1907, Strindberg wrote that, "Opus IV of the Chamber Plays is in progress," but admitted that, "it is more dreadful than the other... it pursues me." Sadly, in a second letter the very next day, Strindberg confessed to Schering that he had "burned Opus IV, or 'The Bleeding Hand,'" calling its destruction, "a self defense."

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Our Married Life, L. Frank Baum
Although he will forever be remembered for his Wizard of Oz series of novels, L Frank Baum was in fact a prolific and varied writer whose other works include more than two dozen other novels, numerous short stories and plays, a series of young-adult books (many written under the pseudonym Edith Van Dyne), and more than 200 poems. Our Married Life, completed in 1912, was the first of a series of novels -- alongside Johnson (1912), The Mystery of Bonita (1914) and Molly Oodle (1915) -- that Baum completed in the early 1910s, but which are now all lost. Baum's eldest son Frank later accused his mother, Maud Gage Baum, of destroying the manuscripts of all four books, but some later accounts claim this was merely a rumor started after Frank was cut of out Maud's will for trying to trademark the name "Oz".

Untitled World War I novel (plus much more), Ernest Hemingway
While on a tour of Europe in 1922, Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley Richardson were waiting for a train at Paris's Gare-de-Lyon station when Hadley misplaced (or else had stolen, depending on the account) a suitcase containing almost all of Hemingway's written work to date. Among the many manuscripts the case contained was a partly completed novel about the First World War, which Hemingway apparently never attempted to rewrite.

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Double Exposure, Sylvia Plath
It's well known that after Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963 her estranged husband, the future British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, destroyed some of her final works as well as the last volume of her journal, explaining later that he "did not want her children to have to read it". In the years that followed, however, several other volumes of Plath's journals also vanished, as did around 130 typewritten pages of Plath's lost second novel, provisionally entitled Double Exposure or Double Take. It is unclear whether Hughes was involved in its disappearance or not, but the novel's apparently semi-autobiographical content (Plath confided in a letter to a friend that the novel was "about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer") led to rumors that he secretly destroyed or withheld the manuscript to protect his reputation.

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