Literary daybook, Jan. 17

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 17, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 17, 1961, Nelson and the girls discover a snake in the chicken house.
-- "The Poisonwood Bible" (1998)
By Barbara Kingsolver

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1775, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" premiered. This was Sheridan's first play; below is the first entrance and first malapropism of his most famous character -- at this point walking in on and then all over niece Lydia's choice in books and beaus:

"Lydia: Here, my dear Lucy, hide these books -- Quick, quick -- Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet -- throw Roderick Random into the closet -- put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty of Man -- thrust Lord Aimworth under the sofa -- cram Ovid behind the bolster -- there -- put The Man of Feeling into your pocket -- so, so, now lay Mrs. Chapone in sight, and leave Fordyce's Sermons open on the table.
Lucy: O burn it, Ma'am, the hair-dresser has torn away as far as Proper Pride.
Lydia: Never mind -- open at Sobriety -- Fling me Lord Chesterfield's Letters -- Now for 'em.

Enter Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute.

Mrs. Malaprop: There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate Simpleton, who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling!
Lydia: Madam, I thought you once --
Mrs. Malaprop: You thought, Miss! -- I don't know any business you have to think at all -- thought does not become a young woman; the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow -- to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory ..."

Sheridan's desire to skewer language came honestly: His father's "Academy of Speech" had just failed, releasing 23-year-old Richard from employment as "rhetorical usher," and therefore free to make fun. Some say the model for Mrs. Malaprop may have been Henry Fielding's "Mrs. Slipslop," appearing in "Joseph Andrews" 30 years earlier. Here in Chapter 6 she invites the young hero to a glass of wine, preparatory to making clear, as far as she is able, her intentions:

"Sure nothing can be a more simple contract in a woman, than to place her affections on a boy. If I had ever thought it would have been my fate, I should have wished to die a thousand deaths rather than live to see that day. If we like a man, the lightest hint sophisticates. Whereas a boy proposes upon us to break through all the regulations of modesty, before we can make any oppression upon him." Joseph, who did not understand a word she said, answered, 'Yes, Madam.' 'Yes Madam!' replied Mrs. Slipslop with some warmth, 'Do you intend to result my passion? Is it not enough, ungrateful as you are, to make no return to all the favours I have done you: but you must treat me with ironing? Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?' 'Madam,' answered Joseph, 'I don't understand your hard words: but I am certain you have no occasion to call me ungrateful: for so far from intending you any wrong, I have always loved you as well as if you had been my own mother.' 'How, Sirrah!' says Mrs. Slipslop in a rage: 'your own mother? Do you assinuate that I am old enough to be your mother? I don't know what a stripling may think: but I believe a man would refer me to any green-sickness silly girl whatsomdever ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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