Lost Literary Works of Great Authors

Some of literatures greatest writers have lost their works to time. AKINA HANSEN looks at the writers and novels behind these misadventures.


Writing is a labour-intensive process that undoubtedly requires introspection and craftsmanship. Imagine how gruelling the process can be – from spending hours upon hours toiling over one’s own words to revising and rewriting chapters.

However, this is not the case for all writers. John Boyne wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in an impressive two and a half days. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in three weeks.

And yet I would think dredging up your innermost feelings and observations is an arduous task. The books that I have loved, and which I haven’t been able to stop thinking about for days, even years, are ones that have evoked an intense emotional reaction in me. And, in turn, I’m left in awe thinking about the emotional depths those writers had to reach to create those works. Books that make you feel this way are immeasurable in value.

So, it’s upsetting to think about literary works that have been lost forever to unforeseeable misadventures or simply to poor archiving. From losing manuscripts on trains, boozy nights out, to more extreme scenarios such as getting them destroyed or even stolen – over the centuries works from literatures greatest writers have been the victims of such miscarriages.

So, join me as I delve into lost works by great authors.

Let’s begin with legendary 8th century BCE author, Homer, who is behind epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. These stories follow great Greek heroes from Odysseus to Achilles and have played a vital role in influencing Western culture and education. But before these poems, there was another, called Margites. No copy of this comedic epic poem exists today but evidence of its existence lives in the works of others. In Plato’s Alcibiades he refers to the poem’s foolish hero stating: ‘He knew many things, but all badly.’

Aristotle likens the poem to The Iliad and The Odyssey, confirming our fears that a brilliant piece of work has been lost. In his On the Art of Poetry he states, ‘[Homer] was the first to indicate the forms that comedy was to assume, for his Margites bears the same relationship to comedies as his Iliad and Odyssey bear to our tragedies.’

Next is William Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio. Royal records from 1613 show payment was made to a Shakespearian actor who performed in a play produced by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. Interestingly, in 1653 the play, The History of Cardenio, appeared in a register of upcoming published works and was credited to Shakespeare and his collaborator, John Fletcher. However, the play never made it to print. Considering the importance of Shakespeare’s legacy to modern literature,. A major loss.

Some authors and their works were unfortunately the potential victims of foul play. Emily Brontë’s second novel was possibly destroyed by her own sister. When Emily Brontë died, an 1848 letter addressed to Ellis Bell (Emily’s pen name) from her publisher, Thomas Cautley Newby, confirmed that she had been working on a second novel. He wrote, ‘I am much obliged by your kind note and shall have great pleasure in making arrangements for your second novel. I would not hurry its completion, for I think you are quite right not to let it go before the world until well satisfied with it, for much depends on your new work if it be an improvement on your first …’

Her only published novel, Wuthering Heights, is still one of my favourite books. This admission is probably quite contentious among some readers. Interestingly, it began this way as well, dividing readers when it was first published for its controversial characters and storylines. It’s this knowledge that spurs on the theory that Emily’s sister, Charlotte, destroyed her second manuscript. According to the Brontës’ biographer, Juliet Barker, it’s possible that Charlotte was concerned about how Emily’s second novel would be perceived in light of the controversy surrounding Wuthering Heights. On top of that, Charlotte’s management of her sisters’ literary estates after their deaths were notoriously poor and suggested discord between them.

There is no way to truly know what happened, and we are left to sadly ponder about its contents, which no doubt would have been set out on the English Moors.

Ernest Hemingway’s stolen novel was a particularly gloomy story. In Switzerland 1922, Hemingway, who was still relatively unknown at the time, was asked by an editor for more of his work. As a result, his wife, Hadley, was asked to bring up his work by train from their home in Paris. She packed all of his works, even the copies, and when she strayed from her luggage for a mere moment on the train platform, the suitcase was stolen. Several stories and a draft novel about World War I were lost forever.

For author Robert Ludlum, his misadventure was the result of a misguided decision. While a young man in the US Marines, he took leave in San Francisco and partook in a long drinking session. He regrettably took his first novel out with him, losing the manuscript forever.

When author and poet Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the young age of 30, The Bell Jar was her only published novel. Prior to her death, she had started working on another novel in 1962 titled Double Exposure. Literary critic, Judith Kroll, saw an outline for Double Exposure and claimed that the premise was about a husband, wife and mistress. It’s suggested the work may have been based on Sylvia’s relationship with her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, given that their relationship was notoriously troubled.

What happened to the work is unknown but in a Paris Review interview, Hughes admitted to burning one of Plath’s journals, written in her last months, stating it was too sad for his children to read. Despite this admission, Hughes’ never admitted to destroying her missing manuscript and instead, when he was asked about the novel in a 1995 interview with The Paris Review, Hughes said, ‘Well, what I was aware of was a fragment of a novel about 70 pages. Her mother said she saw a whole novel, but I never knew about it. What I was aware of was 60, 70 pages, which disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I always assumed her mother took them all, on one of her visits.’

Unfortunately, many more authors have lost works over time due to various mishaps or simple human error; they include Tom Hardy, Jilly Cooper, J M Faulkner, Herman Melville, and more. And while their works may never resurface, I’m comforted by the fact that their other works have at least seen the light of day.



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