Tempted as I am (on a desultory Monday morning following a night of insomnia) to tell myself that playing for a few hours on “The Random Guardian” will tell me all I need to know about serendipity and the future of journalism, I’ve instead conjured the scholar in me and begun to look a bit further into the history of the elusive tale known in English as The Three Princes of Serendip (keeping in reserve the alluring prospect of playing journalistic chatroulette in my off-hours). Since I was googling with purpose this time around, it didn’t take long to turn up a 2-part tract dedicated to “the fabled story that inspired Horace Walpole to coin the word serendipity,” published online in 2000 by its author, Richard Boyle. http://livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm
A quick check on Boyle’s credentials yielded a review of the Sri Lankan historian’s new book at http://www.ondaatje.com/reviews/KnoxWords.htm According to Christopher Ondaatje, “Richard Boyle, who lives in Sri Lanka, has devoted the greater part of the past two decades to researching the cultural aspects of the British colonial period in Ceylon after the expulsion of the Dutch in 1796 and the takeover of Kandy in 1815. Four years ago he began to assist the Oxford English Dictionary in the revision of entries for words of Sri Lankan origin or association contained in the OED‘s second edition.” So the guy is likely to be a reasonably reliable source on these matters, one that I will quote at length by way of background to this interrogation of serendipity (NB: I will be quoting Boyle, as well as Boyle quoting Walpole, so heads up). The citations appear in italics and will carry over into my next post.
On the morning of January 28, 1754, an exceptional Englishman sat down at his desk in the library of his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, to attend to his correspondence. It was a daily ritual, for the man in question was probably the greatest letter writer of his era, or of any other for that matter. On that winter’s morning in Twickenham, London, he composed a letter in which he committed to paper for the first time a word that has contributed much to the English language. As a consequence, he resurrected a strange Oriental tale that would otherwise have been condemned to obscurity.
The man in question was Horace Walpole (1717-97), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, connoisseur, antiquarian and author of the famous gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (London, 1765). The word he invented was, of course, serendipity. And the tale he rescued from literary oblivion was The Three Princes of Serendip. The letter – to Horace Mann, an envoy in the service of King George II stationed in Florence – was written to acknowledge the safe arrival of a portrait of Bianco Capello, a 16th century beauty and Duchess of Tuscany. This letter is contained among the 31 volumes of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence (New Haven, 1937), edited by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis.
Trust me. It gets better.