The Top 10 Books Lost to Time

Great written works from authors such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen that you'll never have a chance to read

Some of the greatest writers in history have had works lost over time. (Guntmar Fritz / Corbis)

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When Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, at the age of 42, she left behind 11 chapters of an unfinished novel that “would tantalize posterity,” as Time magazine reported in 1975. In it, protagonist Charlotte Heywood visits the seaside town of Sanditon as it is being built into a resort. Austen sets the scene, develops some characters and themes, and then, just as the plot seems to take off, it abruptly ends.

Several writers have sought to finish the “lost” ending to Sanditon in Austen’s style, including Anne Telscombe, an Australian-born novelist. But if “Janeites take their author like warm milk at bedtime,” then Telscombe’s book, according to a review in Time magazine, is “watery milk.”

6. Herman Melville’s The Isle of the Cross

On a trip to Nantucket in July 1852, Herman Melville was told the tragic story of Agatha Hatch— the daughter of a lighthouse keeper who saved a shipwrecked sailor named James Robertson, then married him, only later to be abandoned by him.

The tale would serve as inspiration for a manuscript titled The Isle of the Cross, which Melville presented to Harper & Brothers in 1853. But the publisher, for reasons unknown, turned it down. And no copy of the manuscript has ever been found. In an essay in a 1990 issue of the journal American Literature, Hershel Parker, a biographer of Melville’s, claims, “The most plausible suggestion is that the Harpers feared that their firm would be criminally liable if anyone recognized the originals of the characters in The Isle of the Cross.”

7. Thomas Hardy’s The Poor Man and the Lady

This first novel by Thomas Hardy was about the on-again, off-again relationship between a son of peasants and the daughter of a local squire in Dorsetshire, England. That much is made clear in the only existing plot summary of the book—a transcribed conversation between Hardy and English poet Edmund Gosse from April 1915. But Hardy, who had written the story nearly 50 years earlier, could not recall many details, including whether or not the two characters ultimately ended up together.

What we do know from the transcript is that in the late 1860s, Hardy considered the work the most original thing that he had written—and, by then, he had written many of the poems he would end up publishing decades later. But publishers rejected his manuscript. Some scholars think that Hardy incorporated pieces of it into his later works, including the poem “A Poor Man and a Lady,” the novella An Indiscretion in the Life of an Heiress and his first published novel, Desperate Remedies.

8. First draft of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It is rumored that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a 30,000-word draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in just three days. But when his wife, Fanny Stevenson, read it, she criticized the text, saying that it would work better if the plot served as a moral allegory.


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