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Originally published Monday, August 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Who the Hell Is Pansy O'Hara?": Bibliophile couple compiles beloved books' back stories

A bibliophile couple from Australia compiled beloved books' back stories in "Who the Hell Is Pansy O'Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books"

McClatchy Newspapers

Former journalist Peggy Marsh had been quietly working on her novel for more than a decade when she was discovered by a publisher who was scouring the South for new authors. Starring a heroine named Pansy O'Hara, Marsh's manuscript was a theatrical, longing ode to the lost, pre-Civil War era in the Deep South. Its working title: "Tomorrow Is Another Day."

By the time the novel was published a year later, in 1936, Pansy had become Scarlett, and Marsh had reverted to her maiden name, Margaret Mitchell. And her title famously had been transformed into the more poignant "Gone With The Wind."

This is just one of the literary morsels offered in "Who the Hell Is Pansy O'Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World's Best-Loved Books" (Penguin, $13 in paper), a compilation of the little-known back stories behind 50 of the world's most famous books.

"When you understand the book's history or something about the author or what influenced his or her work, you can't help but have a finer appreciation for the book, for the art work," Chris Sheedy, the Australian who wrote "Who the Hell?... " with his wife, Jenny Bond, said from their home in Sydney.

So Bond and Sheedy set out to write a book about books, to unveil shadowed truths by journeying through the authors' minds, lives, loves and inspirations. A broader knowledge of an author, they say, makes for a richer reading experience.

Among the works they investigated: "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen; "The Hound of the Baskervilles," by Arthur Conan Doyle; "For Whom The Bell Tolls," by Ernest Hemingway; "The Cat in the Hat," by Dr. Seuss; Mario Puzo's" The Godfather"; Alice Walker's "The Color Purple"; and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," by J.K. Rowling.

Readers learn that, once its pages were stacked, Mitchell's manuscript towered almost five feet — taller than she; that Vladimir Nabokov's " Lolita" was rejected by every publisher to which it was originally sent; that for her "Bridget Jones's Diary" — conceived as a column — Helen Fielding used "Pride and Prejudice" as a template.

Readers also learn that Ian Fleming, author of "Casino Royale," was part of the team that cracked the Nazis' Enigma Code and that 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to The Strand mystery magazine after Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in order to concentrate on more serious writing projects. He was later forced to revive the character for "The Hound of the Baskervilles," but set the story prior to the detective's death.

Bond and Sheedy, 37-year-old freelance journalists who have been married for 13 years, came up with the idea during a literary conversation over dinner. Bond had once taught high-school English and drama, and Sheedy, a former vice president of Guinness World Records, keenly appreciated the reading public's appetite for trivia.

So for 18 months of evenings and weekends the couple began whittling down a list of dozens of contenders, then visited libraries, studied academic papers and pored over the Internet in search of obscure and quirky facts.

Bond still remembers introducing her students to her favorite book, "Emma," and how they had been moved by the story-behind-the-story Bond had pieced together about Austen's family tragedies, which included a handicapped brother sent away to live with another family, another brother adopted and an aunt wrongly imprisoned for theft.

"The realization was for me that once they came to know Jane Austen's back story, they began to discuss the reasons that Austen put her characters in certain situations and the reasons that characters reacted certain ways," Bond says. "The students looked deeper into the book as a work of art created by a specific and special person."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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