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Six Cool Facts about Some of Literature’s Favourite Figures
Literary backstories are always a fascinating read. It’s no surprise that some of the most interesting writers would have had intriguing lives and salacious secrets, and how wonderful it makes the world seem to know that such colourful characters have graced human history.
Of course, this is an incredibly refined list, and the authors that I have selected are personally biased, to be completely honest. Literary history is fraught with scandal, deception, sexiness, cleverness, intrigue…I could go on. The circumstances of these authors’ lives certainly contributed to the depth of the works that they produced.
Oscar Wilde’s Green Carnation
If there ever were a writer who practiced what he preached as brilliantly as Oscar Wilde – well, we have never heard of him. Wilde’s wit is the stuff of legend, and he is well known for his dandified lifestyle. He partied like it was 1999 when it was more like 1899, and he ended up in jail for it. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas landed him in prison in 1895 for “gross indecency”. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was cited during his trials as evidence against him, although Wilde uses no explicitly homo-erotic language in the novel. Wilde’s mastery with language, when coupled with his wit, creates the sort of deliciously intriguing work that you only recognize certain allusions and imagery if that is exactly what you are looking for. The green carnation is a tribute to Wilde’s influence and struggles. The carnation was used during Wilde’s lifetime as a symbol for an underground community of homosexuals, particularly in Paris, although Wilde himself was always coy when asked about the meaning of the carnation. Productions of Wilde’s plays today still often use the green carnation in some form or other as a nod to this movement. Knowing about the green carnation feels like being admitted into Wilde’s secret club – and that is a club it certainly would have been interesting to be a member of.
The Bronte Pseudonyms
The Brontës are probably the most literary of all literary families. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights are two of the most beloved books of all time, and the legend of the Brontë family has become an enduring literary myth. However, when their novels were initially published, the Brontë sisters used pseudonyms so that no one would be able to identify the authors of the novels. In particular, the Brontë sisters did not want their readers to be able to identify their gender. Jane Eyre was originally published under the name Currer Bell, keeping Charlotte’s initials but crediting the novel to an author of undeterminable sex. Charlotte is known to have said that she did not want her work to be critiqued as a novel by a woman, but simply as a novel – as any work by a man would be critiqued. Likewise, Wuthering Heights was published under the name Ellis Bell. Their sister Anne published her own work as well, although her work has not endured in the same sense that her sisters’ has, under the name Acton Bell. It was Charlotte Brontë herself who eventually unveiled the ruse, publishing a statement titled as the ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’. She wrote that
Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called 'feminine' — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.
CS Lewis and Biblical Allegory
Probably every kid west of the United Kingdom read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when they were growing up. It is undoubtedly one of the most beloved children’s classics of all time. I might have been way out of the loop on this one, but it wasn’t until a second-year university English course that I found out that CS Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia as a biblical allegory. Then it all clicked into place. Aslan, for instance, is an obvious Christ-figure, sacrificing himself in Edmund’s place for his sins – uh, his betrayal of his family to the White Witch. It’s all there. Lewis himself was a devout Christian, and he wrote a number of articles, essays, and novels centered on these themes. Too bad that they don’t teach The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in Sunday school. Following The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lewis of course published the accompanying books that constitute The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s always fun to have our minds blown once again as adults by the books that we loved as children.
JRR Tolkien as a Philologist
A friend of the aforementioned CS Lewis, the man who brought us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings originally wrote these novels for his children and close friends. Primarily, Tolkien was a well-reputed scholar in linguistics – specifically, in Old and Middle English (keeping in mind that Shakespeare is considered to be Early Modern English), and he was a lecturer at Oxford. His academic work strongly influenced the fantasy world that he was creating. Even prior to beginning work on The Hobbit, Tolkien was creating his own languages. He made up entire languages that would eventually help to create his fantasy world, and the rules of these languages depended on his knowledge of linguistics. Old English itself came into the novels at several points as well. Frodo, for instance, means “wise one” in Anglo-Saxon (perhaps it’s a good thing that Tolkien wasn’t alive to see how his wise hobbit was represented on the big screen). Frodo seems a lot more heroic in his literary form than he appears on the big screen.
Jane Austen: an Anti-Romance Novelist
Chick-lit and Hollywood portray Jane Austen as the cultural-authority version of a soap opera. We all know the stories, whether we’ve read them or not. A famous actress wears a fancy old-looking dress and goes to some dances and gets to marry Colin Firth in the end. But feminists, rejoice! This was not Austen’s perception of marriage. Perhaps this was part of the reason that Austen was not well-received during her lifetime: Austen was not pro-marriage, and she herself never married. Biographies about Austen discuss evidence of a relationship that she had on holiday with a man who promised to meet up with her again – and she never heard from him again (typical). She also is known to have accepted and then rejected the same proposal in the matter of a day. Readers never see Austen’s heroines after their marriages, and all the marriages that Austen creates in her novels, except maybe one or two, are completely miserable. Her novels were revived towards the end of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century – alongside a feminist wave. Austen herself did not appear to believe that all women need to aspire only to marriage in their lives. Austen was a realist, not a romantic, and definitely ahead of her time in terms of feminist issues.
6. Shakespeare “borrowed” the inspiration for many of his famous plays
Apparently the bard with the beard didn’t heed his own advice when he wrote “neither a borrower nor a lender be”. It’s become a pretty well-known fact in the literary world that one of the greatest English writers of all time took his ideas from the work of earlier playwrights. Henry V, for instance is believed to be adapted from the works of Edward Halle and Samuel Daniels, who was a poet working around the same time as Shakespeare. The important thing to keep in mind in light of this information is that Shakespeare was working far before any modern plagiarism laws; he was writing in the 16th century, whereas contemporary perceptions of plagiarism as an immoral practice only came into effect around the 18th century in England. Finally, well – Shakespeare tended to do the stories a little more justice than the original source material. After all, the guy could write, even if he did torture most of us nearly to death during those traumatizing high school years where we pretended we actually read the plays when we were supposed to.
Literature is one of the world’s greatest treasure troves, and the individuals who produced the works that stick with us had lives as intriguing as the worlds that they created.