The link below is to an article that takes a look at the Life and Work of D.H. Lawrence.
Pondering the now no-longer Dixie Chicks – renamed “The Chicks” – Amanda Petrusich wrote in a recent issue of the New Yorker, “Lately, I’ve caught myself referring to a lot of new releases as prescient – work that was written and recorded months or even years ago but feels designed to address the present moment. But good art is always prescient, because good artists are tuned into the currency and the momentum of their time.”
That last phrase, “currency and momentum,” recalls Hamlet’s advice to the actors visiting the court of Elsinore to show “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” The shared idea here is that good art gives a clear picture of what is happening – even, as Petrusich suggests, if it hadn’t happened yet when that art was created.
Good artists seem, in our alarming and prolonged time (I was going to write moment, but it has come to feel like a lot more than that), to be leaping over months, decades and centuries, to speak directly to us now.
‘Riding into the bottomless abyss’
Some excellent COVID-19-inflected or anticipatory work I’ve been noticing dates from the mid-20th century. Of course, one could go a lot further back, for example to the lines from the closing speech in “King Lear”: “The weight of this sad time we must obey.” Here, though, are a few more recent examples.
Marcel Proust’s “Finding Time Again,” an evocation of wartime Paris from 1916, strongly suggests New York City in March 2020: “Out on the street where I found myself, some distance from the centre of the city, all the hotels … had closed. The same was true of almost all the shops, the shop-keepers, either because of a lack of staff or because they themselves had taken fright, having fled to the country, and left the usual handwritten notes announcing that they would reopen, although even that seemed problematic, at some date far in the future. The few establishments which had managed to survive similarly announced that they would open only twice a week.”
I recently stumbled on finds from the 1958 edition of Oscar Williams’ “The Pocket Book of Modern Verse” – both, strikingly, from poems by writers not now principally remembered as poets. Whereas a fair number of the poets anthologized by Williams have slipped into oblivion, Arthur Waley and Julian Symons speak to us now, to our sad time, loud and clear.
From Waley’s “Censorship” (1940):
It is not difficult to censor foreign news.
What is hard to-say is to censor one’s own thoughts,-
To sit by and see the blind man
On the sightless horse, riding into the bottomless abyss.
And from Symons’ “Pub,” which Williams doesn’t date but which I am assuming also comes from the war years:
The houses are shut and the people go home, we are left in
Our island of pain, the clocks start to move and the powerful
To act, there is nothing now, nothing at all
To be done: for the trouble is real: and the verdict is final
‘Return to what remains’
Dipping a bit further back, into Henry James’ “The Spoils of Poynton” from 1897, I was struck by a sentence I hadn’t remembered, or had failed to notice, when I first read that novella decades ago: “She couldn’t leave her own house without peril of exposure.” James uses infection as a metaphor; but what happens to a metaphor when we’re living in a world where we literally can’t leave our houses without peril of exposure?
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In Anthony Powell’s novel “Temporary Kings,” set in the 1950s, the narrator muses about what it is that attracts people to reunions with old comrades-in-arms from the war. But the idea behind the question “How was your war?” extends beyond shared military experience: “When something momentous like a war has taken place, all existence turned upside down, personal life discarded, every relationship reorganized, there is a temptation, after all is over, to return to what remains … pick about among the bent and rusting composite parts, assess merits and defects.”
The pandemic is still taking place. It’s too early to “return to what remains.” But we can’t help wanting to think about exactly that. Literature helps us to look – as Hamlet said – before and after.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the life and work of Australian author Elizabeth Harrower who died in July.
The link below is to an article that looks at Kindle battery life – any thoughts?
The link below is to an article reporting on the life, death and work of Gerald Wilkes, an important figure in the field of Australian literature. Wilkes died on May 15, 2020.
The link below is to an article that looks at ways to extend the battery life of Kindles.
When Charles Dickens died on June 9 1870, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic framed his loss as an event of national and international mourning. They pointed to the fictional characters Dickens had created as a key part of his artistic legacy, writing how “we have laughed with Sam Weller, with Mrs. Nickleby, with Sairey Gamp, with Micawber”. Dickens himself had already featured as the subject of one piece of short biographical fiction published during his lifetime. Yet, in the years following his death, he would be increasingly appropriated as a fictional character by the Victorians, both in published texts and in privately circulated fan works.
Dickens’s private family funeral at Westminster Abbey created a gap in knowledge which some journalists chose to fill with a fictional scene they considered more emotionally satisfying. The London Penny Illustrated Paper visually re-imagined the funeral, publishing a large illustration depicting a crowded public event.
Under the sub-heading: “A National Honour Due to Charles Dickens”, the accompanying text acknowledges that the image is fictional, but argues that:
A ceremony such as is depicted in our Engraving would unquestionably have best represented the national feeling of mourning occasioned by the lamented death.
It was the publication of John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens in 1872–74, though, that marked a watershed in fictionalisations of Dickens. Victorian readers now had a full-length birth-to-death Dickens biography to draw on, written by a friend who had known him for his entire adulthood. Dickens’s Preface to his 1849–50 novel David Copperfield had encouraged readers to interpret it as semi-autobiographical. However, it was only with Forster’s biography that the full extent of the similarities between Dickens and the fictional Copperfield was made public.
The revelation that Dickens had performed child labour in a blacking warehouse when his father was imprisoned for debt, before rising to international fame in his twenties, gave him a life story that the press described as rivalling Dickens’s “most popular novel”.
Rags to riches
The Household Edition of Forster’s Life, published by Chapman & Hall in 1879, included 28 new illustrations of the biography by Fred Barnard. Among them was an emotive image of Dickens as a young boy in the blacking warehouse.
Dickens wrote a private account of this time, for which Forster’s biography is our only remaining source. In this autobiographical fragment, Dickens describes how he was brought down to work among other boys in the warehouse. He was careful not to let them see his suffering, and to make sure that he worked as hard as them. Yet what Barnard pictures is a scene of solitude, visible despair or perhaps exhaustion at the warehouse that is not described in this fragment. The image bears a closer resemblance to Dickens’s fictionalisation of the first day at the warehouse in David Copperfield.
In the novel, the young Copperfield writes that: “I mingled my tears with the water in which I was washing the [blacking] bottles.” Barnard heightens and externalises the private emotion that Dickens wrote about in the autobiographical fragment to create a fictional scene. In doing so, he further blurs the boundaries between Dickens and the fictional Copperfield.
The practice of Grangerization – the art of extending and customising a published book with inserted material – was popular among Victorian readers. Additional fictionalised illustrations of Dickens’s life, created by the Dickens illustrator Frederick W. Pailthorpe, are revealed in a 14-volume Grangerization of Forster’s Life, held in the British Library.
Some of these seem to have been created for personal interest and private circulation among fellow Dickens enthusiasts, rather than for publication. One sketch shows Dickens as a boy making a low bow to a friend of his father’s.
This image is based on an incident which Forster describes as taking place at the blacking warehouse where Dickens worked. Yet Pailthorpe’s illustration fictionalises the location of the event, transposing the young Dickens to the front of the house of John Dryden, the former poet laureate next to whom Dickens would eventually be buried in Westminster Abbey. In doing so, Pailthorpe creates a narrative in which Dickens was always destined for literary greatness.
Biographical fiction and ‘real-person fiction’
In the 21st century, readers have commented on the resemblances between the fictional stories which the young Brontë siblings wrote about real-life contemporary figures such as the Duke of Wellington, and 20th and 21st-century forms of fan fiction. Oscar Wilde’s 1889 story, The Portrait of Mr W.H., focuses on a series of men whose biographical speculations about the life of Shakespeare verge on fictionalisation.
Nevertheless, recent scholarly work on biographical fiction has described it as coming into being “mainly in the 20th century”. Press articles on the form of fan fiction known as “real person fiction” have largely focused on it as a product of internet culture (while noting briefly that many of Shakespeare’s plays also fictionalise real-life figures).
Archival work on the Victorian press, and on semi-private forms of reader response such as Grangerized books, can flesh out our understanding of the role that biographical fictionalisation played in Victorian culture. It demonstrates a longer and more varied history of the human desire to appropriate and imaginatively recreate famous contemporary figures. And it shows that part of Dickens’s creative legacy, as well as his own works, was the fictional forms that his life inspired others to create.
William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.
There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.
The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.
Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.
Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.
Shakespeare’s greatest and most expensive possession was his house, New Place. Evidence, obtained through recent archaeological investigations of its foundations, give us quantifiable insights into Shakespeare’s thought processes, personal life and business success.
The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.
This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.
Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.
It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.
In search of the Bard
Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.
An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.
Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.
Here lies …
Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.
A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.
These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.
How to read Shakespeare for pleasure
There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at one person’s reading life and their reflections upon it.