Literary Anniversaries: 08 November
“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”
You can probably tell from this Literary Anniversaries series that this is something I’ve been interested in for a while. It’ll come as no surprise that we know, in my family, who we share a birthday with.
So, I’ve known about today’s literary anniversaries for ages because they coincide with my eldest son’s birthday – many happy returns, Cameron, by the way! They’ve also been a source of frustration and grinding of teeth, because these anniversaries are so much cooler than mine.
Here’s today’s roll of honour, in order :
John Milton (died 1674)
Bram Stoker (born 1847)
Margaret Mitchell (born 1900)
Let’s start with Milton. Milton was born in 1608, so his life overlaps with Shakespeare’s by less than a decade. He lived in politically turbulent times, leading to the execution of Charles I in 1642, the English Civil War, and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. My first proper exposure to Milton was his utterly fascinating poem Samson Agonistes, based on the Old Testament biblical figure. There’s an added poignancy to the fact that when Milton was writing about the blinded hero he was almost certainly blind himself. Milton’s most famous work is, of course, Paradise Lost. This epic work deals extensively with two famous ‘falls‘ – the fall of Satan from Heaven, and the fall of Adam and Eve from innocence in the Garden of Eden, leading to their exile. It’s not a poem to read in one sitting, divided as it is into twelve ‘books’ – but it’s status as a classic is thoroughly deserved. Interesting fact (apart from the fact that Milton dictated the entire thing, as he was blind): after the first edition was published, Milton was obliged to write an explanation of why the poem did not rhyme!
If I could share an anniversary with anyone, Stoker would be near the top of my list. Over the years my literary pilgrimages have included holidays to Dublin, where I spent an afternoon at the VERY eerie Stoker Museum, and of course Whitby, where one of the most famous characters in literature landed in England. Despite Carmilla having been written a quarter of a century earlier, Stoker is the indisputable grandfather of the vampire genre. If you’ve never read Dracula, you really need to. It will completely surprise and challenge any preconceptions you have about it, and I really find something new to say about it every time I read it. Most of my students know that at university I wrote an essay claiming that the Count was innocent, simply a guy with ‘special dietary requirements’, and that Van Helsing and his cronies were the real villains of the piece. Possibly the most fun I have ever had writing academic essays! Interesting fact about Bram Stoker: he is said to have ‘stolen’ and then married Oscar Wilde’s girlfriend. This feels particularly strange, given that Wilde was famously homosexual and Stoker suspected to be, too. He certainly seemed to have been infatuated with the American poet, Walt Whitman. I feel very sorry for Mrs. Stoker …
Finally, we have Margaret Mitchell. From the bad boys, Lucifer and Dracula, we move on to an equally famous rogue, Rhett Butler from Mitchell’s classic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone With The Wind (1936). Mitchell called the work a novel about survival, and Scarlett O’Hara certainly has to endure all kinds of trials in her life – not least her stormy relationship with Rhett. Almost everyone, film-goer or not, can quote his devastating put-down: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.‘ A Level students who have been looking at Tennessee Williams’ ‘Streetcar‘ will find the book (or the film) a decent approximation of the manners and ways of the Old South that were romanticised by the American public, and provide the background for Blanche and Stella.