Today in 1775, Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk, was born. Set in the sinister monastery of the Capuchins in Madrid, The Monk is a violent tale of ambition, murder, and incest. The great struggle between maintaining monastic vows and fulfilling personal ambitions leads its main character, the monk Ambrosio, to temptation and the breaking of his vows, then to sexual obsession and rape, and finally to murder in order to conceal his guilt.
By Russell Goulbourne
Thursday 28 June 2012 marks the tercentenary of the birth of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important and influential philosophers of the European Enlightenment. The anniversary is being marked by a whole host of commemorative events, including an international conference at my own institution, the University of Leeds, which begins today. Rousseau arouses this kind of interest because his theories of the social contract, inequality, liberty, democracy and education have an undeniably enduring significance and relevance. He is also remembered as a profoundly self-conscious thinker, author of the autobiographical Confessions and Reveries of the Solitary Walker.
Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selection while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 26 June, Bradford Morrow leads a discussion on My Antonia by Willa Cather.
“The ghost-stories are begun by all but me,” John William Polidori wrote from Geneva on 17 June 1816 as one of five participants in perhaps the most famous literary competition of all time. Polidori was the handsome, arrogant, and often quick-tempered outsider in a group that also included Percy Shelley, radical poet and thinker, and a married man; his lover, Mary Godwin, the only child of the philosopher William Godwin and the passionate advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft; Lord Byron, the most celebrated (and then notorious) literary figure of the age; and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister and Byron’s newest mistress.
On 12 June 1827, a Swiss writer named Johanna Spyri was born. While living in Zurich, she began to write about life in the Swiss countryside. It is there in the Alps that her most famous character Heidi lives. While Heidi has captured the hearts of readers around the world, it is first her abrasive grandfather that she must charm.
By Stephen Regan
Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin on 7 June 1899. She grew up in an elegant Georgian house on Herbert Place, close to the Grand Canal, hearing the busy rattle of trams going over the bridges and the lively bustle of barges carrying timber to a nearby sawmill. Her memoir of early childhood, Seven Winters (1942), recalls the sights and sounds of Dublin city life with striking clarity and immediacy. It both registers the unique and specific details of the author’s early years and takes up its place in a marvelously rich tradition of Irish memoir and autobiography.
On 5 June 1851, the abolitionist journal National Era began running a serial by the wife of a professor at Bowdoin College. A deeply religious and well-educated white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an ardent opponent of slavery. As she wrote to the journal editor, Gamaliel Bailey: “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak… I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.” The work, eventually titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or Life Among the Lowly, became a national sensation.
By Ritchie Robertson
Some of the great modernists have written evocatively about childhood. At first glance, Kafka may not seem to be among them. The minutely detailed recollection of childhood that Proust provides in Swann’s Way, or Thomas Mann’s account of a school day in the life of young Hanno Buddenbrook, lack counterparts in Kafka. His world-famous and compelling fantasies are about inscrutable authorities, such as the Court and the Castle, and their victims are doomed at worst to inexplicable punishment, at best to frustration. Kafka would seem to deal with experience rather than innocence.
Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic shocker introduced Count Dracula to the world, an ancient creature bent on bringing his contagion to London, the very heart of the British Empire. Only a handful of men and women stand between Dracula and his long-cherished goal, but they are vulnerable and weak against the cunning and supernatural powers of the Count and his legions. As the horrifying story unfolds in the diaries and letters of young Jonathan Harker, Lucy, Mina, and Dr Seward, Dracula will be victorious unless his nemesis Professor Van Helsing can persuade them that monsters still lurk in the era of electric light. Here, in one of Jonathan Harker’s diary entries, he meets Dracula for the first time…
On 25 May 1895, at the Old Bailey Courthouse, Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. A warrant for his arrest on this charge had been issued immediately after losing a libel case against the Marquess of Queensbury, which had also left him bankrupt. While imprisoned at Pentonville and then Wandsworth Prison, his health declined sharply, and following his release, he fled to France. A poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and wit, Wilde lost the joy of writing in his final years. Whether or not it be “the love that dare not speak its name,” Oscar Wilde’s “The House of Judgement” shows he was no stranger to examination and judgement before his trial.
On 22 May 1859, a Scottish doctor and writer admired the world round was born — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His university teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, was a partial model for his most famous character — Sherlock Holmes. Let’s listen in as Holmes explains The Silver Blaze to Watson.
By Francis O’Gorman
When John Ruskin (1819-1900) began Praeterita (1885-9), his unfinished autobiography, he had no obvious models of what an autobiography should look like, nor a clear view of who his audience was.
On 20 May 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets were first published in London by Thomas Thorpe (work now found in the Folger Library). The Bard was nearing the end of his play-writing career and soon to retire. A lifetime of poetry was gathered together and printed — possibly without the permission of the author. To celebrate, we’ve excerpted Sonnet 127 and additional commentary from our Oxford World Classics edition edited by Colin Burrow — The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Enjoy the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s poetry.
By Peter Miles
As every schoolchild knows, never give more than one explanation: rather than uncertainty, it suggests a conscious or unconscious smokescreen. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Sigmund Freud demonstrated as much by reference to a “defence offered by a man who was accused by his neighbour of having returned a kettle in a damaged condition. In the first place, he said, he had returned the kettle undamaged; in the second place it already had holes in it when he borrowed it; and in the third place, he had never borrowed it at all.”
Alice Vavasor is torn between a risky marriage with her ambitious cousin George and the safer prospect of a union with the formidably correct John Grey. Her indecision is reflected in the dilemmas of her friend Lady Glencora, confined in the proprieties of her life with Plantagenet Palliser but tempted to escape with her penniless lover Burgo Fitzgerald, and of her aunt, the irreverent widow Mrs Greenow, who must choose between a solid farmer and an untrustworthy soldier as her next husband. Each woman finds her choice bound up with the cold realities of money, and the tension between public expectation and private inclination in Anthony Trollope’s classic Can You Forgive Her?. Here is a letter from George to Alice.
By David Roberts
Natural disaster is an exciting but tricky subject. Risk to survival; extreme deprivation; families sundered and reunited; panoramic set pieces of waves crashing, meteors hurtling, or skyscrapers toppling – all the ingredients are there for a gripping narrative. But think of the technical and ethical challenges. How does a writer choose one focal point among so many? Who survives? If the subject is a real disaster, how does a novelist or screenwriter honour the memory of those who endured, and those who perished? And what about the nagging doubt that it is all an exercise in profiting from misery?