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Author Bio: Geoffrey Chaucer

                  

                 

Geoffrey Chaucer

(1343-1400)

“Now I pray all those that hearken to this little treatise or read, that if there be anything in it that pleases them, they thank Our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom proceeds all wit and all goodness. And if there be anything that displeases them, I pray them also to blame it upon my lack of skill, who would full gladly have spoken better if I had that skill. For our Book says: ‘all that is written is written for our doctrine,’ and that is my intent. Wherefore I beseech you meekly, for the mercy of God, that you pay for me, that Christ may have mercy upon me and forgive me my sins; and namely for my translations and writing on worldly vanities, which I revoke in my retraction: as are the Book of Troilus, the Book also of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, the Book of the Duchess; the Book of Saint Valentine’s Day of the Parliament of Fowls, The Tales of Canterbury, those conducive to sin, the Book of the Lion; and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a lecherous lay; that Christ in his great mercy may forgive me the sin.   But the translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione, and other books of legends of Saints, and homilies and morality and devotion, for them I thank Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blissful Mother, and all the Saints of Heaven; beseeching them that they from henceforth unto my life’s end send me grace to bewail my sins, and to study the salvation of my soul, and grant me the grace of true penitence, confession and satisfaction, to perform in this present life, through the benign grace of Him that is King of kings and Priest over all priests, who bought us with the precious blood of His heart, so that I may be one of those at the day of doom that shall be saved. Qui cum patre etc.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, did more, perhaps, to influence the development of the English language than any other author save the prolific William Shakespeare.  History credits him with the invention of rhyme royal, that seven-line stanza composed in iambic pentameter, and with the riding heroic couplet.  The first to compose in the English vernacular, Chaucer coined countless words, bringing them into common usage. 

A well-educated son of an affluent London merchant, Chaucer made his living in court.  He fought in the 100 Years War, where he was captured and ransomed by King Edward III.  Serving first at court as page to Prince Lionel’s wife, he climbed to become Lionel’s father, King Edward III’s esquire.  After marrying Philippa Roet, lady-in-waiting to the queen, to better his social and economic position, he pursued more political work, working variously as a custom’s controller in London, a clerk responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of royal properties, diplomat to France, Spain, and Italy, a justice-of-the-peace, and even as a member of Parliament. 

Chaucer’s broad experience at court and in the public eye informed his choice of subject matter in his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, for which he frequently sourced French literature, especially that of the courtly romance genre.  The broad array of people that filled Edward’s court offered him ample opportunity to create caricatures of the various tradespeople and social castes of his time.  Likewise, it trained him in diplomacy, which stood him in good stead when he turned to satirical lampoons of church and state officers. 

In addition to his original creative works, Chaucer rendered several scholarly, literary translations, including The Consolation of Philosophy by the Italian poet Boethius, the influence of which is evident in Chaucer’s courtly romances, Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale.  His scholarship explains his wide facility with philosophical, religious, and historical allusions throughout his oeuvre. 

Chaucer died at the age of sixty in the year 1400 and is buried in Westminster Abbey among his literary peers in what is called Poet’s Corner.   This seems an appropriate remembrance of a man whom renowned poet John Dryden called the Father of English Poetry.  On the monument which marks his resting place, these words appear in Latin:

"Of old the bard who struck the noblest strains

Great Geoffrey Chaucer, now this tomb retains.

If for the period of his life you call,

the signs are under that will note you all.

In the year of our Lord 1400, on the 25th day of October.

Death is the repose of cares.

N.Brigham charged himself with these in the name of the Muses

1556"

 

Author Bio: Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens

(1812-1870)

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born February 1812 in Hampshire, England, the oldest child of naval clerk John Dickens and his wife Elizabeth Barrow.  His early childhood was marred by poverty.  When Dickens was 12, his father landed in debtor’s prison; Charles left school to support the family by working in a blacking factory.  Although a windfall inheritance bought John’s freedom, the family’s growing financial needs kept Charles out of the classroom and in the marketplace.  Eventually, he found work as a freelance reporter in the London courts.  This began an illustrious career in letters for Charles.    Over the course of his writing career, Dickens edited several journals, wrote 15 well-respected novels, 5 novellas, countless short stories, and numerous non-fiction articles (Wikipedia).   With his pen, he developed a reputation for humour, wit, and sensitivity, publishing his first book, a collection of stories and articles called Sketches by Boz, under the eponymous pseudonym.  Historian R. H. Horne declared Dickens “manifestly the product of his age…a genuine emanation from its aggregate and entire spirit…a first-rate practical intellect, with ‘no nonsense’ about him” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).  While he was not a philosopher or an intellectual, Dickens’s sagacious observations about Victorian England and human nature won him many devoted readers.  Nevertheless, his personal experiences colored his perception of 19th c. culture, breeding a general distrust of landed wealth.  This “shadow of the Marshalsea” would remain upon Dickens all his life.         

Victorian England was a stratified society; Dickens perceived its excesses and shortfalls, characterizing them satirically in novels such as Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, Nicholas Nickleby, and Bleak House.  He found as much virtue in the poor as he found graft and corruption in the rich, and these observations found their way into social satires like A Christmas Carol, in which the notorious capitalist Scrooge learns from ghosts and angels to share his blessings with the unfortunate Bob Cratchit and his family.  It can be argued that Dickens virtually created the modern concept of Christmas with this novella.  While some critics have accused Dickens of creating shallow, one-dimensional caricatures, his critical reputation has endured.  Biographer Philip Collins notes: “The centenary in 1970 of Dickens’s death demonstrated a critical consensus about his standing second only to William Shakespeare in English literature which would have seemed incredible 40 or even 20 years earlier” (Encyclopaedia Britannica).   

Working in the genre of realism and in the shadow of the 18th c. picaresque novel, Charles wove somewhat allegorical tales that targeted the social ills of his time, lampooning ethical misconduct such as child abuse, unmerciful debt laws, and corporate graft, while showcasing true, Christian morality.  Encyclopaedia Britannica lauds him as “the conscience of his age.”   A professing Christian, he disliked pretentious religion, preferring instead the sincere faith of those like his character Amy Dorrit. 

However devout, in 1858, Dickens betrayed his wife of 22 years, Catherine Hogarth, who bore him ten children to pursue the young actress Ellen Ternan, with whom he maintained an affectionate relationship until his death (Biography.com).  His work with Ternan gave way to a love of the theater, and Dickens began to stage readings of his stories for the public.  This led to several international tours and great public acclaim.  Likewise, it placed considerable strain on Charles, who collapsed on stage in 1869 while on tour.  Although he recovered, he spent his twilight years, while outwardly cheerful, in reality sad and declining.  American Romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson commented that he was a man whose spirit was too large for his frame, and American author Mark Twain, a notable peer, called him a “pioneer” in the oral and written arts (Encyclopaedia Britannica).  He finished his peerage beneath the stage lights, delivering his final speech on his Farewell Tour with these famous words: “From these garish lights I vanish now forevermore…”  Dickens died in June of 1870 from a stroke; he was 58 years old.  Modern actor and Dickens historian Simon Callow depicts him in his renowned bio-theatrical, the Mystery of Charles Dickens, as an intelligent, energetic, optimistic, but haunted man who craved love and admiration.  He courted this in a distant but adoring public that reveres him to the present day.     

Works Cited:

Biography.com editors.  “Charles Dickens Biography.com.”  www.biography.com/people/charles-

dickens-9274087.  A & E Television Networks.  April 27, 2017.  Web.  September 18. 2017. 

 

Collins, Philip.  “Charles Dickens.”  www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Dickens-British-novelist.

Encyclopaedia Britannica.  August 29, 2017.  Web.  September 18. 2017.  

 

Wikipedia editors.  “Charles Dickens.”  www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens.  N.p.  September 16,    2017.  Web.  September 18, 2017. 

Author Bio: William Steig

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William Steig

(1907-2003)

Born to Polish-Jewish immigrants, American William Steig pursued a diverse career in the arts.  During his 94 years, he worked as a cartoonist, a sculptor, a children’s book author and illustrator, a movie animator, an ad man and a greeting card designer.  In his youth, Steig attended three colleges, but he never obtained a degree.  Instead, when the Great Depression left his father unemployed, Steig began work for The New Yorker magazine, where he remained for 60 years sketching some 2,600 drawings and 117 cover designs.  At 61 when most people are entertaining plans to retire, Steig began his career as a children’s book author and illustrator, eventually producing 25 books, two of which won the prestigious Newbery Medal and another the most notable award given in the children’s book industry, the Caldecott Medal.  Among his more notable titles are Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Doctor De Soto, Abel’s Island, Brave Irene, Shrek, and Amos and Boris.  Never dumbing down his work for his audience, Steig’s narratives boast sparkling syntax and wit.  Steig received the Academy Award for Best Animated Short for his film adaptation of Doctor De Soto in 1984.  His book, Shrek, likewise was made into a Dreamworks animated film, which earned Steig healthy royalties during his final years.  In addition to his success in cartooning and children’s books, Steig credited himself with innovations in the contemporary greeting card industry, abandoning the saccharine sweet texts of his predecessors for what he termed “hate” cards.  With good-natured realism, Steig’s multi-faceted oeuvre radiates a wit and humor that continues to entertain adults and children alike.

 

Author Bio: William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

(1564-1616)

"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts..." (As You Like It, 2.7.142-145)

The world knows William Shakespeare.  Author of the most beloved plays and poems in the English language, Shakespeare’s name has become a household word.  To speak it is to conjure up murderous villains, court jesters, hapless heroes, and fated lovers.  His is Macbeth, Hamlet, Brutus and Cassius, Romeo and Juliet, Prince Hal and his beloved Falstaff, Katherine the Shrew and her rough match Petruchio.  The world’s a stage, and these faces continue to strut and fret, timeless in their moment, eternal in their utterance.  So profound is the influence Shakespeare has had on the world through his art that his characters have become types, his plots patterns for other artists, his linguistics and syntax the stuff of style books.  Yet, few know that this towering author was born humbly and educated in public grammar schools through only the eighth grade.  Fewer still realize that he curated his spectacular stories from other literary narratives and history books. 

Third of eight children born to a glovemaker, William exceeded all expectations.  He married an older woman at the age of 19, one Anne Hathaway of Stratford.  Together they produced three children, two of them twins.  In the late 1500’s, Shakespeare ventured to London to pursue a career in acting and playwriting.  A member of Christopher Marlowe’s theater, and shortly thereafter James Burbage’s theater, he gained reputation and experience, coming to understand both the art and the audience it drew. 

He published poems such as Venus and Adonis (1592) before turning to theater with his The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI.  Contemporary reviews belie the envious admiration he inspired in his peers, who called him “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.”  By 1594, Shakespeare had composed five plays, which he performed with Burbage’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Recognizing genius, Burbage made him partner.  During this time, he wrote the parts of Romeo, Prince Hal, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth to be performed by Burbage’s son, Richard, who certainly had no notion of the great honor accorded to him in originating these historic roles.  While popular plays in Shakespeare’s time narrated ancient histories, William staged the history of the English people, in this way not only preserving the nation’s history, but in a real sense authoring it.  In narrating the stories, he influenced how particular historic figures would be remembered by future generations.  Was Richard III as dastardly as Shakespeare paints him?  He will ever be remembered so.  Was Prince Hal so cold to his friend, Falstaff?  Shakespeare didn’t merely record the histories of his people, he turned them into art, shaping his narratives to highlight themes, develop ideas, and censure behaviors accordingly.  Thus, in a real sense, he contributed largely to the sensibilities and self-perception of the English people. 

When Burbage lost his lease on the land that held his theater, he and his men deconstructed the theater in the secret of night and erected a new theater, the Globe, on the other side of the Thames.  There Shakespeare staged As You Like It, Henry V, and Julius Caesar.  When in 1601, the Earl of Southampton commissioned him to stage Richard II, he was accused of treason against the crown of Queen Elizabeth; however, he escaped with merely a hand slap from her majesty.  Essex, the leader of the coup, was executed and Southampton imprisoned.  Yet, Shakespeare, the upstart crow, remained the darling of the hour.  When Queen Elizabeth died, James I became the patron of Shakespeare’s company, which became known as the King’s Men.  It was for this Scottish king that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and observant viewers will discover in the character Banquo’s mirror an homage to James’s crown.  The subject of the story, an ambitious soldier that usurps the throne and reigns in tyrrany until his betters put him down, seems a conscious effort to assure the king of his own devotion to the Lord’s chosen monarch. 

At 47, Shakespeare retired, returning to Stratford to build his family a house considered lavish in his day.  Although he continued to write until his death, he never returned to the London theater.  He died in 1614 at the age of 52 and is buried in the local church, where his resting place is marked with the crude epitaph: 

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,

To dig the dust encloased heare:

Blese be the man who spares thes stones,

And curst be he who moves my bones.

 

His artistic peers eulogized him, Ben Jonson perhaps most eloquently, who, doubting not his genius, wrote, “He was not for an age, but for all time.”

Shakespeare’s friends collected and published his works posthumously in 1623 in the First Folio.  Some of the plays it contains differ from previous manuscripts, since these exist largely from what men were able to copy down and actors themselves remembered from viewing and acting in the stage plays. 

 

Bibliography:

Evans, G. Blakemore.  The Riverside Shakespeare.  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

 

Biography.com editors. “William Shakespeare Biography.com.” The Biography.com website, 5 August,

2017,  https://www.biography.com/people/william-shakespeare-9480323.  8 Nov. 2017. 

 

Bevington, David, John Russell Brown, and Terence John Bew Spencer.  “William Shakespeare – English

Author.” Britannica.com website, https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare.  8 November, 2017. 

Author Bio: Jane Austen

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Jane Austen

December 16, 1775 – July 18, 1817

Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.
— Emma

Born in 1775, during the reign of King George III of England, novelist Jane Austen is now widely regarded as the crown jewel of British Regency Period literature.  Her six novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), all of which achieved recognition after her death, caricatured 18th c. England’s upper class and satirized their complex social mores. 

She was born to George and Cassandra Austen, and one of 8 siblings.  Her sister, Cassandra, was her best friend; the majority of what is known of her is the result of Cassandra’s notes.  So too must we blame Cassandra for the silence that surrounds her, since she destroyed many of Jane’s letters in an effort to preserve her privacy from both the family and the public eye. 

Jane was born in Steventon in December of 1775, where she remained for the majority of her short life.  Her father, a rector and teacher, was largely responsible for her education.  She enjoyed a close relationship with her brother Henry, who became her literary agent.  She began writing at the age of eleven.  Her earliest work, a collection of three notebooks entitled Juvenalia, contains her novels Love and Friendship and Lady Susan

Although Jane espoused marriage and romantic love as her major themes, she herself never married.  In a letter to her niece, she warned against marrying for social and economic reasons, arguing, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”  Her sentiments marked a sea change in general sentiiments regarding the honorable purpose of marriage.  The effects of her influence in this regard are still visible in 21st c. culture. 

Today, however, Austen’s novels are still read for their amiable and realistic portrayal of human nature.  A 19th c. Realist, Austen satirized the popular Sentimentalist and Gothic novels of her own day, preferring instead to present a realistic, if comic portrayal of the world. 

Austen remains the originator and master of romantic comedy as a genre.  Her varying use of narration and dialogue were ground breaking as was her participation, as a woman, in writing comedic novels.  During her lifetime, she published anonymously, identifying herself only as “A Lady.”  This obfuscation indicates the groundbreaking nature of her significant contribution to literature.

Austen died in 1817 at the age of 42 and is buried at Winchester Cathedral.  Her brother memorialized her passing in verse:

"In her, rare union, were combined a fair form, and a fairer mind;
Hers fancy quick, and clear good sense,
And wit which never gave offence;
A heart as warm as ever beat, A temper even; calm & sweet.
Though quick & keen her mental eye Poor nature's foibles to espy,
And seemed for [ever?] on the watch,
Some trails of ridicule to catch
Yet not a word she ever penned
Which hurt the feelings of a friend."

 

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Author Bio: Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888

Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us - and those around us - more effectively.
— L.M. Alcott

American author Louisa May Alcott was born one of four sisters in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832, but spent the majority of her life in Massachusetts. Her father, noted transcendentalist Amos Bronson Alcott, taught and experimented in communal living with his close friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The experiment, which was largely a failure, forced Alcott’s mother Abigail May Alcott, her sisters, and herself to assume the practical labor of running the community farm, while her father and his friends philosophized. Louisa, consequently, felt largely responsible for the financial needs of her family from a young age, and she taught, tutored, washed, mended, and performed whatever work she could find to support them. Even so, her father schooled her liberally, and she enjoyed frequent discourse with the men in his society, known today as the New England Transcendentalists, several of whom took an active role in her education. Bronson’s associations also introduced her to Margaret Fuller, who advocated women’s rights. 

Louisa began writing early, and her financial needs led her to attempt publication. She published her first poem, “Sunlight,” in 1852 under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield. Her first book, Flower Fables, followed in 1855. She began Little Women in 1868, drawing largely on her experiences with her own sisters at her family home, Hillside, in Concord, Massachusetts, and completing the first manuscript in only two and a half months. Readers will recognize Beth in Louisa’s sister Lizzie, who contracted scarlet fever in 1856 and passed away later that year. Likewise, Meg seems to have been drawn from Louisa’s sister Anna, who married shortly after Lizzie’s death, breaking up the close-knit family. 

Little Women chronicles the coming of age of the March family and the changes the sisters’ impending adulthood occasioned. Some speculate that Louisa drew the March family the way she wished her own family had been. At any rate, the book was a success and a sequel, Old Fashioned Girl, followed in 1870. At this point, her career blossomed. She published Little Men (1871), Work (1873), Eight Cousins (1874), and Rose in Bloom (1876). Her youngest sister, May, married in 1878, naming her first daughter after Louisa; when May died, Louisa became guardian to her namesake. 

Alcott moved with her niece to her father’s hometown of Boston in 1880. There, she continued to support her family, including her father, with her writing skills. She published Jo’s Boys in 1886, which would be her last novel. Her health declining, she died the accomplished author of over 30 books, short stories, and poems, in 1888, at the age of 56, two days after the death of her father.  She lies buried among other notable New England authors on Authors’ Ridge in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. 

 

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The March sisters live and grow in post-Civil War America. (Little Women 1994 directed by Gillian Armstrong.)

Author Bio: Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Fyodor Dostoevsky

November 11, 1821 – February 9, 1881

And what’s strange, what would be marvelous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.
— The Brothers Karamazov

Nineteenth century Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was one of those rare authors who enjoyed a living success and the validation of his peers. Even so, this success, however brilliant, was limited to his work in letters. His personal life, fraught with difficulties, darkness, and doubts, offered him ample material for his artistic endeavors. 

Prone to introspection, family problems and health issues fueled metaphysical doubts in Fyodor at a relatively early age. His father's death, purportedly at the hands of his serfs, and the resulting epilepsy that this event triggered in the author plunged him into shadows. Although he completed an engineering education in a military school, he preferred philosophy and composition, resigning his post of 2nd lieutenant to pursue a writing career. He fell in with some other intellectuals, socialist revolutionaries known as the Petrashevsky Circle, which association earned him a five-year stint in Omsk, a penal colony in Siberia. Upon his release in 1854, he began a literary journal with his brother and penned fiction in order to support his family. Although he married Maria Dmitrievna Isaev, he kept a mistress, Polina Suslova, who was a known hedonist.  The two were well matched in their pursuit of material pleasures; Dostoevsky struggled with a gambling addiction most of his adult life. When his wife and brother both died unexpectedly, Fyodor was taxed with supporting both families on an artist’s salary. Accounts suggest that he produced his finest works of literature during this time under the duress of driving financial obligations. Letters From the Underground (1864), Crime and Punishment (1866), The Gambler (1867), The Idiot (1868-69), The Eternal Husband (1870), and The Possessed (1871) were all published within a period of only seven years. In 1876, he began a project that he planned in several volumes, the finished portion of which he published as The Brothers Karamazov.  This novel, together with his Crime and Punishment, are considered by many two of the finest examples of psychological fiction ever written. In these, Dostoevsky poses questions regarding the existence of God, the problem of pain and suffering, and the source of ethics – issues that perplexed him throughout his lifetime. 

Highly influenced by the growing existentialist philosophers of his day, Dostoevsky created characters who, like himself, suffer from contradictions between their self-awareness, which suggests some sort of metaphysical reality, and their experience with a seemingly meaningless material world.  In fact, some contend that The Brothers Karamazov is in fact the story of an existentialist crisis, that critical moment in an individual’s life which forces him to consider the eternal things, thereby making Dostoevsky the first of the existentialist novelists.  The prison camp novel and the dystopian novel are likewise attributed to his work. 

Perhaps the greatest recommendation of Dostoevsky’s work is his simultaneous honesty regarding his spiritual doubts and the profundity of his Christian faith. Both his own life and the lives of the characters he created embody the advice of his character, Father Zosima, a wise religious elder in The Brothers Karamazov, who, speaking to Alyosha, a young acolyte who will face his own dark night of the soul, intones:  “This is my last message to you:  in sorrow, seek happiness.”  Dostoevsky's novels, dark as they be, demonstrate the reality and fruitfulness of this perplexing struggle.

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A rare version 1975 of The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov produced by the Open University. Inquisitor: John Gielgud, Prisoner: Michael Feast, Other characters: Victor Hooper & Mark Ezra, John Dolan, Translation: Jeremy Brooks & Kitty Hunter Blair, Costumes: Brian Cox, Make-up: Maggie Webb, Produced by Richard Argent
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