19th Century

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: 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