Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Jane or Joanne?...

It seems unoriginal to begin another awed tribute to the Hary Potter phenomenon, whose last installment has taken £104 million in its opening weekend in the US and Canada. Instead, across the Atlantic, another famous female British writer was proving that endurance of time is the real test.

Almost 194 years after her death, a rare Jane Austen manuscript has sold for £993, 250. 'The Watsons', an unfinished novel complete with revisions and crossings out, was originally owned privately, yet is now in the hands of the Bodleian Library, who beat off competition from New York's Morgan Library. Having secured money from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Bodleian say that they are 'delighted' to have bought 'such a valuable part of our literary heritage'.

Austen may be worth 105 times less than Potter today, but until Rowling influences 200 years' worth of readers, she won't hold the same place in literary hearts as the beloved Jane.

The Romancer...

On this day...Famous Italian poet and 'Father of Humanism' Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch, died in 1374 at the age of 69. Born in Tuscany, Petrarch spent much of his early childhood in Florence before leaving with his family to Avignon to follow the flourishing papacy of Pope Clement V. There, much against his wishes he was schooled in the practice of law - a profession he could only escape from upon the death of his parents. Instead he pursued his love of classical literature, creating his own Latin epic 'Africa', and his disdain for the ignorance of the intervening centuries led Petrarch to be credited with creating the concept of the 'Dark Ages'.

Although he fulfilled many roles throughout the rest of his life - scholar, diplomat, priest - Petrarch is best known for his poetry, in particular, that devoted to Laura. The identity of the woman is unknown, yet she has become famous world over as the original Petrarchan ideal, which writers such as Sidney and Shakespeare have since incorporated in their own works. 'Il Canzoniere', or 'The Songbook', mainly written in sonnet form, alongside 'Secretum' and 'Itinerarium', Petrarch's guide to the Holy Land, have ensured his place among the greatest and most influential of the world's writers.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Ordinary people, extraordinary writing...

The time has come for the Guardian First Book Award to appear again, yet this time it has a different dimension. The honour for debut writers has traditionally been chosen by expert panellists, who narrow entries down to a longlist, shortlist, and finally a winner. However, this year, for the first time, the full catalogue of submissions have been released online. The 136 entries from publishers include the 2011 Orange Prize winner Tea Obreht, yet the Guardian believes that the public might know better. At the end of this month, the 10th title of the longlist will be announced, chosen by ordinary people, but hopefully uncovering extraordinary writing.

The Scottish Adventure ...

On this day...English poet John Keats visited the home of another famous composer of verse, Robert Burns in 1818. During a summer walking tour in the North Country, whilst traversing 20 or 30 miles a day, Keats came to the family home of the Scottish Bard in Alloway.

The 'Ploughman Poet', who had died 24 years previously, has since been lauded as a founder of the Romantic movement, and influenced not only Keats himself, but also his contemporaries, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth. It was here that Keats composed his sonnet, 'Written in the Cottage Where Burns Was Born' - a poem most notable for its premonitory first line, 'this mortal body of a thousand days'. Keats died 43 days short of this number.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Tennis in texts...

Wimbledon may have come to an end, but the sport of strawberries and cream remains all year round in literature. Indeed, from Betjemin poetry, to Shakespeare's histories, racquets pervade countless pages. Here is a quiz about tennis in texts.

The Class Clown...

On this day...Irish playwright, poet and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan died in 1816, at the age of 64. Born in Dublin to parents both active in the theatre business, Sheridan moved to England at the age of seven and attended the independent Harrow School. The most significant event of his early life however, was not of literary importance, rather, it was two duels fought against Captain Matthews, who had defamed Sheridan's wife-to-be in a newspaper article.

Having barely escaped with his life, Sheridan set up a house in London and began writing for the stage, opening with the play, 'The Rivals'. Although a failure on its first performance, a change of actor ensured that its second was an immediate success, and following another profitable composition, 'The Duenna', Sheridan was able to buy complete ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre. It was there that some of his most famous plays, such as 'The School for Scandal' and 'The Critic', made their debut. At the same time, Sheridan was vigourously engaging in parliamentary work, yet things cam to a head in 1809, when his theatre burnt down. Three years later, he failed to gain re-election after 32 years, and he died in poverty after contracting an illness. Sheridan is buried in Poets' Corner.