When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Tag archive: Literature

Racehorse And Writer

Eric Blair, alias George Orwell, from a 1943 photograph

1932: An easy victory in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket ensured that Orwell was firm favourite to win the Derby in June. Punters bet heavily on the colt, but he lacked the staying power needed for the longer Epsom race, and finished a long way down the field. At Doncaster, three months later, he had the chance to redeem himself in the St. Leger, but again ran poorly. Win or lose, though, the name Orwell appeared prominently and repeatedly in the sports pages.

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Sign Of Maturity

Edith Sitwell, painted by Roger Fry in 1915

1904: Writing home from Paris, where she had been sent to finish her education, 17-year-old Edith Sitwell described the changes to her pubescent body: “I am growing eyebrows. One can see them distinctly.”

Source: Richard Greene, Edith Sitwell: Avant-Garde Poet, English Genius (2011), p. 48

No Exceptions

American writer William Saroyan

1981: Despite doubting the veracity of “last sayings”, which he regarded as mostly “inventions of the survivors, members of the family, exploiters of truth and falsity”, the American author William Saroyan offered his own contribution shortly before prostate cancer killed him: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.”

Source: Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford, Saroyan: A Biography (1984), p. 307

Glum Outlook

1936: Having sold only two copies of More Pricks Than Kicks in a year, Samuel Beckett’s publisher was understandably reticent about his next effort, Murphy. A further 41 publishers turned the novel down before it was eventually accepted.

“I do not feel like spending the rest of my life writing books that no one will read,” Beckett wrote to a friend. Thoroughly disillusioned, he contemplated swapping his desk and typewriter for an aircraft cockpit. “I hope I am not too old to take it up seriously, nor too stupid about machines to qualify as a commercial pilot.”

Source: Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. I: 1929–1940, ed. Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Loise More Overbeck (2009), p. 362

Discordant Note

Caricature of William Somerset Maugham

1955: William Somerset Maugham’s affair with Syrie Wellcome and their subsequent marriage produced one child but little happiness. When they divorced in 1929, Maugham was obliged to agree to a costly settlement to secure Syrie’s silence regarding his homosexuality. As the years passed, Maugham deeply resented the misery of their marriage and the continuing financial burden of the settlement.

Syrie died in London on 25 July 1955. Maugham heard of her death while playing cards at the Villa Mauresque, his home in the south of France. He put down the pack and drummed his fingers triumphantly on the table. “Tra-la-la-la,” he sang. “No more alimony. Tra-la, tra-la.”

Source: Robin Maugham, Somerset and All the Maughams (1966), p. 208

Noisy Send-Off

1931: As Arnold Bennett lay dying from typhoid in his flat near Marylebone Road, the local council gave permission for straw to be spread in the busy street to muffle the noise of traffic, possibly the last time this was allowed in central London. Bennett died at nine in the evening of 27 March. “It was a night of rain. The straw became sodden and slippery. Just after midnight a milk dray skidded and overturned, sending its load of churns crashing along the pavement below the flat in a thunderous din.”

Source: Reginald Pound, Arnold Bennett: A Biography (1971), p. 367

Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Williams Bows Out

Tennessee Williams, photographed in happier times by Orlando Fernandez

1983: The American playwright Tennessee Williams bemoaned the downward trajectory of his career “from good reviews, to bad reviews, to no reviews”.

On 25 February, his body was discovered in a New York hotel room, curled on the floor next to the bed. An alphabet of prescription drugs, from Aldomet to Zyloprim, lay on the chest of drawers; capsules of Seconal, a barbiturate, littered the bedclothes; a half-empty glass of red wine stood on the bedside table. Cause of death: the toxic amount of Seconal consumed and not, as some reports suggested, a medicine bottle cap stuck in the throat.

Source: John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (2014), pp. 582–8

Final Breath

1977: The novelist Vladimir Nabokov died in a Swiss hospital (window carelessly left open, bronchitis) at the age of 78. Véra, his wife, and Dmitri, his son, were in the room. With his last breath, said Dmitri, his father emitted “a triple moan of descending pitch”.

Source: The Observer, 25 October 2009

Attractive Feature

John Betjeman, phototgraphed in the 1920s

1932: Penelope Chetwode met her future husband, the journalist and promising poet John Betjeman, for the first time. Asked shortly afterwards what it was she liked about him, she replied, “He has green teeth.”

Source: Bevis Hillier, Young Betjeman (1988), p. 373

“Yes. I Remember . . .”

1914: Don’t be overly nostalgic about the summer of 1914, warned Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory. And yet, in almost the same breath, he described it as “the most idyllic for many years”: a time for strolling in the countryside, a time for sipping tea at wicker tables under shady trees, a time when books could be left outdoors all night without fear of rain.

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Cat Out Of The Bag

1908: Aspiring novelist D.H. Lawrence let the eugenic cat out of the bag:
“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’.”

Source: D.H. Lawrence, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: vol. I: September 1901–May 1913, ed. James T. Boulton (1979), pp. 79–81

Noddy And Chatterley

1960: Penguin Books’ decision to tweak a few legal noses by publishing an unexpurgated, inexpensive edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover produced the expected result: prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.

Penguin’s lawyers contacted an array of writers and academics to bolster the defence case. Aldous Huxley offered to appear as a witness. Graham Greene backed the publisher, but admitted that he found parts of the book “rather absurd”. T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman sent letters of support. Enid Blyton declined: “My husband said NO at once”.

Source: Jeremy Lewis, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (2005), pp. 323–4

“The Little Fellows”

1951: James Joyce’s wife, Nora, outlived him by 10 years. She was protective of his literary reputation, though at times she overdid it. When an interviewer questioned her about the French writer André Gide, she remarked: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

Source: Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1983), p. 743

Wells’s Sex Appeal

1946: How did H.G. Wells become the Don Juan of 20th-century English literature? How did a short, rather portly man with a receding hairline, a tired moustache and a squeaky voice attract a string of lovers that included the writers Rebecca West and Elizabeth von Arnim, the birth control activist Margaret Sanger, and the Russian baroness Moura Budberg?

“Fat and homely” was the way William Somerset Maugham described Wells, and he once asked Budberg what it was that attracted her to him. His smell, she said; his body “smelt of honey”.

Source: Andrea Lynn, Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells (2001), pp. 19–21

Giveaway Vegetable

1942: The poet Robert Graves, living in south Devon, had his application to join the special constabulary blocked by the village policeman. Three reasons: first, because of Graves’s suspicious German middle name, von Ranke: second, because Graves had been heard “talking a foreign language to two disreputable foreigners” – refugees from Franco’s Spain, as it happened; and third, because someone had scratched the words HEIL HITLER! on a marrow in his garden.

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 281

Peace In Wartime

1941: “You hear people say that fishing is a waste of time,” wrote the novelist and keen angler H.E. Bates. “Can time be wasted?” he pondered. “In a hundred years it will not matter much whether on a June day in 1941 I fished for perch or devoted the same time to acquiring greater learning by studying the works of Aristotle, of which, anyway, I have no copy. The day is very hot, and there are thousands of golden-cream roses blooming on the house wall in the sun. Perhaps someone will be glad that I described them, sitting as I am forty miles from the German lines at Calais. Perhaps someone will wonder then at the stoicism, the indifference, the laziness or the sheer lack of conscience of someone who thought roses and fish of at least as much importance as tanks and bombs.”

Source: H.E. Bates, The Country Heart (1949), p. 30

Controlled Exit

1935: Instead of allowing incurable breast cancer run its deadly course, the American writer and social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman inhaled chloroform to bring her life to a close.

“When all usefulness is over, when one is assured of unavoidable and imminent death, it is the simplest of human rights to choose a quick and easy death in place of a slow and horrible one,” she wrote in her suicide note. “I have preferred chloroform to cancer.”

Source: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography (1935), pp. 333, 334