The most significant events in the history of books on the 12th of November
1615: Richard Baxter is born. This English Puritan theologian and poet was a noted hymn-writer – he wrote the words for the hymn ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright’ among others, and is mentioned by George Eliot in The Mill on the Floss.
1865: Elizabeth Gaskell dies. As well as her classic realist novel about nineteenth-century factory life, North and South (which features in our pick of the best Victorian novels), Gaskell also wrote a short story called ‘The Half-Brothers’ (1859) which features a collie dog named Lassie. Whether this was the inspiration for the series of popular films, even indirectly, is not known. If not, it’s a nice coincidence. Gaskell also wrote various other works of fiction, including Lois the Witch (set during the Salem witch trials of 1692) and the interlinked stories that make up Cranford, the shorter work that was made into a BBC miniseries.
1915: Roland Barthes is born. This French philosopher and literary theorist is perhaps best-known for his 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, a key work of poststructuralism, which questioned the neat, quasi-scientific approach to literary study which the structuralists had pioneered over the previous few decades. In ‘The Death of the Author’, Barthes argued that every text is merely a ’tissue of quotations’, the author is not a Godlike figure, and the true meaning of a literary work lies ‘not in its origin but in its destination’ – that is, the reader. Barthes’ own death would come in 1980, when he was run over by a laundry van and died of his injuries shortly after.
Image: Elizabeth Gaskell in c. 1860, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.
I don’t mean to be insensitive but Barthes death reminds me of Steve Martin’s favourite poet in The Man with Two Brains. John Lillison (author of ‘Pointy Birds’) is described as ‘England’s greatest one armed poet’ and ‘the first person to be hit by a car.’
I prefer the adaptations of Gaskell’s novels to her actual writing–which is unusual for me. I find her diatribes against industrializations and her character dramas a bit long-winded; however, her overall ability to weave together people’s individualities for an overall portrait of the times is what makes her writing memorable.
I didn’t know Gaskell wrote “Lois the Witch”. I’m definitely going to have to find that one since I liked “Cranford” and “North and South”!