The most significant events in the history of books on the 21st of November
1694: Voltaire is born François-Marie Arouet in Paris. This towering figure of the French Enlightenment wrote satirical novels (Candide), philosophical works (Dictionnaire philosophique), and even an early example of the detective novel (Zadig). This last work takes the figure of Zadig (an ancient Babylonian philosopher) as its central character, and incorporates the classic fairy tale ‘The Three Princes of Serendip‘.
1748: The first instalment of the dirty novel Fanny Hill is published. Subtitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, John Cleland’s novel is considered the first example of an original work of literary pornography written in prose in the English language. The novel was heavily censored when it was first published, and a full, unexpurgated version would not appear in print until 1963 – over two centuries after it was written. Astoundingly, the novel would find itself in a similar position to Lady Chatterley’s Lover several years before, and the man selling the book was put on trial. He lost, and the book would not be reprinted until 1970.
1863: Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor of Oxford Book of English Verse, is born. Quiller-Couch, popularly known as ‘Q’, was responsible for finishing Robert Louis Stevenson‘s novel St Ives when Stevenson died in 1894.
1902: Isaac Bashevis Singer is born. This Polish-born Jewish author (who wrote exclusively in Yiddish) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978.
1932: Beryl Bainbridge is born. This Liverpool-born novelist once observed, ‘I’ve always thought people write because they are not living properly.’
1945: Robert Benchley dies. A member of the Algonquin Round Table of American wits along with Dorothy Parker and many other American men and women of letters, Benchley was the father of novelist Peter Benchley, best known for writing the novel Jaws, which was turned into a famous film by Steven Spielberg.
1999: Quentin Crisp dies. He had been born Denis Charles Pratt on Christmas Day 1908. He dramatised his life in The Naked Civil Servant, later adapted with John Hurt in the crispy title role. Crisp once observed: ‘Autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last instalment missing.’ He also wittily remarked: ‘If anyone said to me, “if you go on like this life will pass you by,” I would reply, “thank God for that, I nearly got mixed up in the beastly thing.”‘
And as November 21 is World Television Day, some thoughts on the gogglebox from the great and the good in the world of letters. Gore Vidal offered the advice, ‘Never pass up a chance to have sex or appear on television.’ Noel Coward remarked, ‘Television is for appearing on – not for looking at.’ And as Groucho Marx said, ‘I must say I find television very educational. The minute somebody turns it on, I go into the library and read a good book.’
Image: Title page of Fanny Hill under original title Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, 1749; Wikimedia Commons.