November 5 in Literary History: Guy Fawkes Night

The most significant events in the history of books on the 5th of November

‘Remember, remember, the Fifth of November’, as the old rhyme has it – and November the 5th tends to be associated with one particular historical event. But it was also the day of several notable literary birthdays and deathdays…

1605: Guy Fawkes Night comes into being when the Yorkshire revolutionary is caught red-handed underneath the Houses of Parliament. We all know the song: Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. But did it actually happen on the 5th of November? Fawkes was actually apprehended a few minutes before midnight, which means that ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ should probably be a day earlier. The illustration below right is by George Cruickshank for Harrison Ainsworth’s 1840 novel Guy Fawkes.

Bonfire Night has long been associated with Guy Fawkes, a ritual effigy-burning that lurks behind T. S. Eliot‘s poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925), which takes as one of its epigraphs the child’s call, ‘A Penny for the Old Guy’. Dr Johnson fell into the common trap of believing the word ‘bonfire’ was derived from the French bon and so meant ‘good fire’ (it actually means ‘bone-fire’); as a result, his Dictionary contained the wrong etymology.

1715: John Brown, English poet and playwright, is born. David Garrick starred in his two plays, Barbarossa (1754) and Athelstane (1756, about the first King of England).

1884: James Elroy Flecker is born. An English poet and playwright who was influenced by the French Parnassian Guy Fawkes illustrationschool, Flecker died in 1915, aged 30, from tuberculosis. Lines from Flecker’s play Hassan … The Golden Journey to Samarkand are inscribed at the SAS airbase in Hereford: ‘We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go / Always a little further; it may be / Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow / Across that angry or that glimmering sea.’

1885: Will Durant is born. An American writer and philosopher, Durant is perhaps best known for The Story of Civilization, a huge work he wrote with his wife Ariel, published over forty years and running to eleven volumes.

1926: Poet and novelist John Berger is born. He would give half his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers.

2005: John Fowles dies. He is best remembered for his early work of neo-Victorian fiction, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), filmed in 1981. It was adapted for the big screen by Harold Pinter.

2008: Michael Crichton dies. A bestselling novelist for nearly forty years, he first rose to fame with The Andromeda Strain in 1969, though he would go on to enjoy enormous success as the author of Jurassic ParkDisclosure, and various other novels (most of them later turned into films). He was also the creator of the medical drama ER. He was very nearly among the fatalities on 9/11, as we reveal in our compilation of great Michael Crichton facts.

Image: George Cruickshank, ‘Guy Fawkes in Ordsall Cave’, 1840, Wikimedia Commons.

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