December 12 in Literary History: Gustave Flaubert Born

The most significant events in the history of books on the 12th of December

1731: Erasmus Darwin is born. This natural philosopher, scientist, and poet was the grandfather of Charles Darwin. One of his poems, The Botanic Garden, anticipates the Big Bang theory when it describes an explosion, a ‘mass’ which ‘starts into a million suns’. He was also a restless inventor, devising both a copying machine and a speaking machine to impress his friends, though neither design ever received a patent.

1821: Gustave Flaubert is born. Best remembered now for his 1856 novel Madame Bovary, Flaubert reportedly woke at 10am every day and promptly hammered on his ceiling, to get his mother to come down and talk Gustave Flaubertto him. He helped to introduce a new form of realism into fiction, and his work would be a considerable influence on later writers in the English language, among them Joseph Conrad and James Joyce.

1889: Robert Browning dies. After Alfred, Lord Tennyson he is perhaps the most celebrated and influential of all Victorian poets. Along with Tennyson he helped to develop and define the dramatic monologue, a form of poem in which a character speaks to the reader (or some unseen listener) and usually reveals something about themselves.

1914: Patrick O’Brian is born. This English novelist’s most popular series is the Aubrey–Maturin series, set in the during the Napoleonic Wars. The series – which eventually grew to twenty novels – began with Master and Commander, made into a film starring Russell Crowe.

1929: John Osborne is born. His defining play is Look Back in Anger (1956), featuring Jimmy Porter, the quintessential ‘Angry Young Man’ of the 1950s.

1952: Helen Dunmore is born. This British poet and novelist has won a slew of prizes, from the Orange Prize (for her 1996 novel A Spell in Winter) to the T. S. Eliot Prize for her volume of poetry, Bestiary.

1999: Joseph Heller dies. Although he wrote further novels after Catch-22, it is that anti-war satirical novel that remains his chief legacy, and the popular phrase it introduced. He once wittily observed, ‘When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as “Catch-22” I’m tempted to reply, “Who has?”’

Image: Gustave Flaubert, author unknown; Wikimedia Commons.

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