December 15 in Literary History: Arthur Machen Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 15th of December

1683: Izaak Walton dies. He was a biographer who wrote about the lives of a number of key seventeenth-century poets, including the Metaphysical Poets John Donne and George Herbert. However, it is for his 1653 book The Compleat Angler that Walton is chiefly remembered. Charles Lamb recommended the Angler to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘It breathes the very spirit of innocence, purity, and simplicity of the heart.

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December 14 in Literary History: Shirley Jackson Born

The most significant events in the history of books on the 14th of December

1640: Aphra Behn is (possibly) born. Few details about Behn’s early life are known for sure, but it’s possible that she was the ‘Eaffrey Johnson’ who was born in Harbledown in Kent, on December 14 1640. Behn is often named as the first woman writer to make a living from her pen (by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, for instance); it’s certainly true that she was the first consistently popular female playwright in England whose plays were put on the London stage. She also wrote an early novel (or novella) in English, Oroonoko, about an African prince who is taken to be a slave in South America.

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December 13 in Literary History: Samuel Johnson Dies

The most significant events in the history of books on the 13th of December

1784: Samuel Johnson dies. Among the books he planned to write, but died before he got a chance to undertake them, Dr Johnson listed a cookbook set out ‘upon philosophical principles’ and a history of his melancholy. He did, of course, manage to complete his groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a book that is often very funny, as well as being informative, scholarly, and educational. 

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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.

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November 25 in Literary History: The Mousetrap Opens in London

The most significant events in the history of books on the 25th of November

1562: Lope de Vega is born. A towering figure of Spanish Renaissance literature, he was a hugely prolific poet and playwright. Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, called Vega, his contemporary, a ‘monster of nature’, which sounds much like the seventeenth-century view of William Shakespeare as a writer endowed with natural gifts rather than one whose craft had been studiously learned. But Vega outdid even Shakespeare for his sheer volume of work. Shakespeare left behind 154 sonnets; Vega wrote over 3,000. Shakespeare wrote, or collaborated on, around forty plays. But around 1,800 plays have been attributed to Lope de Vega (of which 426 survive).

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