Geoffrey Chaucer c.1340-1400
Chaucer’s mental energies must have been phenomenal, his character full of contradictory virtues. He was a diplomat, tactful and discreet, yet he was called on to entertain the Court with songs and poems; he was a civil servant entrusted with important missions abroad, yet he found time to educate himself in every field of study. And all the while he was writing poetry of originality and vigour which would set his name at the very foundation of English literature.
William Shakespeare 1564 – 1616
The greatest and most famous of English writers, Shakespeare reigned supreme in the theatre at a particularly fertile period of English drama. His career as actor/playwright took him from Stratford to London, where he wrote his celebrated tragedies in the first decade of the 16th century. Unmatched in his gift for language, he created legendary characters and dramatic moments which have inspired audiences and artists down to the present day.
Sir Walter Scott 1771 – 1832
A Romantic as well as a realist, Sir Walter Scott had a lifelong passion for Scotland’s dramatic history, which he poured into his poetry and prose. His seemingly effortless ability to realize the past made him – almost by accident – a pioneer of the historical novel, and a writer of incalculable influence on such diverse novelists as the Brontës, George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. His literary fame was coupled with immerse persona popularity, and at his death, he was designated by the historian Thomas Carlyle as the “pride of all Scotchmen”
The Romantic Poets: Reacting against the formal, rational elements of 18th-century verse, five writers emerged who, within decades, changed the face of English poetry. Wordsworth, with decades, changed the face of English poetry. Wordsworth, with his belief in the inspiration of Nature and Coleridge, who was fascinated by the supernatural, were “first-generation” Romantics. Byron, Shelley and Keats, who followed, were tragically short-lived – but not so their art. They created some of the angriest and most lyrical of English poems and revolutionized ideas on beauty, truth and imagination.
William Wordsworth 1770 – 1850 – In the course of his long life Wordsworth changed from a young rebel to a pillar of the Establishment. His literary eminence made the Lake District – where he spent most of his life – a place of pilgrimage.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge 1772 – 1834 – Eloquent, idealistic and with wide-ranging talents, Coleridge nevertheless failed to find the love and fulfilment he craved – except, perhaps, in his inspiring friendship with the Wordsworths.
Lord Byron 1788 – 1824 – Byron was both famous and infamous for his audacious poetry, his scandalous love life and his devotion to liberal ideals ostracized by English society, he died fighting for Greek independence.
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792 – 1822 – An atheist and radical, Shelley spend his life in virtual exile for his beliefs. Before his early death, he had stamped his unique intelligence and optimist political vision on a series of pamphlets, essays and poems.
John Keats 1795 – 1821 – Although his life was tragically short, Keats was blessed with a “teeming” poetic gift which triumphed over both his personal suffering and savage criticism.
Jane Austen 1775 -1817
The six most polished, controlled and elegant social comedies to be found in English literature were written by a woman whose personal life remains an enigma. Observing her own leisure social circles, Jane Austen’s cool judgement, ironic detachment and refined sentiments give her novels a unique depth and compelling charm. Her “exquisite touch” earned her the immediate admiration of the greatest writers of her day and her popularity remains undimmed. But many agree with the poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson – who ranked Jane Austen alongside Shakespeare – When he “thanked God Almighty with his whole heart that he knew nothing, and that the world knew nothing of Jane Austen”. Her delightful novels are almost all we know for certain.
Mary Shelley 1797 – 1851
Remembered today as the daughter of illustrious parents and the wife of a famous poet, Mary Shelley shrank form any form of publicity and contributed to the obscurity that still clouds her name. Many people are astonished to learn that as a quiet, intellectual girl of 19, she wrote one of the most imaginative and horrific novels of the time – Frankenstein. Mary’s eight years with Shelley were marked by tragedy, trauma and exile, but they were also years of inspiration for her own distinctive imagination.
Charles Darwin 1809 – 1882
From the secluded calm of his county home, the reclusive semi-invalid Charles Darwin unleashed upon the world ideas that rocked Victorian society and shook the very foundations of the Christian church – ideas that provoked some of the most bitter scientific debates ever heard. Even today, the storm of controversy raised by the publication of The Origin of Species and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is far from over. The germ of this revolutionary theory had been sown 20 years before-during a voyage around the world he had made as a young naturalist.
Elizabeth Gaskell 1810 – 1865
From a witty, talkative, vivacious beauty, Elizabeth Gaskell matured into a woman of astounding energy and hard-won experience. The property and injustice she witnessed set her writing, but she never let literature outweigh the other aspects of her busy life. Given her sociable nature and social conscience, her time was already full. But, beset by demands for her work, she laboured on, despite her over-taxed health, to preserve in the words and images of fiction a disappearing world she valued for its charm an innocence.
William Makepeace Thackeray 1811 – 1863
William Makepeace Thackeray wrote some of the finest satirical novels in the English language. And his ebullient personality matched his most colourful creations. His own life was as chequered and as beset by loss and adversity, as any work of fiction. Intimate with the fashionable world sucked into its unsavoury undertow, he rose above it to become a grand old man of letters. When he died of an overstrained heart, the greatest writers of his day lamented, for he told “the truth in spite of himself”
Charles Dickens 1812 – 1870
Charles Dickens was the greatest novelist of his time and is regarded by many as the greatest English writer after Shakespeare. The “Dickensian” world is entirely his own, peopled with characters larger than life – Mr Micawber, Samuel Pickwick, Ebenezer Scrooge and a host of others. But Dickens was more than just a creator of memorable and colourful characters – he was essentially a subversive writer. He made his readers think and feel and act in a way that was new. Though he came to be embraced by the Establishment of this own time, Dickens spent his life fighting its tyranny and injustice. When he died, a cabman’s testimonial summed-him up: “Ah, Mr Dickens was a great man and a true friend of the poor”
Anthony Trollope 1815 – 1882
Convinced, with good reason, that he was unloved and unregarded, Anthony Trollope struggled long and hard for a foothold in the world. But his vast resources of energy and dogged hard work broke down the barriers to success and found him loved, feted and avidly read. His labours were Herculean. He pitted himself against Time to produce a library of books about credible people and their credible foibles. His readers responded by recognizing Trollope as a shrewd, honest wry portrayer of English life.
Charlotte Brontë 1816 – 1855
Sole surviving sister of a tragic and talented family, Charlotte Brontë was the only one to receive public acclaim before she, too, died prematurely. In early adulthood, she shared the precarious lot of Victorian women, forced to live a “walking nightmare of poverty an self-suppression”. Only literary success gained her some independence, ironically achieved by adopting a sexless pseudonym. Fittingly, it is the injustice of Victorian attitudes to women, and a woman’s struggle to establish her own identity in a man’s world that are her great themes. Drawing on her remarkable family and her own woefully circumscribed experience for inspiration, she explored her themes with startling passion and clarity. Only now is she recognized as a truly revolutionary writer.
Emily Brontë 1818 – 1848
Emily Brontë’s life was intensely solitary. Her fitted brother an sisters were her only real human contact, and with her younger sister Anne (above, left) she’s created a world of childhood fantasy which remained essential to her in adult life. Only happy when roaming her native moors alone, she acquired not one single friend. But the strength of her personality inspired the deep admiration and love of all her sisters – but especially Anne’s. Emily’s extraordinary courage and inability to compromise resulted in one of the most passionate, violent and controversial books of the 19th century, and a unique body of poetry, all published shortly before her early death. As D.H. Lawrence wrote, “…life does not mean length of days. Poor old Queen Victoria had length of days. But Emily Brontë had life. She died of it.”
George Eliot 1819 – 1880
Mary Ann Evans – better known as Geroge Eliot – would have been an extraordinary woman in any age, but in her own, she challenged the norms of Victorian social convention and extended the boundaries of fiction. In a period renowned for its strict moral and religious values, she lived openly with a married man and reflected Christianity. In her novels, she replaced orthodox Christianity with a “religion of Humanity”. The compassion and insight with which she shows her characters growing and developing marks her ourt as one of the most sensitive and intelligent novelist in the English Language. Her exceptional quilities as a writer finally gained her – if not complete social acceptance – her rightful position as a great English woman of letters.
Wilkie Collins 1824 – 1889
When Wilkie collins paused in the telling of his latest thriller, Victorian England held its breath. His heroines were the talk of every parlour, and success drew a cloak around the celebrity’s highly unconventional private life. A colossus, twinned with Dickens, his was the art not of caricature but of intricate plot, plausible villain, spine-chilling encounter, heart-stopping shock. But perhaps the brooding fears which menace his characters convince his readers because such torments surrounded Collins himself.
Lewis Carroll 1832 – 1898
The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, was an extraordinary man who led three lives. One was as a shy, unsociable mathematics don. The second was as a renowned child photographer. And that for which he is best remembered is as the author of the brilliantly inventive Alice stories, inspired by and written for two little girls named Alice. Only at home in the company of children such as these, he died a “lonely bachelor” at 65.
Samuel Butler 1835-1902
Bitter resentment at an unhappy childhood set Butler against all forms of dogmatism and authority; his witty masterpiece is an autobiographical cry from the heart against parents’ inhumanity to children. Despite a persona gentleness and wry sense of humour, his determination to challenge Victorian hypocrisy and religion earned him hostile critics. He shunned marriage and lived as a semi-recluse, sustained by the love of a few close friends.
Thomas Hardy 1840 – 1928
From humble beginnings in rural Dorset, Thomas Hardy rose to achieve the social prominence he craved, but he remained torn between the “dream country” of his imagination and the world of London’s literati. His genius lay in portraying the pastoral life he knew so well – but the honesty with which he wrote about the relationships between men and women outraged Victorian sensibilities. When his last novel was publicly burned in 1896, he withdrew to the country and devoted himself to poetry.
Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 – 1894
Robert Louis Stevenson was one of the greatest of all adventure writers. Few have rivalled his gift for telling rattling yarn, but he also had a powerful moral sense and an acute psychological perception. His own short life was packed with incident, and was strongly motivated by his belief that “no man is of any use until he has dared everything”. Handsome, witty, generous to a fault, but living always in the shadow of ill health, he was a truly Romantic figure, fit to rank with his most compelling literary creations.
Wrote by Marshall Cavendish Ltd (1986) - COLOUR LIBRARY BOOK OF GREAT BRITISH WRITERS -
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