Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Authors I’d DIE to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday

“Dying” is a little extreme, but there are a lot of of writers I would love to meet.

  1. William Shakespeare: I have so many questions. First, I want to know what he thinks of the literary reputation he has. I would also love to put paid to all those anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories once and for all (and no, don’t bother commenting on this post if you are one—I cannot be convinced). I would also like to know why he went to London and became an actor. I have a million questions!
  2. Jane Austen: I would love to have tea with her. I am really curious what she would make of her current literary status. I think she would be completely baffled—I actually had a lot of fun imagining just such a scenario. I would just love to sit and talk with her.
  3. J. K. Rowling: Her superstar status makes me more likely to meet Shakespeare in this lifetime. Well, at at any rate, her books are some of my favorites, and I would love to talk with her about the characters and find out all kinds of secrets of the HP World that never made their way into the books. I hope Pottermore will have a lot of that.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: I want to ask him about his writing process. I have heard he was a dogged reviser. I know he helped Hemingway make [amazon_link id=”1907590250″ target=”_blank” ]The Sun Also Rises[/amazon_link] better through some astute editing. I would also like to ask him about all those folks in Paris and what it was like to write in Hollywood. I have so many questions about Gatsby, too.
  5. Oscar Wilde: I mean, he’s bound to be entertaining and hilarious, right? I would love to just chat with him. Though I liked his writing (what I’ve read, that is), I’m more interested in Wilde as a personality.
  6. Mark Twain: Ditto for Wilde, except I truly do love [amazon_link id=”B003VYBQPK” target=”_blank” ]Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[/amazon_link]. I would love to discuss what he thinks of the controversy surrounding that novel. I want to hear him go off on the new bowdlerized edition.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien: I have a million questions about Middle Earth. I would love to hear all about how he constructed such a well-developed fantasy world. It seems like such a huge undertaking.
  8. The Brontë sisters: Yes, it’s cheating to combine them, but to be fair, I would probably have to meet all of them if I were to go visit Haworth, right? I’d love to chat with them about their writing, how they help each other and work together, and just their family story.
  9. Byron, Shelley, and Keats: I already met them for tea in a dream, so again, even though it’s cheating to include all three of them, I’d like to see if they’re at all like they were in my dream.
  10. Joseph Campbell: He has such an understanding of why we tell stories, and I would love to just listen to him talk about them. I especially want to pick his brain about Harry Potter. I have often said to students in my Hero with a Thousand Faces classes that it’s a pity Campbell died before those books were published because he would have loved them.

Historical Crushes

Madame Guillotine posted about her historical crushes recently, and what a fun idea!

Mine are mostly writers.

First, Byron, a perfect rake to be sure, but so handsome, and probably charming (or else he wouldn’t have been such a successful rake).

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

To be honest, having a historical crush on Byron is the modern equivalent of crushing on bad boys, but much safer. No risk of life or limb. I have read several fictional portraits of Byron, and he always emerges as charismatic, intelligent, and, above all, interesting. Read my reviews of Passion by Jude Morgan and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, or better yet, read the books yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

I have had a mad crush on Shelley since 1989. I am not sure why, but his poetry just speaks to me.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

Jude Morgan managed to do what I thought would be impossible in his novel Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets: he managed to make Shelley walk on the ground. I always thought he should be among the angels—surely too good for the solid earth.

You can read about the dream I had about having tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I’ve posted about my crush on Shelley before.

Ever since I read The Great Gatsby, I have had a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. He writes some of the most beautiful prose in American English.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Corbis

He drank way too much, and he thought way too highly of rich people (which is something I glean from reading his novels rather than from a mis-attributed quote Hemingway pinned on him). Hemingway should be more grateful. The Sun Also Rises was a better book for Fitzgerald’s suggestion of deleting the first chapter and beginning with the second. And I love that book, by the way. There are some passages in The Great Gatsby that you can’t beat for poetry. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Robert the Bruce got a raw deal in Braveheart. I know the film was supposed to be about why William Wallace was such a hero, but honestly, did they have to besmirch the character of Scotland’s greatest hero in order to make Wallace look good? For starters, Robert the Bruce did not fight with the English at Falkirk or betray Wallace. He also didn’t decide on the spur of the moment at Bannockburn that he was not going to surrender after all—he was never going to surrender. Any argument the two had was the result of the fact that Wallace probably supported the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne.

Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar
Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar

One of my favorite legends about Robert the Bruce is the one about the spider. He was a wanted man, an outlaw on the run. Hiding in a cave, he observed a spider trying to make a web. It failed time and again as it tried to attach the silken threads from one section of the cave’s roof to another. Finally, it succeeded, and Robert the Bruce knew that he, too, would eventually succeed in his quest to take the throne he believed was rightfully his. And he did. It’s most likely a complete fabrication, but an inspiring one. Ronald McNair Scott has a great biography of Robert the Bruce: Robert the Bruce: King of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth, while famously known as the Virgin Queen (yeah, right), had a thing for Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (at least according to many historians). He was so dashing that men clamored to imitate his fashionable beard.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

He was a military hero, but more than that, he had some serious cojones. He came back from Ireland after the Queen expressly forbid it and charged into her bedchamber before she had her wig on. Of course, he eventually paid for this flagrant disregard for propriety with his life (or, to be more accurate, it was the incident that instigated his inexorable fall from favor, rebellion, and eventual execution). Elizabeth was a formidable woman. Anyone who could pull a sword on her after she smacked him one deserves some grudging respect.

There is a legend that Alfred the Great was in disguise and took shelter with a peasant woman. She asked him to mind the cakes on the fire and not let them burn, but he was preoccupied with the troubles of his country. The cakes burned, and the woman scolded the King. Like the story about Robert the Bruce’s spider, it may or may not be true, but it makes a great tale.

Alfred the Great
Statue of Alfred the Great

Alfred is the only English king to have been given the epithet “the Great.” I am obsessed with the British monarchy. There are a load of interesting characters in that crowd. But trust me that Alfred is probably the only one who deserves the epithet “the Great.” He singlehandedly saved the English language. Don’t believe me? Listen to this. If Alfred had lost that battle, who knows where we would all be. Not only did he prevent Vikings from taking all of England, he also valued literacy and ordered translation of essential Latin texts into English for the first time. He also established some of the earliest schools in England.

In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History, a story about Major General James Wolfe taking Quebec is recounted:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Major-General James Wolfe
Major-General James Wolfe

Besides his dashing bravery in the face of illness—he was dying of consumption when he led the raid—he has an appreciation for poetry over military prowess. Why he isn’t more well known outside of Canada, I’m not sure.

And finally, after having read Jude Morgan’s Passion and seeing the movie Bright Star, I admit to developing a girl crush on Fanny Brawne.

Fanny Brawne
Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

Fanny Brawne was the fiancée of Romantic poet John Keats and is believed by some scholars to be the inspiration for Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star”:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I wrote much more about her in the post I linked. She was an interesting woman in her own right.

Perhaps next week will be a good time to share my crushes on fictional characters. I must have already done it at some point, but I can’t remember.

So who are your historical crushes. And don’t say Henry VIII. He didn’t look like Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He had a disgusting sore from a jousting wound, he was despotic and arrogant, and he was a serial wife murderer. I will concede he was interesting.

Weird Dreams

I had the weirdest dream last night. I was the winner of some kind of luncheon or tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats.

Bom dia! photo credit: Cláudia*~Assad

There was also another guy at the table, who happened to be a dwarf, and he was a writer, but I didn’t know who he was, and I was too embarrassed about not knowing who he was to ask him who he was. All these dream interpretation websites, which I take absolute stock in, seem to indicate the dwarf represents some underdeveloped or unexpressed part of myself.

Keats reached over and squeezed my hand when I sat down. Be still my heart!

He was very quiet, but friendly. Actually, I don’t remember he said a word, but he did smile.

Byron, on the other hand, was clearly put out about having to eat with a contest winner. Could be also that watching women eat grossed him out. He was wearing this outfit, I swear:

Shelley, on the other hand, was really flirtatious, but in that way you know is totally insincere. And every time he said something, I kept thinking of Mary Shelley. He kept apologizing for Byron’s behavior and chastising him for not being friendly. Then Byron would snap pissily (if that’s not a word, it should be) back at him.

Keats was quiet, Byron was sullen, and Shelley was gregarious. It was really weird.

Of course, I’m preparing to teach the works of these three gents in coming weeks, and my students are currently reading Frankenstein. I also received this lovely book in the mail…

…signed by the authors, courtesy the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Receiving mail from the Bodleian was really cool. I am going to save the envelope.

The envelope also contained a pretty picture postcard of the Bodleian’s doors:

photo credit: Kaihsu

Note: This image is not the postcard image, which is probably copyrighted, but it depicts the same doors from a different angle.

I really wish that weird tea party had been real. Can you imagine?

Reading Update: Where is Shelley’s Ghost?

Does anyone know how long it takes a book to travel through the post from the UK? I ask because I won this book:

Shelley's Ghost

For creating this video:

(And before you get excited, I was one of three entrants, so they just decided to award the prize to all three of us.)

I want my book! It was mailed on or around March 3, I think, and given that was over two weeks ago, I’m starting to wonder.

So last week was a good reading week for me, as I devoured Water for Elephants in a day, and I finished listening to the audio version of A Discovery of Witches. I will be wrapping up Great Expectations on DailyLit this week.

I started reading Jon Clinch’s Finn, the story of Huckleberry Finn’s infamous Pap. It’s a little dark, and I’m not sure I’m in the mood for dark right at the moment. It calls to mind Faulkner, and I think I will be glad I’ve read it when I finish it, but I think I want to pick up Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, though it has really mixed reviews on Goodreads. I planned to read it anyway for the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge. I also toyed with the idea of picking up Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson. First of all, I’ve been through Between, which is a real place. Second, Jackson was hysterical in person when I heard her talk about her books. Third, I know it will be funny and light.

Yeah, I can’t decide.

Reading Update: Wolfe and Lovelace

Major-General James Wolfe
Major General James Wolfe
I am in the reign of George III in Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain, and I read a wonderful story that I plan to share with my students next week when we read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” During the French and Indian War (Seven Years’ War), General James Wolfe took Quebec in 1759. Wolfe had been ill with consumption and forced to spend a great deal of time in his tent. Things looked bleak for the English serving under the dying general. As the summer waned, the troops became fearful they’d have to put off their assault on Quebec until after the winter. Wolfe tried, ineffectively, to lead from his tent, but none of his plans seemed to budge the French from their position. Wolfe’s consumption went into remission, and he hatched a crazy plan.

 

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Wow. The French and Indian War doesn’t get much press in American history classrooms, likely because it’s overshadowed by the American Revolution 20 years later, but this is the kind of story that makes history fascinating to me. Wolfe and Montcalm both died in the battle. George II commissioned a painting by Benjamin West to commemorate Wolfe’s death:

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

The result of this battle was that the British wrested control of North America from the French. While the French still controlled Louisiana, the British were no longer inhibited from expanding westward.

The other book I’m reading is a combination of two of my main interests: reading and technology. Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley is part detective story, part Romantic novel. The premise is that Byron really did write a novel in the famous gothic storytelling contest at Villa Diodati in Switzerland, the result of which was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and John Polidori’s The Vampyre, which would later inspire Bram Stoker. The two major poets in the group, Byron and Percy Shelley, didn’t produce much of note. Crowley’s Byron did, but it was suppressed by Lady Byron. Smith, who works on a website celebrating women’s accomplishments, is on the trail of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s daughter, and she thinks that Lovelace might just have saved her father’s novel by encoding it. Lovelace is famous for writing what many believe is the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, a device which if built, might have become the first computer. It was Lovelace who saw the device’s potential. The computer language Ada is named for her.

So yes, I’m doing some fascinating reading. What are you reading?

Percy Bysshe Shelley

My Crush on Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

I wrote yesterday about Byron, and despite completely understanding Byron’s appeal, it is Shelley I have the crush on.

I probably first encountered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry in twelfth grade. I can’t think of any reason I would have encountered him before that time. I did a group project on his poem “Ozymandias” with two classmates. We videotaped ourselves as the Shelleys and his “inspiration,” a basketball player who was past his prime and whose talent would quickly vanish, which I have to say was probably not a bad modernization of the text’s theme. Shopping in the bookstore with my parents, I found a Norton anthology of Shelley’s poetry and prose and had to have it. My dad bought it for me, and he must have been scratching his head over the purchase something fierce because what normal twelfth grader wants a Norton anthology of a British Romantic poet’s work? Even I would wonder what was up with such a kid if I met one today, but I have a sneaking suspicion I was on the extremely rare side in that particular area.

So I read some of the other poems in the Norton, and I was particularly entranced by Epipsychidion, a word Shelley made up which means “on the subject of the little soul.” This poem is about S-E-X. It is transcendent, a connection of souls. It’s written for a woman named Teresa Viviani with whom Shelley was quite enamored, but who was inaccessibly confined in a convent by her father. Just imagine! It reminds me of Romeo’s declaration that Rosaline’s decision to “remain chaste” in fact “makes huge waste.” In the poem, Shelley calls Viviani “Emilia,” the name of Hippolyta’s sister as described in The Teseida by Boccaccio. Later, Geoffrey Chaucer would rework the story in “The Knight’s Tale,” and Shakespeare and John Fletcher as Two Noble Kinsmen. Emilia, or Emily, desires to remain chaste also, but she has the misfortune to be spied by Palamone and Arcita, who fall in love with her on sight (because that’s what you do). I am much more familiar with Chaucer’s version of the story, so I’ll discuss it for a moment (still with me? bored out of your skull yet?).

In Chaucer’s story, Palamon and Arcite (same dudes, different spelling) are cousins who are like brothers. They are among the Thebans who fought against Theseus’s forces. They are captured and imprisoned in Athens, and it is from their prison window that first Palamon, then Arcite, spy Emily. They fall in love with her at first sight, but they can’t have her because they’re in prison. Eventually Arcite is released from prison, but is exiled from Athens, while Palamon remains behind bars. This scenario prompts the Knight to ask the company who has it worse: Palamon, who is imprisoned, but who can still look on Emily’s beauty from his prison window, or Arcite, who is free, but cannot see Emily. I usually ask students how they would answer the Knight’s question. How would you?

I won’t go too far into the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the men have really only fallen in love with Emily from afar. They don’t really know her, and in fact, no one really cares what she wants in all of this, which is to be a nun. Women didn’t get to choose so much in Emily’s day, however, so she eventually weds one of the cousins, and I won’t tell you which because I hope you’ll read the story. What Emily represents is the Knight’s ideal—an example of the lady on the pedestal. Of course, the Miller tells his story next, concerning men and women who are a little nearer to the earth.

At any rate, Shelley choosing that particular nickname for his beloved is fraught with all sorts of meaning. She is the unattainable Emilia, only she is imprisoned rather than her lover (presumably Shelley). Idealized, not real. Not really Teresa Viviani, but his hope for perfection.  He compares his wife, Mary Shelley, to the moon—cold, chaste. Teresa is the sun (can’t help but think of Romeo and Juliet once again).

I don’t know why, but I developed a sort of crush on Shelley that has lasted since twelfth grade, over 20 years now. I don’t think Shelley was particularly nice, at least not to his wives, and I’m not sure what it is about him. He is on the page, and his opinions and beliefs shine forth in clear language, but even after all this time, I don’t feel I really know him. He is still a mystery. I am looking forward to seeing how Jude Morgan gives him flesh and life. I have no trouble imagining Byron or Keats as real people, but Shelley has remained elusive. He is, in that way, like Emilia himself. All the descriptions I’ve read of him tend toward the idealized. I hope Morgan is able to make him walk on the ground.

See Shelley’s Ghost: Reshaping the Image of a Literary Family.

Kindle

New Kindles

KindlePerhaps the biggest book news this week has been the impeding release of the latest generation of the Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader device. The new Kindle will be available in two colors: white or graphite, marking the first time you could get the Kindle in more than one color. The biggest news is that the Kindle will be available in wireless only and wireless + 3G versions. The wireless only version will be an affordable $139. I paid $259 for my Kindle with wireless and 3G in April, but this version of the new Kindle will cost only $189. The new Kindle will also be lighter by about 2 ounces. The battery life has been extended. With wireless off, the battery will now last a month. It will also have double the storage of the current Kindle. The new Kindle is also supposed to have sharper contrast and quieter, faster page-turns. I have to say that had I known this new Kindle was coming down the pike, I would have waited a few months. I’m hoping owning a Kindle isn’t going to turn into the same frustrating cycle as being an Apple customer. Are you planning to get one? They’re sold out for now, but you can put your name on a list. Amazon says as of today that if you order today, you can expect your Kindle on September 4. I think it’s great that Amazon is working to make their excellent e-reader even better.

A lot of my friends have said that they like the feel and smell of books too much to get an e-reader. I have to say that just because I bought a Kindle doesn’t mean I gave up print books. In fact, according to an infographic in the latest issue of Newsweek, only 15% of Kindle users stop reading print books.

In other news, I thought this podcast about Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was interesting. Give it a listen.

Anniversaries and birthdays this week:

August 3: Birthday of Leon Uris (1924), death of Joseph Conrad (1924), death of Flannery O’Connor (1964), death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (2008).

August 4: Birthday of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792), death of Hans Christian Andersen (1875).

August 5: Birthday of John Hathorne, hanging judge in the Salem witch trials and ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, (1641); birthday of Guy de Maupassant (1850); birth of Conrad Aiken (1889); birth of Wendell Berry (1934).

August 6: Birthday of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809); birthday of Piers Anthony (1934); death of Ben Jonson (1637).

August 8: Death of Shirley Jackson (1965).

August 9: Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden (1854), birth of P. L. Travers (1899), birth of Philip Larkin (1922), birth of Jonathan Kellerman (1949), death of Hermann Hesse (1962).