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Subject: ‘English Literature’

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Robert Smith Surtees wrote the funniest novel about hunting

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Sport on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Robert Surtees first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 599 published on 7 July 1973.

Illustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds,  picture, image, illustration
A humorous llustration for Mr Facey Romford's Hounds by Surtees, picture by John Leech

It was a dark winter’s afternoon in 1832, as the 27-year-old Robert Smith Surtees sat writing in his London room. He was working on the next episode of his novel Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities which was being serialised in the New Sporting Magazine, when something reminded him of his childhood. He leaned back in his chair in the flickering candlelight and relived the adventure of his first fox hunt.

He had been a boy of 12, the son of a well-to-do country gentleman. His family home was Hamsterley Hall, in Durham, where he had lived since a few years after he was born in 1805. He had been standing in his father’s stableyard when the local hunt passed by. The harsh note of the huntsman’s horn split the morning calm. The hounds were hot on the scent of a fox, and, close behind the dogs, came the huntsmen. The thundering hooves filled Robert’s ears, and, without hesitating, he leapt on to the nearest horse – which was unsaddled and still wearing only a stable blanket – and galloped off in pursuit of the fox.

His father’s reaction to Robert’s bareback cross-country chase had been very mixed. As Master of the Hunt the older man had been amused and pleased by the boy’s enthusiasm, but as owner of a valuable horse which might have been seriously harmed by such thoughtless treatment, he was furious. Robert was lucky, however, for the sportsman was stronger than the disciplinarian in his father and his anger soon faded.

Robert Surtees came out of his day-dream and started busily writing again. He had to finish the episode he was writing, that evening, but he did not mind the work for the serial was about his favourite subject, hunting. By writing of the adventures of his hero, Jorrocks, Surtees could escape from the equally pressing and more serious work of his profession, the law. He hated all things legal, however, finding them dry and dull. So he escaped from London whenever possible and could often be found galloping through the Surry countryside with one of the many local hunts.

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Jerome K. Jerome was a droll late-Victorian humorist

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Jerome K. Jerome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Three Men in a Boat,  picture, image, illustration
A scene from Three Men in a Boat by Paul Rainer

Jerome K. Jerome walked slowly along the dark London street, past Langham church as the clock on its tower showed 1.20 a.m. It was the winter of 1884 and the empty streets were still. Suddenly pulling a battered notebook and pencil out of his pocket, he stopped by a street lamp. Turning towards the dim glow shed by the gas light he started to write quickly.

Jerome was a writer who liked to do his writing out of doors at night. Work on his first book, On the Stage – and Off, was going well and he was eager to finish it. Then, hearing approaching footsteps, Jerome looked up. Over the past few months he had got to know all the policemen who patrolled this beat, and he quickly recognised the inspector walking towards him.

“Evening sir” said the policeman, and Jerome, smiling a greeting, said eagerly.

“Listen to this,” and began to read aloud from his notebook. The policeman listened and then, to Jerome’s relief, began to laugh heartily.

“Very good sir,” he said. “That should make a fine book when it’s finished,” and he nodded towards the notebook in Jerome’s hand.

Jerome smiled again, pleased with his success. It was always more difficult to make the inspector laugh than any of the other men on this beat. After the inspector had gone Jerome stuffed notebook and pencil back into his pocket and walked thoughtfully towards home, a shabby little room off the Tottenham Court Road.

Jerome had always been determined to be a writer. Once, when only a small boy, he had been left behind during the long train journey home to London after a holiday in Cornwall. He had consoled himself then by thinking what a good adventure it would make when he wrote about being lost in his diary.

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‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ is a comic masterpiece

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

This edited article about Laurence Sterne first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Dr Slop falls off horse,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Slop falls from his horse – a scene from 'Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' by Laurence Sterne

The classroom was empty when young Laurence Sterne, one of the pupils at the Heath Grammar School, near Halifax, opened the door. He looked around quickly, noting the pots of paint, brushes and a ladder left behind by some painters. Suddenly, seizing one of the brushes, he climbed up the ladder and began painting LAU STERNE in bold white letters on the dark wooden beam which ran right across the newly-whitewashed ceiling.

Finishing his handiwork, Laurence started to go down the ladder again. But, just as he reached the ground, he heard the door open behind him. His heart sank as he turned and saw one of the strictest of his teachers standing there. Seeing what Laurence had done, the master wasted no time in giving the boy a sound beating.

This was Laurence Sterne’s first bid for fame, and he soon forgot his beating when he heard his headmaster say that the name would never be removed for Sterne was a genius and would surely one day be famous.

It was not until 1759, more than twenty years later, that this prediction came true. But it was the same light-hearted ambition to be famous which spurred Sterne on to write his book “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” In it, he tells the rambling and boisterous tale of the people who lived at Shandy Hall. Sterne himself said, when the book was finally published, “I wrote not to be fed but to be famous,” and famous he suddenly was, for the book was an immediate success.

Until his rise to fame, Sterne had led the life of a moderately well-to-do clergyman, living with his wife and one daughter in the north of England. But now the dazzle of London society tempted him and he left his quiet Yorkshire home to go south. In London, he was received enthusiastically, going out to dinners and parties every evening and meeting many famous people of the day. He even had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the finest portrait painter in England.

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The Rose Theatre at Bankside in Southwark, London

Posted in Actors, Architecture, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Friday, 14 March 2014

Rose Theatre,  picture, image, illustration
The Rose Theatre, Southwark by Peter Jackson

The Rose Theatre was one of four theatres on the south side of the Thames in Southwark, that district notorious for leisure and lascivious pleasures, whence the revenues went to William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, and undoubtedly paid for the establishment of his New College at Oxford, as well as Winchester College itself. It was the first London theatre to stage any play by Shakespeare, and yet its success was short lived. It was built by Philip Henslowe, whose diary from the period remains the most important historical primary source for the study of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre. It was the smallest of the London theatres, but despite later enlargement by Henslowe himself, seems to have been unpopular with many theatre-goers. An outbreak of the Plague closed all playhouses for two years, and when they re-opened the Rose failed to increase its popularity. The Privy Council’s decree in 1600 that there should only be two theatres in the district signalled its demise, along with the building of the Globe in 1599. The Rose was abandoned and closed in 1603 when its lease expired. It was probably demolished around 1606.

Many more pictures relating to Southwark can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

The young poetic forger who loved the Middle Ages

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 12 March 2014

This edited article about Thomas Chatterton  first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Thomas Chatterton, picture, image, illustration
The Death of Chatterton

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,

The sleepless soul, that perished in his pride;

Of him who walked in glory and in joy

Following his plough, along the mountain side:

By our own spirits are we deified:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

From “Resolution and Independence” William Wordsworth

Who was this “marvellous boy” that so stirred the spirit of one of Britain’s greatest poets? What was so special about someone who never published anything really worthwhile of his own during his own lifetime, and then killed himself at the absurdly young age of eighteen?

In 1752 the new-style Gregorian calendar was introduced and September 3rd became – to the anger of some and the confusion of most – September 14th. Apart from this eleven day readjustment, it was a fairly uneventful sort of a year.

In Bristol, after a life of hardship, there died a poor school-teacher and sexton of Redcliffe Church Shortly after his death his wife was delivered of a baby boy. The child’s name was Thomas Chatterton.

He was a precocious and rather lonely child, with slightly sunken eyes and long flowing hair, that hung well below his shoulders. Before he was twelve, he wrote several poems that showed a very real and original talent. The great tragedy is that so few people recognised their true value until after his death.

Apart from poetry, there was one other love in Thomas Chatterton’s life. His father had been a keen archivist – interested in old parchments and documents – and Thomas had inherited some of that interest. Browsing through his father’s papers, he came across a mass of old vellum, and documents relating to the history of Redcliffe church. What was even more important was that he found pages of unused or partly-used parchment.

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Frederick Rolfe was a poisonous poseur with a unique literary voice

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Frederick Rolfe in Venice,  picture, image, illustration
Frederick Rolfe climbs out of a canal in Venice

Despite his undoubted talents as a writer, Frederick Rolfe was never properly appreciated during his lifetime. A sad, lonely, embittered man, he died in Venice, unloved and virtually unmourned.

One of the great theatrical surprise successes of the last few years has been a play based on a comparatively little-known novel of the same name – “Hadrian VII.” The book, first published in 1904, is a superb florid tale, a saga of failure and triumph. It tells the story of a writer named George Arthur Rose, a rejected candidate for Catholic priesthood, a man who, through all the bitter years in the wilderness has still maintained his unswerving faith. By a credible series of coincidences, Rose becomes Pope, choosing the name “Hadrian VII.” He makes an extraordinarily enlightened Head of the Church. Finally, he is murdered by a Communist agitator.

Throughout the book there are a host of minor characters, some good, but mostly bad, who help or hinder Rose in his progress through life. But it is always Rose himself who takes the eye. A sad, lonely, misunderstood and embittered man.

Although we are concerned not with George Arthur Rose but with the book’s author, Frederick Rolfe (pronounced “Rofe”), it is virtually impossible to consider the one without the other. For Rose was Rolfe himself, both as he was and as he wished himself to be.

Until the mid-nineteen-thirties – over twenty years after Rolfe’s lonely death in Venice – his name had slipped from its brief peak of fame. Then, a scholar named A. J. A. Symons became engrossed in the odd story of Rolfe and brought him out into the light again when he published his researches under the title of “The Quest for Corvo” (the name that Rolfe assumed for a time). The book is one of the true masterpieces of literary detection.

Let us examine the strange life of one of England’s greatest and saddest eccentrics. So much mystery still surrounds him that one can hardly be sure of his real name. Although he was born Frederick William Rolfe, he claimed at one point to be named “Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe.” For a period he also lived with the dubious title of “Baron Corvo,” that he alleged had been granted to him, along with estates in Italy, by a grateful Duchess of Cesarini-Sforza.

It is difficult to distinguish fact from fantasy when regarding a man as strange as Rolfe. Words like “interesting,” “odd,” or “mysterious” become gross understatements when applied to him. His life, what is known of it, is a sombre and fantastic tale of a queer and lonely man.

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At Drury Lane Sir Henry Irving bids farewell to the London stage

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the British theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Sir Henry Irving at Drury Lane,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Henry Irving's farewell to the London stage was as Becket at the Teatre Royal, Drury lane

It was the last night of Tom Page’s holiday in London with his grandparents and still, after a fortnight, he could not get over his excitement when travelling through its streets. One day he had been all the way to Wimbledon and back by electric tram, the line having only reached that far out a few weeks before, for this was 1905.

He had been in a horse-drawn hansom and a “motor hansom,” a horse-drawn bus and a motor bus – apart from trips on the Underground – and he had got caught in some appalling traffic jams. These were inevitable with so many forms of transport, plus private carriages and cars, jockeying for position in the streets, especially as trams hogged the centre of the roads on their rails!

Tonight, a lovely summer evening, Tom was going with his grandparents to the theatre, a family tradition of the Pages. Then, tomorrow, he would be speeding back to Exeter in a 60 mph train. But tonight he was riding in an open carriage owned by his grandfather, who was a City businessman and could afford to run one.

Piccadilly was a fine sight that evening, with the sun still shining and the pavements thronged with people. It was certainly much livelier than the quiet square in Kensington where he was staying. But Tom knew that there was another London not far from all this wealth where a million or more lived in the slums in direst poverty, and where children of Tom’s age, 16, were several inches shorter than he was because of lack of good food and fresh air. He had an uncle who was a vicar in the slums who had once shown him something of the other London.

But tonight was no moment for unhappy thoughts, especially as they were nearing their destination, the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He had been there once before to see “Humpty Dumpty,” with Dan Leno, greatest of all Pantomime Dames, starring in it.

Tonight was an even more exciting occasion for it was the last London performance of Sir Henry Irving, the first actor ever to be knighted. Irving had been very ill, and everyone knew that this short season must be his farewell one.

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Sarah Siddons was called the Queen of Tragedy

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about the English theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 578 published on 10 February 1973.

Mrs Siddons,  picture, image, illustration
Mrs Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

A cold dawn was breaking as young Tom Page erupted from his grandparents’ house in London’s Bloomsbury Square and nearly collided into two cows being driven down the cobbled street by a pretty milkmaid.

Apologising to the girl, who had driven her charges from the pastures around St. Pancras, the 16-year-old youth tore down into Holborn past other early risers. It was October 1782, too late in the year for the morning air to be rent by cheerful cries of “Cherry Ripe!” and “Fine Strawberries!”, but apples were being hawked up and down, and plenty of milkmaids, with or without cows, but all with pails, were calling out: “Any milk here?”

Tom lived in the country near Bath, but was staying with his grandparents, a retired Naval captain and his wife. Tom thought that even this fashionable part of London was an evil-smelling place, and kept leaping over piles of rubbish, but he loved its excitement and bustle.

Sweating a little, despite the morning chill, he reached Drury Lane Theatre only to find a huge queue outside. His heart sank at the size of it, but it was hardly surprising. Three nights ago, a young actress, Sarah Siddons, had taken the town by storm as Isabella in a play called The Fatal Marriage by Thomas Southerne and everyone wanted to see her. On the first night her acting had been so sensational that the orange sellers decided to carry smelling salts from then onwards, as well as fruit, because so many people had fainted!

Tom’s grandparents had been invited to see Siddons from a box, but had had to tell him that there would be no room in the box for him. He told them not to worry: he would queue to watch the play from the Pit.

This was where today’s stalls are and consisted of row upon row of wooden benches. The keenest and liveliest playgoers sat there, and the Management had finally been forced to install a line of iron spikes between the Pit and the orchestra and another between orchestra and stage because there had been invasions of the stage from time to time, and not always friendly ones. Otherwise, it was roughly the same Drury Lane designed by Wren and smaller than today’s. Now all the inhabitants of the Pit – and the Galleries – could do was throw things, occasionally tearing up the seats if prices were raised.

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The rise of comedy in Restoration theatre was a sign of the times

Posted in Actors, English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Royalty, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

This edited article about Restoration theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 577 published on 3 February 1973.

Charles II and Nell Gynne,  picture, image, illustration
King Charles II visiting Nell Gwynne in her dressing room by Peter Jackson

The traffic was terrible! Mr Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, decided to use his barge instead of his coach for most of his journey from Derby House near Westminster Hall to Drury Lane Theatre. The previous week he had arrived late for a performance at the Duke’s Theatre, Dorset Gardens, after getting caught in a traffic jam, consisting of noblemen’s coaches, carts and hackney carriages, with every cursing driver claiming right-of-way in the narrow cobbled lanes off Fleet Street.

It was most important not to be late tonight, May 26, 1674, for a new Theatre Royal was to open, to replace the old one, which had been burnt after only nine years of exciting life.

The new building had been built by Sir Christopher Wren, a friend of Pepys, who was already working on plans for the new St Paul’s Cathedral to replace the old one, burnt in the Great Fire of 1666. How Mrs Pepys would have enjoyed tonight, Pepys thought, but she had been dead five years, and that evening he was taking a junior clerk of his, Thomas Page, and his pretty wife Mary. Tom Page was the grandson of Master Page the tailor, had actually been present at the Globe Theatre to watch Shakespeare’s Henry V.

Tom loved the theatre as much as his grandfather had done. Born in 1650, he could remember a time when there were no theatres, for during Cromwell’s “reign,” with the pleasure-hating Puritans in control, there had been no plays to see, except for a few that were given in secret. It was not until Charles II returned in 1660 that the theatre returned as well. Deprived of entertainment for eleven years, theatre audiences were delighted with the new plays which were gay, spicy comedies.

These plays, which we now call Restoration Comedies, were performed in indoor theatres, very unlike the outdoor Elizabethan playhouses, and had painted scenery on shutters which were moved along grooves in the stage itself. The Elizabethans had not bothered much with scenery, which was an Italian innovation that Charles had seen during his exile in France.

Far more sensational than the scenery had been the appearance of women in plays, for formerly boys had played the female roles. As the three playgoers were rowed down the river, Pepys told his young guests that tonight’s play, a 50-year-old comedy called The Beggar’s Bush by Beaumont and Fletcher, had been the very one in which he had first seen an actress back in 1661. He had confided as much to his secret diary that long-ago night. He had had to give up the diary, though, in 1669 because of the strain on his eyes.

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The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Arrest of Oscar Wilde,  picture, image, illustration
The arrest of Oscar Wilde:’The pet of London society, one of our most successful playwriters and poets, arrested on a horrible charge'; from the Illustrated Police Budget, 13 April 1895

Oscar Wilde withdrew from the prosecution case regarding The Marquess of Queensberry’s alleged libel on Friday 5 April, 1895. He spent time with both the Douglas sons, Percy and Alfred, over lunch, and in the late afternoon returned to the Cadogan Hotel where ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred, was staying. Sir John Bridge had by that time issued a warrant for his arrest at the direction of the Home Secretary, Herbert Asquith, and at precisely 6.20 pm Oscar Wilde was arrested at the hotel. It is a myth that the arrest was delayed to allow him to escape to France on the last train, since there were three others he could have taken that night. This momentous event preceeded the so-called ‘Trial of the Century’, and was immortalised in Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’, which contains this amusing stanza reporting what the plain clothes policemen in the above picture might have said:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

Many more pictures relating to crime and punishment in London can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.