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Subject: ‘English Literature’
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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 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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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'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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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.
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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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.
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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Posted in English Literature, Famous crimes, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Theatre on Tuesday, 4 March 2014
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.
Posted in Actors, English Literature, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Shakespeare, Theatre on Monday, 3 March 2014
This edited article about the English theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.
Telling the boy apprentices to look after the shop, Master and Mistress Page, a prosperous tailor and his wife, went out into the street and headed south.
This was a street with a difference, for it was London Bridge with its high houses and marvellous array of shops. It was a wonder of the Elizabethan world.
The Pages walked hurriedly, waving at friends and not stopping to talk to them, for it was already nearly 1.30 and the play at the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside on the south bank of the Thames began at 2.
Boats were taking other theatre-goers across the river, which in Spring 1600 was London’s main highway, but it was more sensible for the Pages to walk. They passed under the south gateway, glancing up at the shrunken traitors’ heads stuck on poles to deter others, then they turned right into a world of churches, slums, bear-gardens and theatres all alongside each other. Many patrons of the bear-baiting and cockfighting dens were just as much at home in the Globe listening to Master Shakespeare’s thrilling poetry, or to singers accompanied by lutes. Such was the sharp contrast of Elizabethan London – beauty and pain, music and sudden death, and always in the background the fear of the plague, which, when it came, closed all the theatres on Bankside for fear of mass infection.
The flag was flying over the Globe to show that a play would definitely be given that afternoon, and streams of people, some 2,000 or so, were heading for the cylindrical building with the thatched roof that the great actor Burbage, Shakespeare and several of their friends had built when their old one in north London had been threatened by the landlords. The Pages knew the story of how Burbage and the others had literally pulled the old theatre down and carried the wood across the river to help build the new one. They had once met Shakespeare himself, a most likable man, as everyone agreed, and they knew one of the boy actors at the Globe, who played women’s parts.
They waved at friends going to the Swan Theatre. Still more were heading for the Rose, where a play by Christopher Marlowe, who had been killed in a tavern brawl, was being given by the Lord Admiral’s Men, rivals of Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men.
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Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, Revolution on Monday, 3 March 2014
This edited article about John Milton first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 576 published on 27 January 1973.
Christ's College, Cambridge, which Milton entered in 1625
The coach rumbled on endlessly through the afternoon sun and young John Milton scanned the horizon anxiously. It had been a long journey from Bread Street in London, a full day of travel that declined from being exciting to monotonous as the miles passed by. Now he wanted to catch sight of his destination and as they breasted a slight rise he suddenly exclaimed with joy.
The coachman grinned at him and pointed to the distant spires and towers which dominated the flat expanse of countryside, “Ay master,” he said. “That’s Cambridge, sure enough.” Half an hour later, the coach rolled to a stop amid a clatter of hooves, the barking of dogs and the scurry of children. John Milton climbed stiffly down and looked about him with satisfaction. He had come to this ancient city to go to University and, dusty as he was, he meant to find his College straight away. It was something he had waited and longed for until now, at the age of seventeen, he could realise his ambition at last.
As a schoolboy at St Paul’s school he had displayed an astonishing memory and an enormous appetite for learning. Indeed, he later said, “From the twelfth year of my age I scarce went to bed before midnight.” This night study proved disastrous to his eyesight but for the moment youthful enthusiasm was still strong and a whole new world of learning lay open before him. The work was hard; rising at five in the morning and lectures and exercises until seven. Then a quick plain breakfast and more work until early afternoon.
Then the undergraduates were free to take part in other diversions. The bear pits, where huge matched bears wrestled with each other, were always popular. So too, were boxing, fishing, swimming and riding, but John Milton chose fencing as his chief sport. He would spend an hour or so each day with the skilful master of the foils and the gymnasium would soon resound to the lithe footsteps and clash of blades as John became more expert in the art.
He was a rebellious youth with an independence of mind that shocked and annoyed his tutors. In 1625 it was usually sufficient for students to do as they were told, but John Milton became an outspoken critic of the University and at one stage he was suspended because of his views. Eventually he spent seven years at the University, taking his degree but refusing to enter the Church as most of his contemporaries did. It was an age when religious conflict was always present and John Milton was a Puritan at a time when it took some courage to keep to these beliefs.
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Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London on Saturday, 1 March 2014
This edited article about Samuel Johnson first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.
Dr Johnson holding forth in a coffee house with Boswell and friends
The bookshop was a vast, dusty place, badly lit and full of interesting corners and surprising articles. But for young Sam Johnson, the bookseller’s son, no books or pamphlets, however tempting, would divert him from his search. At the back of the shop, far away from the customers, Sam was sure his brother had hidden a small store of apples and he was determined to find them.
The apples were, he knew, hidden behind some old books on one of the topmost shelves and so Sam had to climb up towards the ceiling. Holding grimly on with one hand and using the other to feel behind the books on the front of the shelf he prayed silently that he would avoid falling down. To do so would bring his Father’s wrath on his head – not to mention a large and heavy pile of books. He was still engrossed in the search a few minutes later when he came across a book that had obviously lain undiscovered for years, and he began to flick idly through it.
It was a copy of the works of the great Italian poet, Petrarch and soon Sam had become lost in it. The search for the apples was abandoned as he concentrated on his new-found treasure and the excitement of the new world which the bookshop opened up for him became apparent. It was an episode which Sam never forgot. Later, when, after many difficulties and years of poverty he became the most famous literary man of his day he was often asked for advice by young people. Then the genial old man, remembering his own childhood, would say “Never be without a little book in your pocket, for when you have nothing else to do.”
Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 at Lichfield in Staffordshire. Because of an early illness he was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear but it was soon obvious that he was a precocious child and his parents liked to show off his talents to friends and neighbours. He went to Lichfield Grammar School at the age of seven and was immediately terrified by the Headmaster, who seemed to take a delight in thrashing his pupils for any misdeeds, real or imagined. Sam managed to keep out of trouble largely by his exceptional memory but school was not an experience he enjoyed and, looking back, it is not difficult to see why.
Officially, the school day started at six in the morning and lasted until five in the afternoon; but not all of that time can have been devoted to study. Everything was very formal and the boys had to address each other in Latin. Failure to observe this rule was one of many which attracted punishments from a flogging to being tied by the leg in the coal hole.
It was hardly surprising that Sam took the chance to escape when he could. An older cousin from Worcestershire invited him to stay and Sam found the holiday so agreeable that he prolonged it for a full six months. Faced with this kind of truancy, the school refused to have him back and so Sam returned to the bookshop. Customers were often annoyed by the way he ignored them to get on with his own reading but by the time he was nineteen years old he was widely read and more than ready for university.
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Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, World War 1 on Saturday, 1 March 2014
This edited article about Siegfried Sassoon first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.
When Night Sets in the Sun is Down by Richard Caton Woodville Jr
He was known in the British 7th Division as “Mad Jack” so reckless was his courage. He won a Military Cross for bringing back a wounded lance corporal under heavy fire from almost in front of the German trenches. He was later recommended for the V.C., after leading a small bombing party to retake a trench which had been lost by men of another regiment. Though wounded in the throat, he continued bombing until he collapsed, but, because the Germans later re-took the trench he was awarded another Military Cross instead of the V.C.
But the classic, maddest exploit of Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon, Royal Welch Fusiliers, was when he captured a German trench single-handed after men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers had failed to take it the day before. With two men giving him covering fire, he stormed into the trench, hurling bombs and chased away the surviving occupants, before settling down to read a book of poetry!
Instead of signalling for reinforcements, he had a good read, then sauntered back to the British lines, failing to report to his Colonel. The Colonel was furious when he heard about the exploit, having delayed an attack because he had been told that British patrols were out in no-man’s land. The “patrols” were Mad Jack Sassoon, equipped with bombs and poems. “You’d have won a D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Order) if you’d shown more sense!” roared the angry colonel.
How then did it come about that this born soldier, who seemed the happy warrior of story books, became a pacifist who went on strike in 1917 in the most dramatic way he could think of? Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) lives on today as one of the greatest of all war poets, but the story of his startling breaking of the rules is as remarkable as any of his biting anti-war poems.
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Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, News on Friday, 28 February 2014
This edited article about Charles Dickens first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.
Dickens sends his first literary efforts to the Monthly Magazine in a dark court off Fleet Street, by Peter Jackson
The 12-year-old boy left his first, long day at work close to rats and in a mood of deep despair. The dark, dirty warehouse seemed like a prison and the dull, mindless work of pasting labels on to bottles had felt endless. Only a year ago he had been attending school, immersed in his books and eagerly looking forward to a future that promised much. But although the young Charles Dickens did not then realise it, his parents were already in difficulty and the future was much less rosy than he imagined.
Life for the Dickens family had become a dreary, unhappy affair in which disaster always threatened. Furniture had to be sold and Charles, who could no longer be kept at school found himself running errands to the pawn shop instead. Often cold and hungry, he did not know that the worst was yet to come. Then a friend suggested he could be found work at the blacking factory for six shillings a week and so a fearful 12 year-old started his working career in the rat-infested old building that seemed to symbolise all that was wrong with the world.
Charles Dickens never forgot this episode in his life, even though times improved and he only worked there for a few months. Nor did he ever forget that he was one of the fortunate few in being rescued from such conditions and later, when he had become the most famous author of his time he did all in his power to improve conditions for the poor. His books made the public realise the scandals and abuses that existed and they helped reformers to create conditions in which changes could be made. Dickens could have little idea of the future that was to be his when he left the blacking factory, but he did have a burning ambition which drove him forward. The results echoed round the world, and also played a significant part in changing the country in which he lived.
Charles Dickens was born at Portsmouth in 1812. His father was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office and after a few years the family moved to Chatham and to London. The family’s changing fortunes sometimes made for a precarious existence and at one time (just after his start at the blacking factory) Charles’ father had to go to the Debtor’s Prison at Marshalsea. But later on prosperity returned and Charles was able to finish his schooling at the age of 15.
He started work as an office boy to a firm of solicitors but the law was a dull business to a young man with so much energy and later his father, after teaching him shorthand, was able to find him work as a newspaper reporter. Charles specialised in Parliamentary reports and soon became known as one of the fastest and most accurate reporters in the country.
When Parliament was not sitting he was sent by his paper all over the country to cover by-elections, important speeches and other occasions. Since this was before the telephone, speed was all important. The brisk Mr. Dickens, who was now a dashing young man, loved the excitement of working at high speed and then travelling as fast as horses could carry him in the hope of delivering his copy before his rivals!
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