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Subject: ‘Literature’

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The Man in the Velvet Mask still guards some of history’s secrets

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

This edited article about the Man in the velvet/iron mask first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Man in velvet mask,  picture, image, illustration
English rebel, son of a king or a minor Italian nobleman — who was the Man in the Mask held in the Bastille? Picture by Neville Dear

On an early autumn afternoon in 1698, a litter, with curtains tightly drawn, was carried into the Bastille, the formidable fortress on the east side of Paris. The great gates closed behind it with that deep, resonant boom the litter’s occupant knew only too well.

Hands drew the curtains aside, and he stepped out into the courtyard.

He paused for a moment, his eyes scanning the high stone towers that reared up above him.

The heavy velvet mask that covered his face was beginning to itch: he longed to remove it, but he knew that the Sieur de Saint-Mars, his jailer for nearly thirty years, was standing too close by, and was watching him intently. If he tore off the mask to let fresh air reach his prickling skin, Saint-Mars might kill him where he stood, just as he had once threatened him with death if he attempted to tell anyone what he knew.

That evening, when the masked man was safely locked away inside his cell, Saint-Mars sent word to King Louis XIV’s Minister for War that France’s most secret, most confidential state prisoner was once more safe from curious eyes. As ordered, no one had been allowed to scrutinise or recognise him on the long journey north from the Isle de Ste Marguerite.

On that journey, a few peasants had had a glimpse of the prisoner when he and Saint-Mars had stopped at a chateau near Villeneuve. But all they had seen was a tall, long-haired man, anonymous and faceless behind his ever-present mask.

Almost two centuries passed before anyone was able to enlarge on this flimsy evidence, and give the mysterious prisoner a name. But during that time, speculation bred a whole range of ingenious theories, and also made the velvet mask into something truly sinister.

It was Voltaire who first suggested that it had “springs of steel.” From there, it grew into the cruel restricting mask of iron, of which Dumas wrote in his novel “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1848-1850).

Dumas, like Voltaire, named the prisoner as the twin brother of Louis XIV. He was also identified, however, with various French and English noblemen, the playwright Moliere, and perhaps more reasonably, with a man known to have been a political prisoner of Louis XIV.

This was Ercole Matthioli, envoy of the Duke of Mantua, who had deeply angered Louis in 1679 when he betrayed the French king’s secret purchase of a Mantuan fortress: in revenge, Louis had Matthioli kidnapped and imprisoned.

A less dramatic, but far more likely candidate than any of these was Eustache Dauger, who was named in 1890 by biographer Jules Lair. Forty years later, in 1930, the historian Maurice Duvivier pieced together Dauger’s history which, as far as official records are concerned, ended abruptly in 1668.

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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 poet Francois Villon was King of France for a day

Posted in Legend, Literature, Myth, Oddities, Royalty on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Francois Villon the vagabond King,  picture, image, illustration
Francois Villon, the vagabond King

Did medieval Paris really have its own underworld monarch, the king of the beggars? Is it historically true that, for a joke, King Louis XI went so far as to make this arch-criminal king of France for twenty four hours? Was the beggar king a spare time poet, as well as a soldier of such ability that he saved his city from capture during his brief reign? Was there ever, in fact, a man behind the legend of the Vagabond King?

It was always a good story, and in one form or another it has cropped up again and again over the years. Books, plays, even an opera have been written round the cheerful 15th century crook who was supposed to have made the most of a royal whim. It always sounded too far-fetched a story to be true, and few scholars would have wasted their time over such an improbable tale if the Vagabond King had not possessed a name. Fortunately one crops up in all the stories: Francois Villon.

At least we know that this man was real enough. He was born in Paris in the year 1431, and became a Master of Arts at the university of that city, as well as finding fame as a poet whose work is one of the glories of France.

If this makes him sound an unlikely candidate for the title of the Vagabond King, it must be remembered that legends have an almost uncanny knack of proving themselves to be true.

Nevertheless, for four hundred years nobody read Villon outside his homeland, and it was not until half-way through the 19th century that a number of English poets began to translate his work, much of it written in medieval French slang. Suddenly people wanted to know more about this man whose words had the power to make 15th century Paris jump into focus like a film.

For a time, the Vagabond King story was widely believed. Then, as Villon’s works became more and more fashionable, historians began to wonder just how much of the strange tale was really true. The search for the Vagabond King had begun.

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Francis Brett Young became a great writer about Africa

Posted in Africa, Historical articles, History, Literature, Medicine, World War 1 on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Francis Brett Young first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Francis Brett Young,  picture, image, illustration
Francis Brett Young leading his wounded patients to safety

They cut back the thorn bushes and unloaded the panniers from the mules. It was not the best place for a dressing-station but it would have to serve.

The Maxims were crackling ahead of them and other machine guns stammered suddenly. The first wounded were stumbling in and Francis Brett Young, the medical officer, was soon busy, stripping off field-dressings and checking the classification of wounds. He caught a brief glimpse of men filing up to the line; their helmets bore the striped brown flash of the Rhodesians. Then his orderlies warned him that supplies of water were low. He sent them to fill cans at the river. They scampered back empty-handed. German askaris, they babbled, had crossed to this bank and were approaching. At that moment rifles barked nearby. A wounded soldier coming out of his morphine doze, began to scream: ‘They’re coming! They’re coming.’

Ask most people about the First World War and they will tell you at once of the horrors of the Western Front, of Gallipoli and of Lawrence in Arabia. But the war reached the farthest limits of the British empire and men from the British colonies in Africa soon found themselves embroiled. British, Rhodesian, Indian and South African troops fought the Germans in the Cameroons, in Togoland and in German South West Africa.

The longest African campaign was in German East Africa (later Tanganyika, now Tanzania), where, under the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the imperial forces were held at bay by the brilliant German commander, Von Lettow-Vorbeck. The campaign had begun badly with a seaborne assault on the port of Tanga, at the head of a valuable railway. It failed disastrously. For the next year the campaign was bogged down until the South African leader Jan Smuts took command and, with a series of lighting moves, took the initiative once more.

In May 1916 Smuts ordered a second attack on Tanga, this time by land. The allies had to cut their way through the worst sorts of terrain – stretches of impenetrable bush, dense forests and stinking swamps. They had to drive the Germans and their native troops (askaris) from strongly-held positions. And they had to survive countless forms of disease. This last enemy was the worst. So much depended on the extent to which medical officers like the 32-year-old Brett Young could keep the assault force up to fighting strength.

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The golden age of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama

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.

Shakespeare at the Globe,  picture, image, illustration
Shakespeare performing at the Globe Theatre by Peter Jackson

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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Dr Johnson’s conversation and wit brought him contemporary fame

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.

Samuel Johnson at dinner,
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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Siegfried Sassoon’s poems revealed the brutality of WW1

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.

World war One battlefield,  picture, image, illustration
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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Dickens used imagination to address the State of the Nation

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.

Charles Dickens,  picture, image, illustration
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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The American professor who reinvented a jolly Santa Claus

Posted in America, Christmas, Customs, Historical articles, History, Literature, Saints on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 571 published on 23 December 1972.

Dr Clement Moore,  picture, image, illustration
Dr Clement Moore reading his Christmas poem to his children

Yuletide without Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as we often call him, would be a sorry festival indeed. Many people believe that this famous character is named after Saint Nicholas, who was born in Patara, Asia Minor, and who became Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, 16 centuries ago.

His generosity was renowned, and he travelled widely distributing gifts to the poor without revealing his identity.

The best-known of these missions was the occasion when he dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of a peasant’s hut, to provide a wedding dowry for each of three daughters living there, thus enabling them to marry.

Yet this is only a part of the Santa Claus story. In fact the Father Christmas of today differs considerably from the Santa Claus of old.

Only in comparatively recent, times has he assumed the jolly appearance he displays nowadays. For centuries he was represented as a staid old gentleman who handed out Christmas presents in the manner of a guest-speaker at a school prize-giving event.

He had no reindeer or sleigh to take him on his round on Christmas Eve, and did not live in the Frozen North.

Oddly enough it was an American professor who “re-made” Santa and to whom the whole world is indebted for transforming him into a jovial, red-cloaked character beloved by countless children.

It was in 1822 that Dr Clement C. Moore, of Columbia University, New York, set out in a horsedrawn sleigh to deliver Christmas presents to friends around the snow-covered city.

As he drove through the crisp night air, he recalled that his nine children had long clamoured for a poem about Saint Nicholas, and by the time he reached home again he had mentally composed a string of verses beginning:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.
In hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there.

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The eventful life of England’ s first great poet, Geoffrey Chaucer

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, London, Royalty, Trade on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

This edited article about Geoffrey Chaucer first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 569 published on 9 December 1972.

Chaucer at Court,  picture, image, illustration
The poet Chaucer reading at court by Peter Jackson

The bitter east wind brought with it the first few flurries of snow, and men wrapped their furs close around them. Geoffrey Chaucer looked for a snug corner among the barrels of wine in his father’s storehouse and wished that winter had never come. But a week later, in the bright, frosty sunshine, he was away from the house as soon as he could, laughing and shouting to the other apprentice boys to follow him to Moorfields.

Now that the marshy area just outside London’s walls had frozen over, crowds of boys turned the area into a giant ice rink. Mere skating was not enough; they fastened bone skates securely to their feet, armed themselves with sticks and set out at full speed to tilt with rivals. It was a rough and painful game sometimes, but perhaps no more so than the violent games of football or wrestling which were favourites for much of the year.

In summer, too, the boys of Chaucer’s London, had special feast-days with games and competitions from morning until night. Putting the stone and throwing the hammer and javelin took place on land, while in the fast-flowing river young men in boats aimed lances at a strong shield set on a pole in midstream. Roars of laughter echoed round when someone missed, fell into the river and had to be dragged up the muddy bank to safety.

This was one side of London life in the 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer so loved the city all his life that the liveliness of its characters, its trade and its whole existence came through in the stories he wrote. He was born in 1340, the son of a prosperous wine merchant, in an age when England seemed to be coming into her own. There were great disasters, too.

When Chaucer was only nine years old, his parents hurriedly moved from London because of the ravages of the Black Death. Whole communities were wiped out in the most dreadful plague ever to visit these shores (it is thought that nearly a half of the population died) but fortunately the Chaucers survived and returned to a strangely quiet city.

Soon the mood changed, and for Geoffrey there began the start of a colourful and adventurous life. He became a pageboy in the great household of the Countess of Ulster, and took part in the excitement and extravagance of court life. In his short cloak, new shoes with red and black breeches, he rubbed shoulders with noblemen and fools, monks and minstrels, poets and prisoners as his mistress moved from one great castle to another. Britain was at war with France, and captive French noblemen shared with their British captors all the knightly sports. Jousting tournaments were arranged, hawking and hunting provided, and the evenings filled with dancing in the great halls.

For Geoffrey Chaucer, however, life was soon to become much more serious. He went to war with his king and in 1359 marched with Edward’s splendid army from Calais to Reims. This was no glorious campaign but a frustrating story of one setback after another. Towns closed their gates, the French army hovered just out of reach and the weather was so cold that men died like flies. For seven long weeks, Edward blockaded Reims until both men and horses were on the verge of starvation.

Early one morning Chaucer was sent with a party of soldiers to scour the countryside for supplies. Ten miles from camp they entered into a skirmish with the French. Chaucer realised he would have to flee but his tired starving horses could take him no further and he was captured. After he had spent some time as a prisoner, the king paid £16 towards his ransom and he returned to Britain, thankful to be alive.

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