On this day in history : 18th July 1817 – The death of English novelist Jane Austen, at the age of 41….who brought to us works such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility….
Jane, born in Steventon, Hampshire on the 16th of December 1775, appears to have been susceptible to infectious diseases throughout her life….she contracted typhus as a child – and as an adult she suffered with conjunctivitis so chronic that at times she was unable to write…. There is evidence that as early as January 1813 she was suffering immune deficiency and fatal lymphoma…. By early 1816 she was beginning to feel really unwell – but ignored the signs – putting it down to ‘a bit of bile – or rheumatism’…. By the middle of the year her health had really deteriorated….
Despite her illness Jane continued to write…. In January 1817 she had begun ‘The Brothers’….which when published posthumously in 1925 was entitled ‘Sanditon’…. As the illness progressed Jane had difficulty in walking and lacked energy….and by April 1817 she was confined to her bed….
Jane’s sister, Cassandra and brother, Henry took her to Winchester for treatment – by now she was in terrible pain and sadly on Wednesday the 18th of July she passed away…. Henry, with his clerical connections, arranged for her burial in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral….
The cause of Jane’s death has usually been attributed to an illness such as Hodgkin’s disease, Addison’s disease or auto-immune disease Lupus…. However, there has also been speculation that she died from arsenic poisoning…. A sentence written in an old volume of Jane’s letters stated that she was feeling better and was recovering her looks a little, which had been ‘black and white and every wrong colour’…. The comments were discovered by an author who was researching Jane and having previously done extensive research on modern forensic techniques and poisons for crime novels, recognised the symptoms that could be attributed to arsenic poisoning…. Coincidently a lock of Jane’s hair, on display in an American museum, had been tested for arsenic and the result had come back positive…. It is possible the medicine she had been prescribed, possibly for her rheumatism, may have contained arsenic….
On this day in history : 12th May 1812 – The birth of Edward Lear, artist, author, illustrator, musician and the writer of nonsense verse, including the much-loved ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’….
Lear was born in the North London suburb of Holloway into a large middle class family; he was the second to last of 21 children and the youngest to survive…. Throughout his life he suffered health problems – asthma, bronchitis, poor eyesight and epilepsy…. He was acutely embarrassed by his epileptic fits….possibly this contributed to his bouts of melancholic depression, to which he referred to as ‘the morbids’….
His was a difficult childhood…. His father, a stockbroker, encountered severe financial difficulties….and due to the family’s economic situation Lear was entrusted to the care of his eldest sister, Ann, 21 years his senior…. Lear would sometimes tell people his father had gone to debtor’s prison – but there is no evidence this actually happened…. However, his mother never resumed her maternal duties towards him and her rejection affected him…. His sister continued to care for him until her death when she was aged 50….
At the age of 15 Lear began to earn a living as an artist…. He had received no formal education, just what Ann had taught him at home…. At first he produced drawings and paintings which he sold for a ‘crust’ – but was then employed by the Zoological Society as an ornithological illustrator…. He was the first major artist to draw live birds rather than dead specimens….
In 1832 he published a book of prints of parrots and came to the attention of Edward Stanley, who was later to become the 13th Earl of Derby…. Stanley had a menagerie at Knowley, the family estate in Lancashire…. Wanting an artist to draw his animals he offered Lear the job….and between 1832 and 1837 Lear lived and worked on and off at the estate….This provided him with many opportunities; he met many aristocrats who bought his paintings….and he made acquaintances with those within circles not usually open to the middle classes….
Lear would later travel….Greece, Egypt, India, Ceylon…. Having developed a passion for landscape painting he would make many colour-wash drawings to record what he saw, transforming them into oil and watercolour paintings on his return to his studio…. Many of these were used as illustrations in his books….
He was later to spend much of his time in Italy…. In 1842 he travelled through Lazio, Rome, Molise and other regions….and spent time in Sicily…. He studied the ancient monuments, the people, their way of life and traditions….his travels reflected in his work of the time….
In 1846 he published ‘A Book of Nonsense’, the style of writing so many of us associate with Edward Lear…. 1871 saw the publication of ‘Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets’….included amongst its poems was ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ – which was written for the children of the 13th Earl of Derby….
Lear also composed music to accompany not only his own verse but the poems of other poets too…. He was an accomplished musician, mainly piano but could also play the flute, guitar and accordion….
In 1880 Lear eventually settled in San Remo, on the Italian Mediterranean coast, in a villa he named ‘Villa Tennyson’…. He never married, although he did propose to a woman 46 years his junior – twice! He found it difficult to forge close friendships, he had a tendency to be somewhat ‘obsessive’ in his relationships, male or female…. One close friendship he did maintain was with Giorgio, his Albanian chef…. He said of him….”A faithful friend but a thoroughly unsatisfactory chef!”….
Lear died in 1888 of heart disease – it had been a long illness…. By all accounts his was a lonely funeral – what friends he did have were unable to attend…. He is buried at Cemetery Foce in San Remo….
The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat;
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!"
Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried,
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring on the end of his nose,
With a ring on the end of his nose.
"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon....
On this day in history : 31st March 1855 – English novelist Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, dies during her pregnancy – three weeks before her 39th birthday….
Charlotte, the daughter of an Irish-Anglican priest, had received an unexpected marriage proposal from her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nichols…. Arthur had loved her from a far for a long time….but Charlotte’s father thought it an unsuitable match, partly due to Arthur’s financial status – and so Charlotte declined the proposal….
However, her good friend, fellow writer Elizabeth Gaskell (who was later to become Charlotte’s biographer) urged her to reconsider….pointing out the advantages of being married….
Charlotte found herself becoming more and more attracted to Arthur – and in January 1854 she agreed to become his wife…. It took until April to finally get her father’s begrudging approval but once he had reluctantly agreed plans were made and the couple married in June. Charlotte’s father had been due to give his daughter away – but at the last minute decided he was unable to do it, leaving Charlotte to walk down the aisle alone….
She became pregnant soon after the wedding – but her health was quickly to decline…. Elizabeth Gaskell described the symptoms of her illness as “sensations of perpetual nausea and ever-recurring faintness”…. Charlotte became weaker and weaker and eventually she and her unborn child passed away….
The cause of death stated upon her death certificate is that of tuberculosis…. However, there are several other possibilities as to the illness that claimed her life…. Typhoid is one such possibility – servant to the Brontë family, Tabitha Ackroyd, had died from the disease a few weeks before – so this could have been very likely…. Another thought is that Charlotte may have contracted pneumonia after getting soaked on a moorland walk – at the time pneumonia was almost impossible to recover from…. ‘Jail Fever’ – or Epidemic Typhus – has been another suggestion put forward; a bacterial infection very common in those more unsanitary times and passed to humans by fleas or lice…. Or it could have been an infection from contaminated water….
But one of the possible causes most favoured by the experts is that she died from dehydration and malnutrition brought on by Hyperemesis Gravidarum – or chronic morning sickness….
Charlotte is buried in the family vault in the church of St. Michael and All Angels in Haworth, West Yorkshire….
On this day in history : 11th August 1897 – The birth in East Dulwich, South London of much-loved, best-selling children’s writer Enid Blyton….
Enid Mary Blyton was the eldest of three children, having two younger brothers…. It was shortly after the family moved to Beckenham, which was then still a village in Kent, that Enid caught whooping cough and nearly died…. She was nursed back to health by her father, Thomas Carey Blyton….
Enid adored her father, the pair were very close…. It was he who got her interested in nature, being passionate about wildlife himself…. He would take her on long nature walks and also shared with her his love of gardening, art, literature and theatre…. This was all much to her mother’s disapproval, with whom she did not share the same loving relationship…. Enid was devastated when her father left the family to live with another woman; she was only 13 at the time…. When her parents eventually died Enid did not go to either funeral….
Between 1907 and 1915 Enid attended St. Christopher’s School in Beckenham…. She was particularly good at sport, was a tennis champion and captain of the lacrosse team…. She was not a keen academic scholar but had a natural gift for writing…. She finished school as head girl….and upon finishing her education she moved out of the family home and went to live with a friend…. Not long after she moved to Suffolk, to Seckford Hall near to Woodbridge…. She trained as a teacher and in January 1919 secured a teaching position at Bickley Park, a school for boys in Kent…. In 1920 she moved to Surbiton in Surrey as a governess to the four sons of architect Horace Thompson…. Soon other children joined them; there was a lack of local schools in the area and before long the house, Southernhay, in Hook Road, housed a little school in its own right…. These were very happy days for Enid….
Enid began writing in her free time; after winning a writing competition it didn’t take long for poplar publications to begin taking an interest in her poems and short stories…. Her first book, ‘Child Whispers’, was published in 1922 and in 1923 she had poems published alongside Rudyard Kipling, Walter de la Mare and G.K. Chesterton….which increased her popularity….
The 1930s saw her develop an interest in writing about myths and legends…. The first of her 28 book ‘Old Thatch‘ series was published in 1934 and ‘The Enchanted Wood’, the first in ‘The Faraway Tree’ series came in 1939…. By the 1940s she was a prolific author and went on to bring us ‘The Famous Five’, ‘The Secret Seven’ and of course ‘Noddy’….who first appeared in the Sunday Graphic on the 5th of June 1949….
Enid married Major Hugh Alexander Pollack on the 28th of August 1924 and the couple had two daughters, Gillian and Imogen…. However, the marriage became troubled and ended in divorce…. She then married London surgeon Darrell Walters, with whom she had been having a long-term affair, on the 20th of October 1943…. She suffered a miscarriage after a fall – but for Enid and Darrell there were to be no children….
In 1957 Enid’s health began to decline and by 1960 she was showing the first signs of dementia…. Her husband died in 1967 and Enid herself passed away the following year, on the 28th of November, in Hampstead, London….