The year 2016 sees two notable literary anniversaries: it’s four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare, and two hundred years since the birth of Charlotte Bronte. This is of particular interest to me because by chance I’ve written historical novels on both those subjects: The Secret Life of William Shakespeare and The Taste of Sorrow, under my pen-name Jude Morgan.
To mark the Shakespeare anniversary, the New York Times asked me to write a short article for their young-readers magazine ‘Upfront’ on the theme of ‘Ten things you didn’t know about Shakespeare’. This was a challenge given that the solid facts we have about Shakespeare’s life are relatively few and well-known: his roots in Stratford-upon-Avon, his early marriage to Anne Hathaway, his work as an actor and playwright in London, his success as part-owner of the Globe theatre and so on. But I found that what strikes a chord with a young readership is what has been called ‘Shakespeare’s invention of the teenager’. Shakespeare didn’t coin the word (though he did coin some 1700 others), but in his plays, especially Romeo and Juliet, he is the first writer to convey the angst, vulnerability and passion of that critical time between child and adult. Another odd, and melancholy, fact about Shakespeare is that he has no descendants. His only son, Hamnet, died at the age of twelve, and the lines of his two daughters quickly ran out. He really is unique.
Angst, vulnerability, passion – those qualities are certainly present in the life and work of Charlotte Bronte, along with her sisters Emily and Anne. The lives of the Brontes, in sharp contrast to that of Shakespeare, are very well documented. What still remains a mystery is this explosion of genius within one family, raised in the most bleak and unpropitious of circumstances. In April I was asked by Vivacity to give a talk at Peterborough Central Library on the lives of the Brontes, and I was struck in the comments and questions from the audience by the sheer emotional impact the Brontes and their works still have on modern readers. Their struggles to establish themselves as women writers – and not, in the patronising phrase of the day, ‘lady novelists’ – still resonate. And I’ve found from teaching the Bronte novels in literature courses at City College that they always provoke strong emotional responses in a way that some of the older ‘classics’ do not. Perhaps the most poignant fact in Charlotte’s life is that she was the survivor. She watched the deaths, in terribly swift succession, of her troubled brother Branwell and her sisters Emily and Anne. Her own life was cut short at the age of thirty-nine, though she was allowed the brief happiness of marriage and the enjoyment of literary success.
What about literary anniversaries for 2017? Well, it’s two hundred years since the death of Jane Austen, which is certain to be given plenty of media attention, and a hundred and fifty years since the birth of two fine writers who are rather out of fashion now – Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy. Perhaps the ‘anniversary effect’ will bring them back into the limelight.
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