Thursday 28 July 2016

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Beatrix Potter by King cropped
By Charles G.Y. King (1854-1937)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The world of children's literature is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of its most famous and enduring figures. Beatrix Potter, the English writer, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist was born on this day in 1866. Her children's tales are more popular than ever - few who are reading this will not have at least some distant childhood memory of characters such as Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, the Tailor of Gloucester, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin, Jeremy Fisher, to name but a few.

Her entire literary canon consists of over 30 books, including the 24 tales that continue to captivate and delight succeeding generations of young children. And it doesn't end there. In 2015, an almost completed, unpublished manuscript was discovered among her archives. The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots is due to be published later this year, in September, by Frederick Warne & Co, the publisher of the original series of Potter's children's tales though these days, it operates as an imprint of Penguin Books.

Potter's work is most clearly influenced by an abiding passion for natural history, which was nurtured from an early age and stayed with her throughout her life. When she eventually gave up writing, it was to devote herself to farming and country living. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now constitutes the Lake District National Park in North West England. Upon her death, in 1943, she left most of her property to the National Trust.

Although she herself died childless, her writing style lends itself well to young audiences. Her deep and abiding interest in the natural sciences is conveyed in a manner that is lively, inventive and refuses to be dull, packed as it is with a sense of earthy realism.

Peter Rabbit first edition 1902a
Beatrix Potter
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Her success, both critical and commercial, is a reflection of her distinct talent as a writer and illustrator. It was also a product of a certain business sense that she applied to all of her ventures. She had a hands-on approach, both to her writing and publishing activities. Potter was one of the first authors to recognise and capitalise on the merchandising possibilities of her books, patenting and licensing a range of toys, dolls, board games, colouring books based on the characters that she created.

The first editions of The Tale of Peter Rabbit were self-published by Potter, until she found a publisher who not only saw the potential, but also shared her vision for 'the bunny book' as it was called. This finally happened in October 1902, following numerous rejections, both from publishers but also from Potter herself, who was initially hesitant about adding colour illustrations to the story.

It proved to be the right decision. Colour illustration was becoming both popular and affordable and the book was an overnight success. Today, it has been translated into 36 languages and is estimated to have sold over 45 million copies worldwide.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

George Bernard Shaw 1925
By Nobel Foundation
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Today marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of playwright, critic and commentator, George Bernard Shaw, or Bernard Shaw as he preferred to be known. During the course of a long life (he died at the age of 94), he left behind a vast literary legacy that has proved enormously influential. The term 'Shavian' has even entered the English language, to describe his ideas and manner of expressing them.

Winner of the the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 (for his play, Saint Joan) Shaw's work extended into other media and genres, including the silver screen. He provided the screenplay for the film version of Pygmalion, which garnered two Academy Awards, including one for Shaw himself. Music however was Shaw's first love and perhaps his most enduring. He began his literary career as a music critic and was well into his forties before he took up drama in a serious way, becoming, in some people's estimation, the second most important English-language playwright after William Shakespeare.

A man of prodigious talent and a work ethic that lasted up to his final days, Shaw combined it all with a spirited nature and irascible wit, which shines throughout his literary output and legacy, using comedy as a device to question conventional morality. He was also a keen political commentator and ardent campaigner in the cause of social reform. A professed and outspoken socialist, he was most closely associated, publicly and politically, with the Fabian Society - a group of intellectuals whose views can broadly be characterised as reformist and social democratic.

George Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin, in 1856, to a middle-class family of Protestant ascendancy stock. He moved to London in 1876 and returned to Ireland only occasionally thereafter - on one occasion meeting Michael Collins, just days before his assassination. Although he made his home in England, where he died in 1950, his relationship with his home country remained strong throughout his life. He even took out dual citizenship following Irish independence and his initial reluctance to accept the Nobel Prize (due to unease he felt about the origin of the award and its connection with the armaments industry) was overcome by the realisation that it was an honour that would be celebrated and appreciated back home. With this anniversary falling in the centenary year of the Easter Rising of 1916, it is notable that Shaw, though scarcely a nationalist or republican, was among the first public figures to speak out against the repression and executions that followed.

Shaw was a celebrated figure in his lifetime and his death was mourned around the world, causing "the Indian cabinet to adjourn, theatre audiences in Australia to rise for two minutes' silence, and the lights on Broadway and in Times Square to be dimmed."

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