The Unknown Lives of our Favourite Authors

Dan Brown’s first claim to fame, The Da Vinci Code, quotes, “Authors, even the sane ones are nuts.” And we couldn’t agree more!

If you judge your favourite writers solely on the incredible stories they weave, you are missing out on all the fun and very interesting aspects of their lives. From crossing all boundaries of fanboying to keeping a heart in a pouch for years, the writers’ secrets unveil here.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit‘s fans might have a range of questions and conflicting opinions. Why don’t people accept that the true hero was indeed Samwise Gamgee? Do you think Thranduil was a benevolent elf king or the sass god they made him in the movies? Or, how did Barliman react after knowing the real identity of Strider? Nevertheless, all of them share the same love and respect for the creator of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien. 

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

-J.R.R. Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring)

Tolkien’s life had been just as impressive as his elves, wizards and dwarves. Christopher Tolkien, his son, once recalled why he wrote The Hobbit, initially meant to be just a bedtime story. Five years old Christopher would pester his father for the inconsistency of the story. He would say, “Last time, you said Bilbo’s front door was blue, and you said Thorin had a golden tassel on his hood, but you’ve just said that Bilbo’s front door was green and Thorin’s hood was silver.” To this, his father had no choice but to write down Bilbo Baggins’ many adventures, paving the way for the reinvention of an entire literary genre.

When he was at Oxford, our very revered writer would dress up as an Anglo-Saxon warrior and chase a bewildered neighbour with an axe. When he was an English Language and Literature professor, Tolkien took out a four-inch green shoe from his pocket as proof that leprechauns exist, and in old age, he might give a store clerk his false teeth with the coins.

There is also one incident where Tolkien told his writer friends that he had a new story. One of them said, “as long as it’s not more elves.” Funnily, it was, in fact, about more elves. More interestingly, the friend was none other than C. S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis and Tolkien were members of an informal literary discussion group known as “The Inklings”, where they became close friends. Lewis added the lamp post in Narnia only because Tolkien said that great fantasy stories do not have lamp posts. And the proof of true friendship is right this, ladies and gentlemen.

“What draws people to be friends is that they see the same truth. They share it.”

-C.S. Lewis

Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s wife, inspired many of his courageous and determined female characters like Luthien and Galadriel. At the same time, he made Lewis an essential character of Lord of The Rings, Treebeard (an extremely calm tree, who rarely comes to the point.) In The Chronicles of Narnia, Professor Digory Kirke, the man who made the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, was inspired by Tolkien.

 

Jane Austen and Mark Twain

Some relationships stem out of mutual love like the bond between Tolkien and Lewis; others developed out of one-sided hatred; one-sided, we believe, only due to Austen’s inability to speak from the grave.

Austen’s heroines had the majority of future generations falling in love with them because they gave life to a different version of the fairer sex. Rising from decorative side characters to headstrong, main characters facing front and centre gaining them the profound ability to speak up for themselves. Many female-empowering authors have come and gone since then. Yet, Austen continues to hold her place as an icon, simply because her books were perhaps the first literary pieces to break the rules while remembering the societal limitations placed on women. 

She took on men in power and “superiors” of all sorts, chewing them up and spitting them out with humour. This literary style’s epitome would be an instance in Pride and Prejudice, where she pronounced her clergyman Mr Collins ‘ favoured’ with stupidity. This left a superior class bare to the commons, handing them the power to judge and laugh at a history of people and their lifestyle of means they had no access to.

About a century down the line, another social realist and satirist gave birth to characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Twain had his audience marvelling at the wit of little boys and dreaming about adventuring along the northern shores wearing a captain’s hat. Still, along with his literary genius, Twain was well known in york’s literary circles for yet another feature. His hatred of Austen’s writing in addition to being well known was also well documented, folded up in yellow pages in his correspondence with fellow author and critic William Dean Howells.

“Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Jane Austen . . .makes me detest all her people, without reserve.” 

Twain sounds like any other entitled gentleman of the regency eras. Although you might be fooled to believe the same, his obsession with Austen’s writings tells a different story. 

Was Mark Twain a closeted ‘Austenite’, one who read and appreciated far more of Jane Austen than he admitted?

Twain shows his deep understanding of Austen’s works through his descriptions of the characters, which he presumed to do often and publicly. And we have to agree. However beautiful and harrowing Jane Austen’s writings seem, it has its flaws too. The unrealistic turns as though the story had forgotten its real purpose in the first half of the book and having successfully remembered somewhere in the middle was determined to canter towards a fixed goal. Twain’s quip puts this in a rant worthy of its name, “Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worthwhile, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.”

However, despite their pose as mere comics, both believed humour to be the truth serum for decrypting human behaviour and societal influences. We like to imagine Twain, the irrepressible American riverboat pilot growing up in yellow stained fields, with numerous boards to whitewash, sitting down to have a chat with Austen, the tea-drinking maiden aunt surrounded by gossiping harpies, fainting ladies, riveting gentlemen and pots of tea.

Would Jane find his hatred amusing? Would Twain be found grumbling malevolently about Austen’s strange teapots? The one thing for certain is that they’d both be chuckling, looking down at us as we sit here, scratching our heads trying to figure them out.

 

Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Dickens

Fairy tales call out to our childhood imaginations of sugar and spice, and everything nice, often starting with creatures of the dark in the most wretched of situations and entrapping us with visions of happy endings and promises of magic.

Christian Anderson is perhaps the most well known American writer known for his fairytales. Owing to his fame to classics like the Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Little Mermaid, his stories are synonymous with love, hope, splendour, and imagination.

Curated, animated, retold, and embraced by giants like Disney, Anderson’s tales are a household name. Unfortunately, his sad history is not. With a profoundly poverty-ridden childhood, he left his first home at 14 to find a new tutelage with a wealthy family. Facing life without means, he turned to ink and paper and spun out stories, both comical and romantic, for generations since. 

And then we come to Dickens, another household name; A man whose writings we turn to again and yet again for a healthy dose of vivacious, larger than life characters and wholesome, capturing storylines. As is often the case with fame, his actual life history is often pushed back to the shadows. Born amidst the sparks of the first industrial revolution, Dickens spent his childhood watching his father jailed, being pulled out of school, and facing the heat and brutality of the iron mills firsthand. His struggles, later on, were used as inspirational fodder for his most famous classics, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Talk about method acting writing!

Hans Anderson is said to have met Dickens at a party as a starry-eyed, young fanboy and took the saying, ‘Never meet your heroes’ in reverse. Relatively unknown in the courts of England, we imagine Anderson as a star-struck man badgering Dickens’ steps. A mounting list of adoring, fan letters passed between Anderson to the Dickens manor in the usual manner of Victorian euphoria, calling out the writer’s fame at a time when the perfect edges were sliding downwards for the Victorian legend; Dickens was battling the thoughts of leaving his wife for his decade younger mistress and his new book, Little Dorritt wasn’t doing particularly well on the market.

The relationship was further strained when Anderson took up a bare-bones invitation to the Dickens manor and travelled cross country to realise his dream of spending time in the shadows of his legend icon. The socially awkward country boy was severely lacking in social charms and was declared a bony bore by Dickens’ daughter after over-enthusiastic and failed attempts at social engagements. Dickens is known to have complained about his guest extensively in his letters, nitpicking over all manner of harmless quirks, when he had overstayed his welcome by all societal norms. Seemingly a case of fan fever gone wrong, we can certainly use their relationship to look at both the literary legends in a more humane light and come to the conclusion that they were, after all, earthly men and went through the same ups and downs of human life and love that all of us do.

 

Oscar Wilde

If the image of reading a classic under a willow tree or entering an antique shop gives you an indescribable comfort, you are among the many modern generation nerds who are deeply in love with aesthetics. Aestheticism was an art revolution prominent in England in the late 19th century. It supported the notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ instead of ‘art for truth’s sake,’ meaning that all kinds of art forms should not just glorify political and moral issues; they should talk about their beauty and provide pleasure. 

The most prominent poet associated with this movement was Oscar Wilde. The writer of The Picture of Dorian Gray still leaves the world spellbound with his profound and poetic lines.

“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”

-Oscar Wilde (The Canterwille Ghost)

In 1892, Wilde created an LGBT symbol- a green carnation on the lapel. He made some of his friends wear it to the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan. After that, the flower aided people secretly to say that they were men who loved other men.

 

Mary Shelley

In 1815, an eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley arrived at Lord Byron’s house with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, a romantic poet. Lord Byron challenged his writer friends to see who among them could write ‘the most chilling ghost story.’ This sparked a fire in Shelley’s imagination, and she wrote the earliest Gothic, science-fiction masterpiece, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

“When I looked around, I saw and heard of none like me. Was I then a monster?”

-Mary Shelley (Frankenstein)

Gothic literature is a genre that combines dark romanticism, horror, death and supernatural elements. Mary Shelley’s life had been no less than a gothic fiction. When a storm destroyed his boat, Percy Shelley died due to drowning at the age of 29. His friends burned his body; however, only one organ remained intact over the ashes of his bones. Percy suffered from tuberculosis, due to which his heart got calcified. Mary Shelley then wrapped it up in paper containing her husband’s last poem, Adonais, and carried it in a pouch for years.

 

Sources:

https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/tolkien-did-you-know/, https://daily.jstor.org/https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/65624/mary-shelleys-favorite-keepsake-her-dead-husbands-heart

Written by Shranya Shrivastava and Shriti Chandra for MTTN

Edited by Aakanksha Mantri for MTTN

Featured Image by Ankita Shenai for MTTN

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A guide to the Open Electives on offer for fourth semester students of B.Tech at Manipal Institute of Technology.

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