December 9th 1608: John Milton born
On this day in 1608 the British poet John Milton was born in London. He attended Cambridge in 1625 and began an interest in writing. After leaving university Milton traveled extensively throughout Europe, spending a lot of time in France and Italy. Milton was appointed to Oliver Cromwell’s government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues in 1649. He is most famous for his 1667 epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’, which is still considered one of the greatest poems of all time. Milton died in November 1674.
October 21st 1940: ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ published
On this day in 1940, Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ was first published. The novel follows Robert Jordan as he fights in a republican guerrilla unit during the Spanish Civil War as an explosives expert. He was inspired by his own experiences during the war. Hemingway wrote the novel in 1939 and began it while he was in Cuba. The novel sold half a million copies within months of publication. It is now considered one of Hemingway’s finest works.
October 13th 1958: Paddington Bear debuts
On this day in 1958 the iconic character of English children’s books, Paddington Bear, made his debut in the first book in the series: ‘A Bear Called Paddington’. He has since appeared in over twenty books. The books were written by Michael Bond, who based the character on a lone teddy bear he saw on a shelf in a shop near Paddington Station on Christmas Eve 1956. In his first appearance, the bear is discovered by the Brown family in Paddington Station in London, thus giving him his name.
September 21st 1866: H.G. Wells born
On this day in 1866, the English science fiction writer H.G. Wells was born in Bromley, Kent. Sometimes called ‘the father of science fiction’, Wells is best known for his works ‘The War of the Worlds’ and ‘The Time Machine’. Wells was also a socialist and a pacifist, and his political views colored much of his later work. In 1938 Orson Welles broadcast his radio play of ‘The War of the Worlds’ as a series of news bulletins which led many Americans to fear a Martian invasion. H.G. Wells died in London in 1946 aged 79.
August 18th 1958: Lolita published
On this day in 1958 the novel ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov was published in the United States. The novel was very controversial at the time due to its subject matter. The protagonist is a middle aged man called Humbert Humbert who has a sexual relationship with a 12 year old girl whom he nicknames ‘Lolita’. However, it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time.
August 11th 1897: Enid Blyton born
On this day in 1897 the famous British children’s writer was born in East Dulwich. Blyton’s books have enjoyed enduring popularity, selling over 600 million copies worldwide. Her most famous works include the character of Noddy, The Famous Five series and the Secret Seven series. Blyton died in 1968 aged 71 in Hampstead, England.
July 1st 1896: Harriet Beecher Stowe dies
On this day in 1896, the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe died in Hartford, Connecticut, aged 85. Stowe was also an author, and wrote one of the most famous depictions of slave life, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. Her novel spurred the movement in the North which advocated the abolition of slavery.
June 9th 1870: Charles Dickens dies
On this day in 1870, the English writer Charles Dickens passed away aged 58 following a stroke. Dickens wrote some popular and famous works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. He died leaving his final novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) unfinished, leaving the identity of the story’s murderer unknown. Due to his status as a literary giant of his age, Dickens was buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey rather than the “unostentatious” service he desired. His work is still celebrated and widely read today.
“He was a sympathiser with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”
- Epitaph for Charles Dickens
December 3rd 1894: Robert Louis Stevenson dies
On this day in 1894, the author Robert Louis Stevenson died aged 44. Stevenson was best known for his works ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Kidnapped’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde’. He is considered one of the greatest authors of the 19th century. Stevenson died on the evening of 3rd December 1894. He was talking to his wife and trying to open a bottle of wine when he said “What’s that!” and asked his wife “Does my face look strange?”. He then collapsed and died a few hours later from what was most likely a cerebral hemorrhage.
On Stevenson’s tomb is inscribed his ‘Requiem’:
"Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
October 16th 1854: Oscar Wilde born
On this day in 1854 the famous Irish writer Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin. Wilde studied the classics at Oxford and whilst there became engaged in philosophy and literature. Wilde is best known for his works including his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and his play ‘The Importance of the Being Earnest’. He is one of the greatest personalities in literature, as a very witty and flamboyant man. Wilde was a homosexual, and was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labour for ‘gross indecency’. He died in November 1900 in Paris aged 46.
October 6th 1892: Alfred, Lord Tennyson dies
On this day in 1892, the famous British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson died aged 83. Tennyson was Poet Laureate under Queen Victoria from 1850 until his death. His poems include ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and ‘In Memoriam’. The latter poem coined the famous phrase “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all”. Upon his death he was buried in Westminster Abbey in Poets’ Corner alongside notable figures like Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
August 30th 1797: Mary Shelley born
On this day in 1797 the English novelist Mary Shelley was born in London. Her birth name was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and her mother was British women’s rights advocate Mary Wollstonecraft. Her mother died a few days after giving birth to her. Mary went on to marry the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Shelleys famously attended a party at the home of British poet Lord Byron where he challenged that each guest (all of whom were authors and poets) write a ghost story. Mary Shelley then proceeded to write one of the most famous novels of all time: ‘Frankenstein’. Percy Shelley drowned in 1822 and Mary Shelley died in 1851.
August 12th 1964: Ian Fleming dies
On this day in 1964, the English author Ian Fleming died in Canterbury aged 56. Fleming is best known for his series of spy novels about the British secret agent James Bond. Fleming was himself a naval intelligence officer during World War Two. His first Bond novel was ‘Casino Royale’, which was released in 1952. He went on to write 11 more novels and the Bond novels have sold over 100 million copies worldwide. James Bond has also been adapted for film, with many different actors taking on the iconic role. Fleming also wrote the children’s story ‘Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang’ which was made into a film in 1968.
July 7th 1930: Arthur Conan Doyle dies
On this day in 1930, the Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle died aged 71. He is best known for his beloved stories about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. The character of Holmes was first introduced in Doyle’s 1887 novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’. Holmes featured in 56 of Doyle’s short stories and four of his novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died from a heart attack in July 1930.
"You are wonderful"
- Doyle’s last words, said to his wife
June 16th 1816: Byron’s challenge
On this day in 1816 the famous British poet Lord Byron proposed a literary challenge to his four guests at his manor near Lake Geneva, Villa Diodati. His guests were fellow poets and authors: Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont (Mary Shelley’s stepsister who had a child with Byron). Bryon read ‘Fantasmagoriana’, an anthology of horror fiction, to his guests and this inspired him to challenge that each write a ghost story. This challenge was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ and Byron’s ‘Darkness’.