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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kings and Queens and Literature

I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s interested in the line of English royalty! They play such an indispensable role in our past, after all—we Americans have to look back to English history to trace our heritage beyond 1607 Jamestown. (I know we’re a melting pot, but I’m focusing mainly on our language, first founders, and some other national traditions.) And besides the history, so many great stories are bound up in these royal lives, appealing to our sense of adventure and relational drama.

The Hanoverians, I think, were heavy on the relational drama. Hardly anyone seemed to get along in this family, and genuine insanity was not unheard of (George III—unable to rule for nine straight years at the end of his reign, plus at various other periods of his life—is the prime example, but you’ve got to wonder about the others …). Something else that stands out about them is that they were very German. George I was three-quarters German; his grandmother was a daughter of James I. After that, the Hanovers, consistently marrying Germans, received more and more German blood—no English—until Elizabeth II’s father married an English lady.

And so, on to the monarchs and the British literature produced during and about their eras:

The House of Hanover
George I (r. 1714-1727). The Act of Settlement (1701) had decided that these descendants of the first Stuart king would get the crown upon Anne’s death, because all the other choices, including her half-brother James Stuart, were Catholics and therefore unacceptable. Parliament really began to wield power during George I’s reign (and the monarchy was never quite as powerful after that) because he didn’t care for England and spent as much time as he could in Germany. As I mentioned in my previous post, 1715 saw the first Jacobite uprising when James vied for the throne, but it was put down. Scott’s Rob Roy deals with this. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was published during this time, as was the contrasting Gulliver’s Travels by Swift (1726).
George II (r. 1727-1760). Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-48); Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749). This was also the time that Kidnapped and The Last of the Mohicans (when Americans were British subjects) was set.
George III (r. 1760-1820). George II’s grandson. Literature that is still well-known today proliferated during these years. Here are just a few of the great writers: Samuel Johnson (a great literary critic, among other distinctions); Oliver Goldsmith (The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766); Richard Brinsley Sheridan (a hugely significant playwright); Laurence Sterne (Tristram Shandy, 1759-67); Maria Edgeworth (Castle Rackrent, 1800); Frances Burney (Evelina, 1778); Robert Burns (poet).
George IV (r. 1820-1830; Regent since 1811). I saved Jane Austen’s novels for George IV, since she published them when he was, technically, though not officially, the ruling sovereign. The iconic Regency era was 1811-1820, and all six novels were published then. Other writers include: Sir Walter Scott, the most popular author ever, for his time; William Wordsworth; Lord Byron; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats; Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818).
William IV (r. 1830-1837). William IV was the brother of George IV. Charles Dickens got his start in 1836 with The Pickwick Papers.
Victoria (r. 1837-1901). The niece of George IV and William IV. Anything I can say about the literature of Victoria’s era is going to be understated; for all practical purposes, it’s an infinite mountain. Charles Dickens, George Eliot, William Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo (he completed Les Miserables in Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands), George MacDonald, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Oscar Wilde.
Queen Victoria, Wikimedia Commons

The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha
Edward VII (r. 1901-1910). Edward VII inherited his father Albert's names. The only reason this list is smaller is because the Edwardian era was itself smaller! Beatrix Potter’s stories, The Scarlet Pimpernel, (Baroness Emma Orczy, 1905), A Room with a View (E.M. Forster, 1908), Peter Pan (1904), The Wind in the Willows (1908); A Little Princess (1905).

George V, Wikimedia Commons

The House of Windsor
George V (r. 1910-1936). He changed the monarchy's family name in 1917 because, after WWI, German names weren't exactly desirable. G.K. Chesterton (his first Father Brown mystery came out in 1911); A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926); Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway, 1925); Agatha Christie (her first detective novel was published in 1919); Dorothy Sayers; P.G. Wodehouse … and I’d better stop, because I bet what you’re doing now is not reading but skimming these lists and gaining a significant impression of the vastness of British literature.
Edward VIII (r. 1936). He abdicated because he married a divorced woman. No doubt there was something published during the eleven months he was king, but I haven’t searched it out yet.
George VI (r. 1936-1952). Edward VIII’s brother. He was the subject of the movie The King’s Speech. I think it’s significant that he saw Britain through a World War, just like his father did. Literature: The Hobbit (1937); The Space Trilogy (C.S. Lewis, 1938, 1943, 1945); The Screwtape Letters (1942). I’m sure there are more books that are great to other people, but I take less interest in them, including George Orwell’s writings (creepy Nineteen-Eighty-Four was published in 1949).
Elizabeth II (r. 1952- ). Hurrah! We made it to the current sovereign. Here are some of the most recent great British works: The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956, so actually they span Elizabeth’s and her father’s reigns); The Lord of the Rings (1954-55, though Tolkien wrote it between 1937 and 1949, much of it during WWII); The Silmarillion (published in 1977, but worked on during Tolkien’s entire life); Watership Down (1972); Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964); James Herriot’s short stories, starting in 1970.

And there you have it! A ride through recent British kings, queens, and literature. I’m not promising a third post on the subject (literature was scant before Shakespeare, and I’m going to be very busy), but I hope this was fun and informative!
What is your favorite era of British literature?

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