Here are your stories about notable literary birthdays and events for Nov. 21-24.
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Francois Marie Arouet was born on Nov. 21, 1694, in Paris, France. He made a name for himself as a dramatist and a poet, going by the pen name Voltaire.
Along with writing, one of Voltaire’s talents was angering French nobility. For example, the French Crown held Voltaire for 11 months in the Bastille in 1717 for criticizing a duke. Then, nine years later, authorities tossed Voltaire back into the Bastille. This time for arguing in public with a nobleman.
After two weeks during his second stint in the Bastille, Voltaire had enough. He made a deal with his captors. If they let him out of prison, he would enter voluntary exile in England. The authorities agreed. It was a decision that changed the course of history.
At the time that Voltaire stepped off a ship in London, he knew little English and few English people. One person he did know was Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. Through Bolingbroke, Voltaire met the writers Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.
Voltaire became enamored with Swift and Pope. After all, in England, men such as Pope and Swift were freer to express themselves than in Voltaire’s France. In a letter to a friend about Swift’s writing, Voltaire said, “‘How I love the English boldness! How I love those who say what they think!”
Going to the theater was another activity in which Voltaire delighted. It’s there that Voltaire became familiar with Shakespeare. Shakespearian theater exposed Voltaire to more direct storytelling than he’d seen before.
And Voltaire’s English improved by watching plays. The prompter of the Drury Lane Theater aided Voltaire in his effort to learn English. Whenever Voltaire attended a production at the theater, the prompter provided Voltaire with the play’s text. Voltaire then watched the drama while following along with its script.
Louis XV allowed Voltaire to return to France in 1729. The writer wanted to introduce the French to English attitudes toward writing and philosophy. To achieve this goal, Voltaire planned to publish a book. But in those days in France, the government had to approve of a book’s publishing. And the French government had no interest in supporting a book that promoted freer speech.
After a few years, though, Voltaire proceeded on his own. He published in 1734 Lettres Philosophiques (released in France as Lettres sur les Anglais). The book advocated for modern political and economic liberalism. This subject matter prompted French authorities to ban Lettres Philosophiques. And they issued a warrant for Voltaire’s arrest, but he retreated to Chateau de Cirey, about 150 miles from Paris. The government declined to pursue the writer. And they never arrested Voltaire, although they never dropped the charges.
Voltaire died on May 30, 1778. The Catholic Church denied him a Christian burial. But an abbot Voltaire had known placed the writer’s body in his abbey. The writer’s body stayed in the monastery until 1791, after the French Revolution. Then Voltaire’s remains were transferred to the Panthéon in Paris, where they lie still today.
Elizabeth George Speare
When her two children entered junior high, Elizabeth George Speare found herself with ample alone time. So she started writing. Her first published piece was a magazine article about a family ski trip. Speare continued writing articles about what she knew—life as a mid-20th-century housewife. Her pieces appeared in magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and Woman’s Day.
Then she turned to historical fiction. While Speare didn’t know much history, a true story about an 18th-century woman kidnapped by Native Americans inspired her. She turned that inspiration into her first children’s book, Calico Captive. It came out in 1957.
Two years later, Speare produced The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It’s for this book that Speare won her first Newbery Medal. She won again in 1962 for The Bronze Bow. The win made Speare the first woman to win two Newbery Medals.
Speare only published six books in her lifetime. Her small production may be in part due to the pace at which she worked. Speare only wrote four to five pages a day. And she rewrote her books three times or more.
Elizabeth George Speare was born Nov. 21, 1908 in Melrose, Mass. She passed away in 1994.
Nov. 22 is the birthday of a woman who grew from a rural girl into a prominent novelist. Her name was Mary Ann Evans, but we know her as George Eliot. She wrote what some call the best English-novel ever written: Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life.
Eliot was born in 1819 in Nuneaton, England. She moved with her father to Coventry in 1841. It’s in that town that Eliot started to change. She befriended a group of philosophical thinkers and began questioning her Christian faith. Eliot even stopped going to church, at least for a while. But after repeated protests by her father, she resumed her church attendance.
Then after her father’s death in 1849, Eliot moved to London. She started writing for an intellectual publication called the Westminster Review. By 1851, Eliot was the magazine’s assistant editor. And she met others in London’s literary world, including the drama critic George Henry Lewes.
Lewes was a married man but separated from his wife. He and Eliot moved in together, causing a sensation in Victorian London. And, at Lewes’s encouragement, Eliot continued writing. She started contributing articles to Blackwood Magazine using her name, Marian Evans. Her pieces focused on the rural area where she’d grown up. Three of these stories comprised Eliot’s first book, Scenes From Clerical Life. The collection came out in 1858. It was the first time she published under the pen name George Eliot.
Eliot chose to publish under a pseudonym for a couple of reasons. First, she wanted people to view her work as being by a serious writer. At the time, few thought women could be novelists. But also, Eliot wanted her writing to avoid the scandal caused by her unmarried life with Lewes.
Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bebe, was published in 1859. Between 1860 and 1876, the writer produced five more books. Her works include Silas Marner and Middlemarch.
Less widely known is that Eliot also wrote poetry. She produced two volumes before her death from kidney disease in 1880.
Black Beauty is Published in 1877
Black Beauty generated a lot of excitement when it hit shelves on Nov. 24, 1877. After all, no one had written a book from an animal’s point-of-view before. But that’s what Anna Sewell did. Black Beauty is the story of a horse told from the horse’s perspective. It was a unique concept in the late-18th century.
That’s because, at that time, people viewed horses as machines. Horses transported people and cargo, fought wars, and plowed fields. The idea that horses felt pain or emotions was extraordinary to many in Western society. In short, few people thought about horses the way Anna Sewell did.
But Sewell’s viewpoint was different from a lot of peoples’ due to an ankle injury she sustained as a teenager. The damage was severe enough that Sewell had to rely on a horse-drawn cart for all her transportation. Through this dependency, Sewell thought of her horse as more than a piece of machinery. And she decided to tell a story that would help others see horses in a different light.
It took many years for Sewell to write that story. She did so by scribbling it on small scraps of paper or by dictating the manuscript to her mother. And she wrote the story for adults, hoping to make people think about how they treated horses.
Adults did read her tale when it came out under the title, Black Beauty, his grooms and companions; the autobiography of a horse, 'Translated from the original equine by Anna Sewell.'. The book became a bestseller. And it achieved Sewell’s goal of encouraging more humane treatment of horses. The clearest example of the book’s influence is with the “bearing rein.” A “bearing rein” forces a horse’s head closer to its chest. The device created a look that pleased many in upper society, but it also made it difficult for horses to breath. Within a few years of Black Beauty’s release, many Western countries stopped using “bearing reins.”
Sewell didn’t live to see the impact her story had on how people treated horses, though. She died five months after Black Beauty, her only book, was published.
I strive to be as accurate as possible in the stories I write. All sources used in researching for Bidwell Hollow’s literary stories are from reputable organizations and authors with trusted fact-checking and editorial processes.
However, errors can occur. If you see a factual error, please let me know. I'll make every effort to verify and correct any factual inaccuracies. Thank you!
“Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia.” HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Fifth Edition. 2008.
"Voltaire in England." Ian Davidson. The Telegraph. April 9, 2010.
"Voltaire's English Years: (1726-1728).” Anthony Netboy. The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 1977, Volume 53, #2.
“Cháteau de Cirey - Residence of Voltaire.” Château de Cirey. Jane M. Birkenstock. Last updated, March 30, 2007. Accessed on Sep. 15, 2019.
“The Life and Work of Voltaire, French Enlightenment Writer.” Amanda Prahl. ThoughtCo. June 30, 2019. Accessed on Oct. 8, 2019.
Elizabeth George Speare
"Elizabeth George Speare." Kathleen Long Bostrom. Winning Authors: Profiles of the Newbery Medalists. Libraries Unlimited. 2003.
"Elizabeth George Speare: Biography & Facts." Beth Hendricks. Study.com. Undated.
"Elizabeth G. Speare, 84, Author Of Children's Historical Novels." Ronald Sullivan. The New York Times. Nov. 16, 1994.
"Elizabeth George Speare, 85; Novelist." The Hartford Courant. Nov. 18, 1994.
"Scenes of Clerical Life." Nathan Uglow. The Literary Encyclopedia. First published Oct. 30, 2002. Accessed Sep. 15, 2019.
"George Eliot (1819-1880).” BBC. Undated.
"George Eliot." British Library. Undated.
"George Eliot." Poetry Foundation. Undated.
"George Eliot's Ugly Beauty." Rebecca Mead. The New Yorker. Sep. 19, 2013.