Today in Literary History: Jan. 20-22

Susan Vreeland, Judith Merril, Lord Byron

Here are your literary stories from Bidwell Hollow for Jan. 20-22, 2020.


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Jan. 20

Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland had a single goal when she started writing her second novel. “It was to have enough time left in my life to finish this group of stories and print out 12 copies, so my husband could give them to members of my writing group so they’d have something to remember me by,” Vreeland said.

The writer was battling lymphoma, undergoing chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant while writing the book. Artbooks helped her cope and heal. And they stimulated her. She was, after all, telling a tale about a discovered unknown painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

The book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, came out in 1999. It became a New York Times bestseller. A Hallmark Hall of Fame movie based on the film, starring Glenn Close, aired in 2003.

Vreeland produced more novels inspired by art. She wrote Luncheon of the Boating Party, centered on the famous Renoir painting. And in 2014, she published Lisette’s List. It’s the story of a woman searching for missing paintings against the backdrop of Nazi Germany invading France during World War II.

Vreeland was born on Jan. 20, 1946, in Racine, Wisc. Her family soon moved to North Hollywood, Calif., and then to San Diego when she was 12. After graduating from San Diego State University, she taught high school for 30 years.

In 1980, Vreeland started writing travel and art articles for newspapers and magazines. Short stories followed, but she was afraid to try novel writing. Then a friend suggested she start small, writing a single chapter.

Vreeland wrote nine novels. Lisette’s List was her last. She passed away following heart surgery in 2017.

Jan. 21

Judith Merril

1947 was a pivotal year for Judy Zissman. She adopted her pen name, Judith Merril, and she met John W. Campbell. Campbell was the editor of the Astounding Science Fiction magazine, who believed women couldn’t write science fiction.

After meeting Merril, Campbell later shared this view with the writer. Merril responded by telling Campbell she could write a story he’d put in his magazine. Merril then set to work on a tale about a woman giving birth during a nuclear war.

Merril titled the story, “That Only a Mother.” And she proved Campbell wrong when he published the story in the June 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Thus began the career of one of the most influential writers and editors of science fiction.

Merril produced her first book, Shadow on the Hearth, in 1950. It’s the story of a suburban New York housewife protecting her children during a nuclear attack. Merril started writing the piece as a short story before realizing she had a novel on her hands. Merril later recalled, “When it reached ten thousand words, I began to understand that it wanted to be a novel.”

Merril published other science fiction stories and books in the mid 20th century. Merril advocated for women in much of her work. As Dr. Lisa Yaszek wrote in an article about Merril’s nuclear disaster fiction, “Merril suggests that women can prevent these scenarios from happening by aligning themselves with like-minded women and scientists in antiwar and antinuclear activism.”

But Merril’s most significant contributions to science fiction and fantasy may be in her role as editor and anthologizer. She edited about 20 story anthologies, including an annual “Year’s Best” series in the 1950s and 1960s. And she championed the work of new, experimental writers, such as J.G. Ballard.

Merril was born on Jan. 21, 1923, in New York City. She moved to Toronto in 1968 in protest of the Vietnam War. Two years later, Merril donated 50,000 periodicals and books to the Toronto Public Library. That original donation is now the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy. It comprises 80,000 items.

Merril lived in Toronto until her death in 1997.

Jan. 22

Lord Byron

On May 19, 1798, William Byron died. His title passed to his oldest surviving male heir, his ten-year-old nephew, George Gordon Byron. The child, born on Jan. 22, 1788, became Lord Byron. He also inherited the family estate, Newstead Abbey.

King Henry II built the Abbey for Augustinian monks in 1170. But Henry XVIII dissolved England’s monasteries in 1539. Sir John Byron, Lieutenant of Sherwood, then bought Newstead Abbey from the crown for £810. That’s about £792,000 today, or $1.031 million.

The Byrons expanded the Abbey throughout the 16th century. The 5th Lord Byron, though, failed to maintain the property. Because he disproved of his only son’s marriage in 1771, the Lord chose to waste his son’s inheritance. He lived lavishly, sold the family art collection, and let Newstead Abbey fall into ruin.

The plan backfired, though, when his son died before him in 1776. The death left William’s nephew, a child named George, his only heir.

By the time the ten-year-old 6th Lord Byron stepped foot on the property, only one room in the mansion didn’t leak water from its roof. Hay was stored in the rectory, and the kitchen was a pile of rubble. Saddled with a dilapidated estate and no money to repair it, Lord Byron’s mother rented Newstead Abbey to tenants.

In 1808, Lord Byron had a room fixed to serve as his bedchamber, and he moved into the Abbey. He’d recently graduated from Cambridge University. And he’d published a poetry collection, Hours of Idleness, the year before.

Lord Byron didn’t stay long at Newstead Abbey. He took a seat in the British Parliament in March 1809. And later that year, he went on a two-year tour of the Mediterranean. Byron visited countries such as Greece and Turkey. He wrote throughout his journey and returned to England in 1812 with a new collection of poems.

The book, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, came out on Mar. 10, 1812. The publisher John Murray, a friend of Byron’s, released 500 copies. They sold out in three days. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” Byron said.

Fame did little to help Byron’s financial situation, though. He left England in 1816. Byron first went to Switzerland, where friends, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, joined the poet. They spent the summer near Lake Geneva, during which time Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.

And then Byron headed to Italy. While there, in 1817, he sold Newstead Abbey to a childhood friend, Thomas Wildman, for £94,500. That’s equal to £8.16 million today. The sale paid off Byron’s debts and gave him money on which he could live.

Byron lived in Italy for six years. He continued writing and produced the poem for which he’s best-known still today. “Don Juan” came out in 1819. Don Juan is by legend a womanizer. In Byron’s telling, though, Don Juan is instead seduced by women.

In 1823, Byron left Italy for Greece. He fought alongside Greek insurgents fighting for their nation’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. Byron fell ill after riding in a rainstorm in 1824. He died in Missolonghi, Greece, on Apr. 19 of that year.

Byron’s body returned to England. For two days, it laid in state in London. Some wanted to entomb Byron in Westminster Abbey. But the poet had at least one illegitimate child, a failed marriage, and an unsavory reputation. Objections over his lifestyle scuttled plans to place Byron’s body in Westminster Abbey. Instead, Byron was buried at Hucknall Torkard Church near Newstead Abbey.

Byron became a unifying figure for Greek independence fighters. They rallied and secured support from other countries, such as England and Russia. And Greece won its freedom in 1829.

Today, a restored Newstead Abbey is open to the public. The Nottingham City Council owns and maintains the property, which includes a collection of Lord Byron memorabilia. But the cost of upkeep for the Abbey is growing. The estate’s on the World Monuments Watch. The World Monuments Fund says the Abbey’s at risk of falling into disrepair once again.


Susan Vreeland

Judith Merril

Lord Byron