Friday, May 29, 2015

In dementia’s grip, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her famous novel over and over

Harriet Beecher Stowe spent the last years of her life in a demented state writing her great novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin over and over.  She wrote subconsciously from memory, word for word, as if she were creating it for the first time. Mark Twain, her neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut, wrote this account of her:

“Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes."

One of thirteen children sired by fiery Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher, and numbering among her siblings seven clergymen, including the famed Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet was born June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. Her mother died when she was a child, and her older sister Catherine enrolled her in a classically-oriented school. At age twenty-one she moved with her father to Cincinnati, where she joined a literary group called the Semi-Colon Club—and met Calvin Stowe, a young seminary professor who wooed, wed, and whisked her away to Brunswick, Maine, where he had a teaching job at Bowdoin College.

Harriet published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and it became an instant best-seller. Hailed in the North as a ringing anti-slavery masterpiece, it was derided in the South. When Mrs. Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, he greeted her by saying, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” She wrote several other books, but none had anything like the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Stowes spent much time in Florida, promoting it as a vacation destination and a good place for investment.

Not surprisingly, as the wife of a clergyman—and the sister of seven more—Harriet remained a steadfast church-goer, of the Congregationalist persuasion, all her life. As Uncle Tom’s Cabin evidences, Stowe was a believer in a strong supernatural element in Christianity, including dreams, visions, prophecies, and even a touch of spiritualism in which she indulged at seances.

Following her husband’s death in 1886, Stowe’s health began to deteriorate. Within two years she was deeply in the grip of what is now believed to be Alzheimer’s disease. Obsessed with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she devoted her life to writing it again and again.

The New York Times account of her death in Hartford, on July 1, 1896, reported: “She passed peacefully away, as though into a deep sleep. Mrs. Stowe's malady of many years' continuance, a mental trouble, took an acute form on Friday, when congestion of the brain, with partial paralysis, appeared. During Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Mrs. Stowe was about the house, but suffering very much. Since Monday she had been confined to her bed, and yesterday afternoon became unconscious.”

Stowe was eighty-five. Burial was in the cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Masschusetts, next to her husband, a former faculty member there.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

W. M. Thackeray, Novelist and Gourmand, Dead Of Cerebral Hemorrhage at 52

William Makepeace Thackeray led a troubled life, plagued by a painful recurring urinary problem, financial failures, and a mentally deranged wife to whose care he devoted much of his time. His saga started in India, where William was born in Calcutta to an Anglo-Indian family on July 18, 1811. His father died of a fever when William was four, and at five he was shipped off to England for an education, while his mother remained in India and married her childhood sweetheart.

Thackeray studied—or, rather, didn’t study—at Trinity College, Cambridge, frittering away his time at wine parties and on long excursions to the Continent to gamble.  He left Cambridge after two years with no degree. He wandered for a while around Germany, where he met Goethe, and then returned to London, where he lived large, drinking, gambling, and womanizing, supported by his inheritance from his father—the princely sum of £17,000—until it was wiped out in the failure of an Indian bank. Thackeray then studied law briefly, and after that began to work as a hack journalist for various publications.

It was during this period that he very likely developed gonorrhea, which led to a stricture in his urethra, a condition that recurred throughout his life, incapacitating him for days at a time.  He also acquired his lifelong devotion to food and drink—“guttling and gorging” being his self-confessed major activities when he wasn’t writing.  He was especially fond of hot peppers, which invariably caused him indigestion.

As a writer for several publications, most notably Punch, he moved back and forth between London and Paris, where he met Isabella Shawe, a young woman who had also been born in India. They exchanged billets-doux (a number of which dealt with her concern over her constipation) and were married in 1836.

After the birth of their third child, Isabella began to show signs of mental illness.  Thackeray did everything possible to restore her health, placing her in spas and sanitariums, traveling with her on the Continent, and taking a sea voyage to visit her mother in Ireland, during which she threw herself overboard and would have drowned, except for an air pocket in her capacious crinoline dress. Thackeray continued to write frantically, turning out moderately successful travel books, hoping to ease the financial burdens that her illness caused. 

Eventually the Thackerays settled in England, where Isabella was placed in a private home and Thackeray found lodgings for himself, his children, and his mother in London.

In 1847, Thackeray hit the big time with the success of his novel Vanity Fair.  He followed it in quick succession with Pendennis, The History of Henry Esmond, The Rose and the Ring, and Barry Lyndon. With his finances thus assured, he was able to live an easy life in London, hobnobbing with Charles Dickens and other literary figures. His main pastime other than eating and drinking was horseback riding.  He also began to dote upon Jane Brookfield, the wife of an old Cambridge chum. The three became involved in an emotionally-fraught triangle—although probably platonic on Thackeray’s part—which ended only when Thackeray took an extended visit to America.

On December 23, 1863, Thackeray dined out with friends and returned to his London home, a mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. Before he could undress for bed, a blood vessel in his brain burst, and he was found dead the next morning of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-two. 

Never a very religious man, Thackeray once said of an afterlife: “"About my future state I don't know. I leave it in the disposal of the awful Father." He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery on a clear crisp morning without a formal ceremony. Several thousand people, including Charles Dickens, attended.  A memorial bust of Thackeray was later erected in Westminster Abbey.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, once rich and powerful, died in poverty

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, celebrated author of The Rivals and The School for Scandal, popular owner of Drury Lane Theatre, and longtime Member of Parliament, died in abject poverty shortly after a sheriff’s officer tried to drag him out of his deathbed to debtors’ prison. Sheridan’s descent from fame and fortune to squalid misery was the result of his election defeat after thirty-two years in office, the destruction of his theatre in a fire, and his own prodigal lifestyle.

Born to a middle-class family in Dublin in 1751, Sheridan moved with them to London when he was seven. His mother was a playwright and novelist and his father, at one time an actor-manager, was an author on educational topics.  Young Richard attended the prestigious Harrow School, then was privately tutored in academics, fencing, and horsemanship.

At age twenty-one Richard fell madly in love with Elizabeth Ann Linley, fought a duel that nearly killed him in defense of her honor, and then eloped with her.  Although nearly penniless, the couple set up housekeeping in London in grand style among a fashionable crowd. To support them, Sheridan turned to playwriting. After a disastrous opening-night of his comedy The Rivals at Covent Garden, he replaced one cast member, reopened the next night, and found he had a smash-hit on his hands. His reputation was secured. 

Sheridan rode a wave of popularity, which was enhanced by his next play, the even more successful School for Scandal. With several partners, including the actor David Garrick, he bought the Drury Lane Theatre, which he also managed before becoming its sole owner.

Deciding to enter politics, Sheridan stood for Parliament and was elected in 1780, allying himself with those who favored the upstart American colonists who had revolted and formed a new nation. Years later, when Sheridan was deeply in debt, the American Congress thanked him for his support by offering him £20,000—an enormous sum, which Sheridan proudly refused to accept. During his Parliamentary career, Sheridan lived grandly, hobnobbing with royalty, nobility, and powerful politicians, spending money freely, and engaging in some questionable business ventures. His wife, Elizabeth, died, and in 1795 he married Hester Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester.

In 1809 the Drury Lane Theatre was destroyed by fire, and Sheridan went deeply into debt trying to rebuild it. In 1812, after thirty-two years of continuous service in Parliament, he was defeated for re-election. Creditors closed in on him, and he fell ill, suffering circulatory problems and an undiagnosed stomach ailment. At the same time Hester developed a cancer from which she would suffer for several years.

Sheridan retreated to a house at 7 Savile Row in the posh Mayfair district of London—but it was soon depleted of any elegant furnishings and bill-collecting bailiffs took possession of the premises.

The Irish writer Thomas Moore gave this account of Sheridan’s final days: “The disorder with which he was now attacked arose from a diseased state of the stomach, brought on partly by irregular living and partly by the harassing anxieties that had for so many years without intermission beset him. His powers of digestion grew every day worse… his stomach was completely worn out, and he could no longer bear any kind of sustenance…Connected no doubt with the disorganization of his stomach was an abscess, from which, though distressingly situated, he does not seem to have suffered much pain. In the spring of the year, however, he was obliged to confine himself amost entirely to his bed.”

Not long before his death, a sheriff’s officer arrested Sheridan in his bed and was about to carry him off, wrapped in his blankets, to a debtor’s jail, when his physician, Dr. Bain, intervened and warned the officer of the blame he would incur if his prisoner died on the way. The officer backed down.

Sheridan began to suffer shivering fits, then fell into a state of complete exhaustion. The Bishop of London read prayers at his bedside, and two days later, on Sunday, July 7, 1816, Sheridan died at the age of sixty-four.

On Saturday afternoon, July 13, a procession on foot carried his corpse from the home of a friend on Great George Street to Westminster Abbey, where Sheridan was laid to rest near David Garrick in the only remaining available spot in Poets’ Corner. His wealthy, highly placed friends, who had abandoned him in the poverty-stricken months before his death, now turned out in force for his funeral. The pallbearers included three dukes, two marquises, eight earls, the Lord Mayor, and the Bishop of London. An anonymous wag wrote this sharply satirical lament:

            Oh it sickens the heart to see bosoms so hollow
            And friendships so false in the great and high-born—
            To think what a long line of Titles may follow
            The relics of him who died, friendless and lorn!

Friday, May 8, 2015

Raunchy Rev. Laurence Sterne, of 'Tristram Shandy' Fame, Dead at 54

An Anglican vicar who loved a bawdy joke as well as an occasional dalliance, Laurence Sterne died young, after writing only two novels—one of which is hailed as a raunchy comic masterpiece.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy begins with the hero’s haphazard conception when his mother distracts his father at the climactic moment to ask if he has remembered to wind the clock. This cockeyed novel, whose stream-of-consciousness technique influenced James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and dozens of other novelists, was written in installments to augment the income of an impecunious clergyman with a troubled wife.

Sterne was born November, 24, 1713, in County Tipperary, Ireland, to a low-ranking British infantry officer and his wife, and he spent most of his life in near-poverty moving from one army camp to another throughout Ireland. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, and after graduating, he took holy orders, winding up with a vicarage in Yorkshire. While he was an undergraduate, he suffered his first lung hemorrhage, the harbinger of his lifelong and ultimately fatal tuberculosis.

Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley is 1741 and she produced several children, all of them stillborn but one. Setbacks in his erratic clerical career made it difficult to support the family on his modest stipend; meanwhile Elizabeth wife grew mentally deranged, threatening suicide. Sterne chose to console himself by sampling the seamier pastimes offered in the nearby city of York, where he caroused with fellow debauchees in a louche men’s club called the Demoniacks.

Suffering all the while from tubercular attacks, he also began to write Tristram Shandy, which he published at his own expense. It became the talk of the town, and Sterne was suddenly a famous author.  He moved to France, hoping a warmer climate would help his lungs, but when his wife and child followed him there, he promptly returned to London, where he lived the life of a playboy bachelor.

He finished his second novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, and a few days after it was published in 1768, Sterne collapsed on the street. He was taken to his lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street, where he languished in bed. On March 18, he suddenly raised up his arms as if to fend off some unseen attacker, said, “Now it is come”—and died at the age of fifty-four. He was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s in Hanover Square.

Shortly after his burial, Sterne’s body was stolen by graverobbers and sold to a medical school at Cambridge. As a lecturer was dissecting the body, he was horrified to recognize Sterne, and he surreptitiously returned the body to the chuchyard, but not in the proper place. In 1969 the churchyard was redeveloped, and some 12,000 skulls were unearthed. One of them was thought to be Sterne’s, and, along with some nearby miscellaneous bones, the remains were reburied at the Coxwold churchyard in north Yorkshire, where Sterne had at one time been the vicar.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Samuel Richardson parlayed mash notes into first English novel; died of a stroke

As a teenager Samuel Richardson was a whiz at writing love letters—not for himself but for the neighborhood girls. When he was thirteen, Sam was asked by a local lass to help her write a mash note to her boyfriend. It was so successful that Sam soon became the go-to guy for concocting sweet nothings, and he credited this experience with providing him with a deep understanding of the female psyche that led to the first English novel.

Richardson was always very secretive about his early life, so it’s hard to pinpoint facts about his birth, upbringing, and schooling.  He was probably born in August of 1689 in a rural English village, one of nine children. His father was a joiner—a specialized type of carpenter—and he moved his family to London, where he opened a cabinetry shop. Money was tight, and Samuel received a sketchy education at Christ’s Hospital grammar school. After that he was apprenticed to learn the printing trade.

Before long, he was able to open his own shop in Fleet Street and then married his former boss’s daughter, Martha Wilde, with whom he had a daughter and five sons—none of whom survived to adulthood. Martha also died, and Richardson married again, this time to Elizabeth Leake, with whom he had four daughters.

Although the printing business prospered, Richardson lacked a male heir to carry on the firm, so he turned to writing. His first effort was a good conduct guide, written in the form of letters. Out of this grew a narrative work, which he called Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1754. Drawing on his teenage memories of the intimate details of his female friends’ love lives, he created such a racy work that it became widely popular and landed on the Roman Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. It is generally regarded as the first English novel. Richardson followed this with two more novels, Clarissa Harlowe (which is more than a million words) and Sir Charles Grandison, which cemented his position as a leading literary light.

Richardson was evidently a man of conventional Protestant Christian religious belief. His novels, while full of titillating details of seduction, are basically highly moralistic, with rewards promised in the afterlife for good conduct and punishment for the wicked.

In June of 1758, Richardson began to suffer from debilitating insomnia, and in June of 1761 he had an apoplectic attack. One of his female friends, a Miss Talbot, described his condition in a letter of July 2, 1761: “Poor Mr. Richardson was seized on Sunday evening with a most severe paralytic stroke....One has long apprehended some stroke of this kind; the disease made its gradual approaches by that heaviness which clouded the cheerfulness of his conversation, that used to be so lively and so instructive; by the increased tremblings which unfitted that hand so peculiarly formed to guide the pen; and by, perhaps, the querulousness of temper, most certainly not natural to so sweet and so enlarged a mind, which you and I have lately lamented, as making his family at times not so comfortable as his principles, his study, and his delight to diffuse happiness, wherever he could, would otherwise have done.”

The stroke proved fatal, and two days later, July 4, 1761, Richardson died at his home in Parsons Green in central London. He was seventy-one.  He was buried in a crypt in St. Bride Churchyard in Fleet Street near his first wife. 

Illustration: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library.