Who are the European writers behind their byline?
What was the first book you’ve read? Or the first play you’ve watched?
Most of the responses one could get would be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, or if you go for more modern, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
The names of European writers and playwrights never miss being mentioned in conversations like this—and for good reasons. From the classical period until contemporary times, European influence is highly cognizable in writers' and playwrights' storytelling styles in their respective mediums.
But while many seem to be familiar with the long list of European writers and their works, don’t you get curious about their backstories, interests, and life behind their bylines? Surely, you are now and that is why NRM has prepared this to look deeper into the persons behind their pennames.
Homer (circa 750 BC)
If you are into classical figures, you couldn’t have missed Homer— the man believed and known to be the author of the Illiad and Odyssey. While he is regarded as one of the most influential writers, with his epics becoming the basis of Greek education at the time, the identity of Homer remains hazy.
Details of his birth, the years he walked this earth (if he ever did), how he looked, and what was his life like are nothing but guesses and probabilities put forward by scholars based on his works. He is believed to have been born around 750 BC, predating the birth of the calendar itself. Oftentimes, Homer is depicted as a blind man with curly hairs, as shown in busts and statues built in his honor. This image of Homer is based solely on the character of Demodokos, a poet in The Odyssey. Mysterious!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did not need to find a job, at least for the first half of his life, being born to a wealthy parentage in the wealthy commercial and financial center, Frankfurt. He was the eldest of seven children and developed a rather intense affection for his sister, Cornelia, the only one among his siblings to survive into adulthood; and had a love-hate relationship with his younger brother, who died at age 6, and this relationship is believed to be one that affected his later development.
His energies showed no decline even when his age was advancing. After marrying off his son and resigning the directorship of the Weimar Theatre in 1817, he completed more literary works until the dusk period of his life and even took a new scientific interest in meteorology. His last heartache came when he, in his 70s, proposed marriage to 19-year-old Ulrike in 1823, which the latter refused. He returned to Weimar where he continued to write, producing the Trilogy of Passion in 1827. He passed on from a heart attack while sitting on his armchair in the spring of March 1832, months after he sealed the manuscript for the part two of Faust.
Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are just two of Victor Hugo’s works that survived time, still being read by enthusiasts close to two centuries since they were first published. Hugo is regarded as one of the most influential figures in the romantic movement in France.
He was born to parents with incompatible political beliefs, his military man father being a loyalist to successive governments and his mother being a royalist. He graduated from the law faculty in Paris and memories of his life as a poor student later purportedly became the inspiration for Marius in Les Misérables.
Born as Durante Alighieri in 1265, Dante grew up among Florentine aristocracy. His parents died in his childhood but not before he has been arranged to be married to Gemma di Manetto Donati and he did, in 1285 although he was, and remained, in love with another girl, Beatrice Portinari who died in 1290. Dante channeled his grief over her death by committing himself to study the works of Boethius, Cicero, and Aristotle, to writing poetry. Dante purportedly wrote Vita Nuova (The New Life) between 1292 to 1294 in commemoration of Beatrice’s death.
Dante has been educated in grammar, language, and philosophy and was took an apprenticeship with Brunetto Latini. Dante’s most noted work was The Divine Comedy.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Literally, who doesn’t know William Shakespeare? From poetry to plays, Shakespeare’s works command respect and recognition. His most popular work, arguably, was Romeo and Juliet. Could he have been a romantic man besides being an author with a knack for moving his readers’ emotions? Most likely, yes.
Shakespeare married at age 18, which was way below the acceptable marrying age in his time. His wife, Anne Hathaway, was 26 during their marriage and was already expecting their first child at the time of the wedding. They have three children throughout their marriage.
Shakespeare’s works include 38 plays, 2 narrative poems, 154 sonnets, and other types of poetry. Although you might grow up watching Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, none of his original manuscripts have survived today and the ones available are all thanks to actors from Shakespeare’s theater company who collected the pieces for post-humous publication.
Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)
Joining this roster of European writers that shaped the history of literature is Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, most popularly known for his work Don Quixote. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not attend university although supposedly studied under the Jesuits for some time and was an avid reader of books.
Miguel de Cervantes was a soldier for the Spanish Crown and was involved in the battle with Turks of the Ottoman Empire then occupying Cyprus. Cervantes, however, would return home to a country with very high inflation and struggle to gain employment, taking him a quarter-century before he scored success with Don Quixote in 1604.
Albert Camus (1913-1960)
Famous for his absurdist works, Albert Camus is a Noble Prize for Literature winner in 1957, his noted works included The Stranger and The Plague. A champion of individual rights, Camus was among the few journalists to condemn the use of the atomic bomb in Japan during the second world war.
Camus was born to a family with little money in 1913 and lost his father, a soldier, to World War I. A bright student, Camus attended the University of Algiers and obtained his undergraduate and graduate studies in Philosophy in 1936. He was married twice and divorced both times in his younger years.
The Brontë Sisters (1816-1855)
There can’t be too many artists in a family.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë are sisters born in Thornton, Yorkshire to an Anglican clergyman father. Accounts of their life say all the Brontë children started to write at a young age owing to them being left alone at home often. The sisters had each used pseudonyms: Currer for Charlotte, Ellis for Emily, and Acton for Anne, and went on to publish novels that would be known as classics in today’s time.
Some of their published works include Jane Eyre by Charlotte, Agnes Grey by Anne, and Withering Heights by Emily. All of the Brontë sisters, as well as their brother Branwell, died of tuberculosis.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
If you’re a writer who is frustrated to find a publisher, do not fret. Even Jane Austen’s priced Sense and Sensibility took a while before finding its way to the printing press.
Jane Austen was born as the seventh of eight children of a close-knit Hampshire family. Much like the heroines in her works, Jane shared a loving alliance with her sister Cassandra. Both refused to wed for the sake of marriage and instead went to support their mother since their father’s death in 1805.
According to the British Library, the comedy, wit, satire, and romance in Austen’s works reflect her social and geographical background in Hampshire, Bath, and Dorset.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Charles Dickens had a rather bitter start as a child. After his father was imprisoned for bad debt, he was withdrawn from school and sent to work in a factory under horrible conditions for three years. The appalling experience never left him and seemed to have been immortalized in his novels David Copperfield and Great Expectations.
The Victorian author started as a journalist covering the parliament before publishing a long list of novels, including The Tale of Two Cities; edited weekly periodicals, wrote books and plays, and performed before Queen Victoria in 1851.
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)
If you think of Frances Hodgson Burnett, then you’d probably think of The Secret Garden.
Like Charles Dickens, Burnett endured a difficult childhood that started from the passing of her father, Edwin Hodgson. They had to move from one house to another, each one becoming far less like their old house in St. Luke’s Terrace and the fascinating gardens until they end up in a log cabin outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
They continued to financially struggle while in Tennessee until Frances tried her chance to earn money from writing by sending stories to magazines. Later, she would become the highest-paid female writer in America at age 18.
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