Wednesday Dec. 16, 2015

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Nights Our House Comes to Life

Some nights in midwinter when the creek clogs
With ice and the spines of fir trees stiffen
Under a blank, frozen sky,
On these nights our house comes to life.
It happens when you’re half asleep:
A sudden crack, a fractured dream, you bolting
Upright—but all you can hear is the clock
Your great-grandfather found in 1860
And smuggled here from Dublin for his future bride,
A being as unknown to him then as she is now
To you, a being as distant as the strangers
Who built this house, and died in this room
Some cold, still night, like tonight,
When all that was heard were the rhythmic clicks
Of a pendulum, and something, barely audible,
Moving on the dark landing of the attic stairs.

“Nights Our House Comes to Life” by Matthew Brennan from The House with the Mansard Roof. © The Backwaters Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Jane Austen (1775) (books by this author), born in Steventon, Hampshire, England. Our knowledge of her personal life is incomplete, since her sister, Cassandra, burned or heavily edited much of Austen's correspondence after the author's death at the age of 41. Austen was the seventh of eight children, and only the second daughter. Her mother wrote lighthearted verse for the family's amusement, and her father, a clergyman, encouraged Austen's writerly aspirations when it became apparent that she probably wouldn't marry. He saw to it that she had a writing desk and plenty of paper. Austen's brother Henry first approached publishers on her behalf, and managed to secure a deal for her novel Susan in 1803; the publisher never did publish the book, and Austen tried to buy back the rights in 1805. Unfortunately, because of her father's sudden death and the family's insecure financial position, she couldn't afford the price the publisher set. Her first published work was Sense and Sensibility, in 1811. She was widely read in her lifetime, but published all her books as "A Lady," rather than giving her name. Her health began to decline in 1816, and she died in 1817, possibly of Addison's disease, lymphoma, or — as has recently been suggested — arsenic poisoning.

When her nephew J.E. Austen-Leigh published a memoir of his aunt in 1870, a cult began to grow up around the author; other writers have had plenty to say about her. Virginia Woolf called her "the most perfect artist among women," and imagined calling on Austen and finding "a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home."

Mark Twain had the opposite reaction, however: "I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

It's the birthday of English playwright Sir Noël Coward (1899) (books by this author), born in Teddington, near London. He was also an actor, director, singer, and composer, but it's his plays — more than 50 in all — that he's best known for. He also wrote two volumes of memoirs — Present Indicative (1937) and Future Indefinite (1954) — and began a third, Past Conditional, which was unfinished at the time of his death in 1973. He began pursuing acting roles when he was 11, and wrote his first solo play, The Rat Trap, in 1918. Reviews for his early works were mixed, but positive overall. One read, "Mr. Coward ... has a sense of comedy, and if he can overcome a tendency to smartness, he will probably produce a good play one of these days."

Coward wrote one of his most successful plays, Blithe Spirit (1941), during the war. It's a black comedy about an author who is haunted by the ghost of his dead first wife.

He said, "I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me."

Today is the birthday of science fiction author Arthur C[harles] Clarke (1917) (books by this author), born in Minehead, Somerset, England. He was known as one of the "Big Three" of sci-fi, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. His best-known work is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

He was also an inventor. He developed an early-warning radar system during World War II, proposed a satellite communication system as early as 1945, and served as the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society on two occasions.

In 2007, on his 90th birthday, Clarke recorded a video in which he says goodbye to his friends and fans. In it, he said: "I have great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I hope we've learnt something from the most barbaric century in history — the 20th. I would like to see us overcome our tribal divisions and begin to think and act as if we were one family. That would be real globalization ..." He died of respiratory failure three months later.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®