Tag Archives: Biography

People in History: Freud

Sigmund_Freud_Anciano People in History: Freud

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a neurologist by training, best remembered today as the father of psychoanalysis. His theories on sexuality and childhood development are probably best known, although his work spanned a much broader spectrum, including writings on the development of civilisation, the unconscious and dream-states, and religion. He also extolled the virtues of cocaine, and regularly took enough to kill a horse.

Born to Galician Jewish parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic, Sigmund was the first of eight children his father had with his third wife. In 1860 the family moved to Vienna, Austria, Freud distinguished himself at the city’s best schools, graduating with honours in 1873, already proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and with a love of the works of Shakespeare which would last him a lifetime. Continue reading →

People in History: Havelock Ellis

256px-Havelock_Ellis_a People in History: Havelock Ellis

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One of the earliest and most influential of the English sexologists was the unlikely figure of Havelock Ellis. Born to a family of sea captains, Ellis emigrated to Australia at sixteen, and spent the next four years working as a teacher (not very successfully: when his first employer discovered his complete lack of qualifications to do the job, he was dismissed; he ended up running the next school he worked at after the master unexpectedly died, but was swiftly replaced). Despite his failures, he reported in his autobiography that in Australia “I gained health of body, I attained peace of soul, my life task was revealed to me, I was able to decide on a professional vocation, I became an artist in literature.”

Upon returning to England in 1879, Ellis was determined to forge a career in the infant study of sexology (Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis wouldn’t be published for another seven years). In order to understand his field, he first determined he needed to understand the human body, and enrolled in  St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in order to qualify as a physician (although he never practised medicine). He supported himself in the meantime with a small inheritance and by editing reprints of Elizabethan and Jacobean dramas. Continue reading →

People in Fiction: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Screenshot-2017-06-26-23.05.00 People in Fiction: The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Oscar Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray was published first by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and then as a revised and lengthened book in 1891.

The tale is a unique blend of comedy of manners, love story, acerbic social commentary, supernatural suspense, and artists’ manifesto. The premise is simple: the dandyish Lord Henry Wotton sits in on his friend, Basil Hallward, painting the beautiful young Dorian Gray. Dorian, a little vain and spoilt, sees the finished picture and curses it because it will always remain young and beautiful while he must age. He wishes he could change places and have the portrait age in his stead, which is, of course, what happens.

Wilde said of his three protagonists, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be.” Through the course of the novel, Lord Henry fills the role of mentor to Dorian, living vicariously through Dorian’s increasingly depraved actions as he attempts to fulfill Henry’s philosophy of hedonism and sensuality. Dorian “experiments with every vice known to man,” inspired by a “yellow book” which is clearly Huysmans’ A Rebours (“Against Nature”), although the title is never mentioned. Continue reading →

People in History: Lord Byron

Screenshot-2017-06-26-23.10.21 People in History: Lord Byron

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George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), sixth Baron Bryon, was a Romantic poet today best remembered for his long works  Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimageand one of history’s most famous libertines.

Byron was born in London (or maybe Dover) to an unconventional family, Bryon inherited his title at only ten years old. He came from a long line of intemperate and notorious figures: his father “Mad Jack” Bryon was known as a cruel and vicious husband, who ran up staggering debts; his paternal grandfather, “Foulweather Jack” Bryon was the younger brother of the fifth baron, Bryon’s great-uncle, who in turn was commonly known as “the Wicked Lord.” His mother Catherine was  an alcoholic and “a woman without judgment or self-command”; her father committed suicide in 1779. Continue reading →

People in History: Alexander and Hephaestion

256px-Istanbul_-_Museo_archeol._-_Alessandro_Magno_%28firmata_Menas%29_-_sec._III_a.C._-_da_Magnesia_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_28-5-2006_b-n People in History: Alexander and Hephaestion

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Born in Pella, Macedon, in 356BC, Alexander was the first son of Philip II and his principle wife, Olympias. Almost from the moment he was conceived, Alexander became something of a legend. His mother, a princess of Epirus in her own right, was a follower of an orgiastic, snake-worshiping cult of Dionysus, and was widely believed to be a sorceress. She mythologised her son, claiming visions of thunderbolts from the heavens and a great fire accompanied his conception, and Philip himself was recorded as saying he dreamed he sealed Olympias’ womb with the device of a lion. As Philip’s fourth of seven or eight wives, likely elevated to principle only because of Alexander’s birth, it served Olympias’ interests to secure her son as Philip’s heir, and herself as mother of the future king. Continue reading →

People in History: Oscar Wilde

256px-Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumen People in History: Oscar Wilde

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It’s impossible to discuss the criminalisation of homosexuality without discussing Wilde, the most famous victim of the infamous Labouchere Amendment. What most people don’t know is that Wilde wasn’t a victim, so much as a martyr. “Where your life leads you, you must go,” he famously said, and refused to move from his hotel room until the police arrived to arrest him for “gross indecency.”

Wilde’s troubles began in February 1895, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a barely-literate calling card at Wilde’s club, calling him a “Posing somdomite.” The Marquess had been gunning for Wilde for months, enraged by Wilde’s continued association with his younger son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. The card, left with third parties at a public place, was almost certainly intended to bait Wilde. He fell for it.

Encouraged by Bosie, Wilde pressed a charge of criminal libel against Queensberry. The only defence to such a charge was if the “libelous” accusation were proven true. Queensberry immediately pleaded justification, and the stage was set for one of the most sensational trials of the latter nineteenth century. Continue reading →

People in History: Christopher Marlowe

256px-Christopher_Marlowe People in History: Christopher Marlowe

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Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (February 1564-30 May 1593) was a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and considered the most popular and talented tragedian of his time. Were it not for his murder at the age of 29, cutting him off at the height of his success, it is highly probable it would be Marlowe’s name which became the bane of schoolchildren the world over, not Shakespeare’s.

Unlike Shakespeare, Marlowe wasn’t a man known to mince his words. “All that love not tobacco and boys are fools,” is a quote attributed to him. Perhaps even more daringly, Marlowe swore “the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe,” and “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest.” He firmly believed St. John the Baptist and Christ were lovers, and the warrant for his arrest on charges of blasphemy would have surprised precisely nobody when it was issued less than two weeks before his death. He’d only got away with as much as he had prior to that because he was a firm favourite of Queen Elizabeth I’s, and had long been rumoured to have been a government spy. Continue reading →

People in History: William Shakespeare

256px-Shakespeare People in History: William Shakespeare

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England’s most famous playwright, darling of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court, and beloved of schoolteachers ever since, Shakespeare might seem an odd choice for a biography, not least because so little is known about it. We don’t even know the day he was born, although from the existing records it’s pretty clear he died if not on, then close to, his birthday (baptised 26 April 1594, died 23 April 1616, are the known dates).

We don’t even spell his name correctly: there are six surviving signatures, and in none of them did he use Shakespeare, which has only been the accepted spelling since the mid-20th century. The only spelling the man himself used more than once was Shakspere, and that only twice, although the inability to spell your own name correctly wasn’t unusual in the days before dictionaries, when the idea that words had to be rendered in one particular way would have been considered quite extraordinary. Continue reading →