By Megan Powell, Magali Prel, Natasha Smith and Mia Walby
For this feature, the classic literature team have decided to spotlight some of our favourite writers who were born in November. Since November appears to be a month filled with a wealth of talent, from Bram Stoker to L. M. Montgomery, we have decided to select our favourite four to focus on and recommend as autumn reads.
Anne Sexton was an American poet born on 9 November 1928 and best known for her attention to themes such as sexuality, mental health and mortality. Her most famous work is Live or Die, a collection of poems published in 1966 which discusses Sexton’s struggles with mental health and identity.
Many of these poems explore her difficult relationship with bipolar disorder as well as her complicated familial relationships, particularly her identity as both a mother and a wife. Her writing is confessional, introspective, explicit and raw. For this reason, Sexton is often associated with the confessional poetry movement, a genre that focuses on personal, autobiographical and emotionally charged content. Live or Die has been considered as one of the most pivotal works in this movement because it delves into Sexton’s personal life and struggles with complete honesty. The title itself resonates with what it means to live, struggle and survive in the face of adversity.
Born in 1821, Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian novelist who explored themes of human psychology in the 19th century. His most notable works are Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.
His life was troubled, and he spent time in a prison camp in Siberia for engaging in conversations about banned literature at a time when censorship prevailed. His novels tend to use multiple points of view, raising religious, philosophical and political questions for the reader to consider.
Crime and Punishment follows Raskolnikov, a poor university student who descends into hysteria and guilt after committing a murder. The novel explores themes of death, morality and conscience, and yet manages to keep the reader somewhat rooting for Raskolnikov’s success. Dostoevsky utilises dark humour in his work to lighten such themes, and he craftily ties the reader to the emotional states of his characters, making us feel as guilty as the protagonist. He engages with our darkest impulses and shows how sometimes our own conscience can provide greater punishment than any legal system.
Aside from being one of our most beloved November-born poets, William Blake was a painter, engraver, book designer, publisher, thinker and visionary. Largely unrecognised for his talents in his lifetime, we now view Blake as typifying the Romantic era. Since his death, his powerful works, containing his unique blend of creativity and spirituality, have continued to resonate with readers.
In his most famous collection of poetry, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake offers profound insights into humanity, scrutinising the moral and spiritual dilemmas facing an increasingly industrialised society. In the poem ‘Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion’, he similarly warns society from becoming “cogs” because, in his view, the Industrial Revolution emerges as a “tyrannic” moral catastrophe. In stressing the importance of individualism as a moral virtue in his work, and in his focus on the need to reject conformity, Blake attempts to rescue his reader from passive compliance with industrialism and imperialism. In doing so, he encourages us to notice the invisible ills plaguing society, and, crucially, to resist them.
One of the leading and most prolific writers of the Victorian period, George Eliot’s oeuvre offers a range of literature to fulfil your autumn reading list. Publishing under this male pseudonym, Mary Ann Evans wrote extensively and powerfully, and in doing so, shaped some of English literature’s greatest contributions, especially in the historical fiction genre.
As a poet, novelist, journalist and translator, there are many remarkable tales told by Eliot that are worthy of recommendation. The most famous of these, and a long-standing favourite of the classics team, is Middlemarch.
Many of Eliot’s works utilise realism to convey personal experience. Eliot achieves this through detailed description and, like her contextual counterparts, a political and social commentary on English society – with the exception of her novel Romola, which is set in Florence, Italy. Eliot was forward-thinking in her presentation of many exceptional ideas, such as the beauty of mundanity and the countryside. Not remiss in this is her ability to write with psychological depth to portray her characters’ experience, as is evident in both her novels and poetry.
Today, 22 November, is George Eliot’s birthday. Why not celebrate by enjoying one of our recommendations?