The Writer's Almanac from Friday, September 22, 2017
The Writer's Almanac from Friday, September 22, 2017
“Leisure” by Charles Rafferty from The Smoke of Horses. © BOA Editions, 2017.
Today is the birthday of English author Fay Weldon, born in Worcestershire, England (1931.) She is best known for her searing, feminist novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1983), which features a highly unattractive woman who takes revenge on her husband and his attractive lover. About the book, she said: "It seemed to me when I wrote The Life and Loves of a She-Devil that women were so much in the habit of being good it would do nobody any harm if they learned to be a little bad — that is to say, burn down their houses, give away their children, put their husband in prison, steal his money and turn themselves into their husband's mistress." Weldon's own husband had left her for their mutual therapist a few years before she began writing the novel.
Weldon worked as copywriter for an advertising company after her divorce in order to provide for herself and her son. She was good at it, and came up with snappy slogans like "Go to work on an egg," which was used by the Egg Marketing Board in the United Kingdom during the 1960s as a way to get people to ditch sugary breakfasts. Her first novel, The Fat Woman's Joke, came out in 1967, and after that she published 30 more novels, plays, and essays. She's considered one of the most popular authors in Britain, though she's never won any of the big literary awards, a fact that she blames on her political forthrightness. She says, "But you can't help feeling that if you annoy the establishment too much, the establishment still exists and holds it against you."
Fay Weldon's advice for writers is simple. She says: "Fine writing does not necessarily make a fine novel; you have concentrated so much on your undoubted skill at manipulating the English language you have forgotten the need for a developing story, a satisfactory beginning, middle and end. You have lost your reader in a welter of remarkable similes and striking metaphors. Readers are quick to pick up whether you are trying to communicate with them to the best of your skill and ability, or just showing off. The very density of fine writing can be off-putting — it's exhausting. If you're going to do it, at least put in lots of paragraphs."
When asked recently what it was like to write a feminist book like The Life and Loves of a She-Devil in the early 1980s, Weldon said: "You could see the terrible doom and depression in the early '80s, when women were supposed to be happy with what they had but they weren't. The She-Devil was noticing all this and was a size and a shape that was unfashionable. One became very aware that everything was about the prettiest women, and still is — in fact it's more so now, because there are cameras everywhere."
Today is the birthday of English scientist of electromagnetics and electrochemistry Michael Faraday, born in London (1791). His research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying an electrical current laid the basis of our understanding of the electromagnetic field. He made some of the most major discoveries in physics. Albert Einstein kept a picture of him on his wall, along with a picture of Isaac Newton.
Faraday used his reputation and his skills as a chemist to push for better environmental conditions. He studied industrial air pollution and wrote a letter to the Times of London calling for a cleanup of the Thames. The British government tried to hire him to help create chemical weapons for use in the Crimean War, but Faraday refused for moral reasons.
He gave a series of 19 Christmas lectures to young people at the Royal Institute. His teaching style was approachable and playful; he would ask students to question why the most basic scientific processes happened, such as why ice floats in water. Faraday said, "That point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proven to be right, is the most important of all."
Faraday refused several major honors in his career. He was offered a knighthood, which he declined for religious reasons and said he wanted to be "plain Mr. Faraday to the end." He refused to be the president of the Royal Society when the position was offered — twice — and he also rejected a burial in Westminster Abbey after his death.
Michael Faraday made such important discoveries in physics and chemistry because he resisted his assumptions until he could prove them with facts. He said, "There's nothing quite as frightening as someone who knows they are right."
On this day in 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway. The plot was based on the short stories of the Russian-American Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem — his pen name means literally "peace be upon you." The composer, Jerry Bock, and lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, started writing the story on Rosh Hashanah in 1961.
The story follows a poor milkman named Tevye in the Russian village of Anatevka. Each of Tevye's daughters successively chooses a husband who's farther away from the type of man he would want in a son-in-law, and he has to repeatedly choose between his religious convictions and his daughters' happiness. The family also has to deal with increasing anti-Semitism, until the czar eventually exiles them from their homes.
Some of the musical's early titles were: The Old Country; Where Poppa Came From; and Tevye, Not so Long Ago, Not so Far Away. The writers made a lot of changes to the script even after the first performances. For example, the musical had originally started with a song that's no longer included in the production, which Tevye sang to his horse. The writers replaced this with "If I Were a Rich Man," one of the show's most famous songs. The title and set design were inspired by a Marc Chagall painting of a fiddler, but Chagall reportedly didn't like the show.
Fiddler on the Roof was the first musical to surpass 3,000 performances, and it was the longest-running Broadway musical until Grease broke its record 10 years later. The musical won nine Tony Awards and ended its run in 1972. It was adapted to film in 1971, starring the Israeli actor Topol as Tevye. Topol had to teach himself English as he learned the script for the London production.
The musical often shows up as a reference in pop culture. In the film Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams parodies "Matchmaker." In 2007, Fiddler on the Roof was ranked the seventh most popular high school musical. .
Today is the birthday of Anne of Cleves (1515), the fourth wife of King Henry the VIII. She was an unassuming and kindly 22-year-old from Düsseldorf, Germany, when the alliance was proposed. Most noblewomen were appalled at the thought of marrying the king; he had a nasty habit of beheading disagreeable wives. When Christina of Milan was told of the king's interest, she blithely replied, "If I had two heads, I'd risk it, but I only have one."
Thomas Cromwell, who served as Henry's chief minister, searched high and low for a suitable match. An alliance with the Cleves would boost the Reformation in England, and he praised Anne's beauty to Henry, saying, "Every man praiseth the beauty of the same lady as well for the face as for the whole body […] she excelleth as far the duchess [of Milan] as the golden sun excelleth the silver moon." Henry was skeptical and dispatched portrait painter Hans Holbein to paint Anne's portrait. The result showed a lovely woman, but when Henry met Anne at Rochester Castle in Kent, he was dismayed to find she did not match Holbein's portrait. He complained to Cromwell, "I like her not! I like her not!" In time, Anne earned the rude nickname of "The Mare of Flanders" for her sturdy frame, though most historians agree that Anne had ample room to complain, too: portraits of the king depict beady eyes, a tiny mouth and layers of flesh. One visitor to court whispered, "The king was so stout that such a man has never been seen. Three of the biggest men that could be found could get inside his doublet."
Nevertheless, the marriage took place on January 6, 1540, though it was never consummated. Henry told Cromwell, "She is nothing fair, and have very evil smells about her." Anne was such an innocent that she thought a kiss could make her pregnant, shocking her ladies-in-waiting, one of whom responded, "Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long ere we have a Duke of York."
In short order, Thomas Cromwell was arrested for treason and Henry decided to divorce Anne and marry Catherine Howard. He sought an annulment based on the fact that Anne had previously been betrothed to the Duke of Lorraine, an incident that occurred when she was all of 11 years old.
An ecclesiastical inquiry was duly appointed, and a delegation of councilors interrogated Anne, who promptly fainted. She refused to submit to the inquiry and accusation, but eventually changed her mind, perhaps because she didn't want to suffer the fate of Henry's previous wives.
The marriage was declared illegal and Anne was rewarded with jewels, a substantial living allowance, and several castles. She lived comfortably for the rest of her life. Henry married Catherine, who promptly began an affair, after which, as was his habit, Henry sent her to the block.
Anne of Cleves was Henry's wife for just six months, making her the shortest reigning of all his queens, yet she outlived each of Henry's five other wives. She died at 41 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.
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