Are you one of those people who loves seeing 12.34 appear on a digital clock, gazes delightedly at the mileometer (odometer) as it clicks over to all the same digits in a row, or got excited at one minute past eight in the evening of the 20th of January, 2001?
No? No matter; you clearly won’t be excited at the arrival of the year Twenty twenty (no vision, see). But this year at least gives me a chance to look back two centuries to 1819 — I do savour saying “eighteen-nineteen” — and a few greats, particularly literary greats, of the Victorian era.
The year that John Polidori’s The Vampyre was published was also the year that saw the birth of the future queen who gave her name to an era, and of her husband, Prince Albert. Queen Victoria (who died in 1901) was the contemporary of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann (1819-1896) and of Florence Nightingale (who was born just a year later, in 1820). Also born around that time was Roger Fenton (1819–1869), a significant figure in the burgeoning art of photography, noted as a war photographer in the Crimea and for snapping the royal family on various occasions.
Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) is better known by her penname George Eliot: her novel Middlemarch is on my Classics Club list, and I hope to tackle it this year. Across the Atlantic Herman Melville (1819-1891) was also born this year: some day I may get further than the first few pages of Moby-Dick.
Melville’s almost exact contemporary, Walt Whitman (1819-1892), is another giant in the literary world though my acquaintance with his work is largely limited to musical settings of his texts by Benjamin Britten and others, and of course “O Captain! My Captain!” (as cited by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society).
John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a strange individual, though probably no more idiosyncratic than any of the other unconventional Victorians mentioned here. A respected writer and opinion-former on art, architecture and history, he was also the author of the literary fairytale The King of the Golden River (published in 1851 but written ten years earlier). Written for a young girl called Effie, with whom he later had a disastrous marriage, this marvellous piece in the Brothers Grimm tradition is forever linked in my mind with the Richard Doyle illustrations which accompanied its first publication. In an ideal world I’d very much like to read his The Seven Lamps of Architecture.
And now I come to the equally distinguished Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), another one of those 19th-century polymaths; however he, while a jack-of-all-trades (art, botany, geology, theology and novel-writing for example) turned out to be master of none. He too is best known as the author in 1863 of a literary fairytale — the incomparable The Water-Babies — but I have a couple of his other fictions on that Classics Club list.
That just about exhausts my roster of eighteen-nineteen figures: sadly I couldn’t raise seventeen names (17 1819 writers) has a ring to it, does it not?) nor could I find a more international selection than these Anglophones. Maybe you can come up with some of those unrepresented writers that have so far eluded my search?