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How to be a Literary Genius - Part 1

If you are English you cannot escape class. It has been said that one Englishman only has to speak a word for another to know everything of his background and despise him. This may be less true today, but class instincts and prejudices prevail. And we are marked not just by our accents or vocabulary, but by our dress, the times of day we take our meals, the food we eat, our holiday destinations, the cars we drive and a million other things.

And the class you are born into is likely to determine your access to libraries, theatres, galleries and concert halls and your response to those places when you get there. It is also likely to determine whether or not you grow up to be one of the two greatest geniuses produced by the English speaking world. For of all the symmetries and coincidences to be found in the lives of Shakespeare and Dickens, discussed in a previous blog, the most profound seems the shared class from which they came – and from which almost all our other greatest authors such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, William Blake, John Keats and Daniel Defoe emerged. Respectively, their fathers were a shoemaker, bricklayer, hosier, ostler and tallow chandler.

What propelled children from these unliterary backgrounds to take their place amongst our most important writers? Well, firstly education. All these boys had access to schools. Significantly, almost no girls from any class received a meaningful education until late in the nineteenth century while children from a lower class would have been unable to attend school. John Clare is an astonishingly rare example of a self-tutored poet. Briefly fashionable in London as a rustic oddity, he was quickly dropped and the experience helped precipitate his madness.

Clearly, access to education alone is not enough to produce literary genius, or the upper classes would be full of them. Conspicuously, they are not, limited numbers and a restricted gene pool proving insurmountable handicaps; centuries of in-breeding has produced an aristocracy only really good at hunting foxes, ruling empires and oppressing the poor. True, there are exceptions such as Sir Philip Sidney (though I found Arcadia heavy going – and at 795 pages, thought it 794 pages too long).

Where other exceptions occur, as with Lord Byron or John Donne (well-connected if not aristocratic), other factors seem to have been more important than social status; for while both might appear to be social insiders, both were on the outside of polite society. Byron was bi-sexual, club-footed and poor (his father having exhausted two fortunes), while Donne’s family was Catholic at a time when that was illegal. He then maximised his chances of literary glory by spending his considerable inheritance on women before a secret marriage ruined the last of his social standing.

In other words, it helps to be an outsider. If you want to be a literary genius, it helps to have been born to a relatively humble family with access to education. If not, you should claim outsider status by virtue of religion, sexual orientation, physical disability or a combination of these things. If you are an insider, you are likely to be too lazy, pampered and insular to have much hope of writing anything of interest.

Shakespeare and Dickens suffered none of these disadvantages. Coming from a financially modest background means you have to work hard to succeed – and if as in either case your father suffered calamity in your early adolescence that extra kick of insecurity means you never stop working hard. Both authors wrote prodigious, dizzying quantities and Dickens more or less killed himself with his emotionally exhausting one man shows. He needed the acclaim and love as well as the money.

We don’t know if Shakespeare wanted the applause (though most actors do), but he certainly wanted the money. Almost everything we know of him relates to money or status. Amongst many other transactions, for example, we know that in 1597 he bought New Place, Stratford, but the same year was reported for not paying taxes in St Helen’s Parish, Bishopsgate, London. In 1599 he successfully applied for the right to bear a coat of arms, and in that year was found to be hoarding grain, hoping that prices would rise. In 1605 he purchased a substantial portion of tithes in the Stratford area and in 1613 he co-bought a large building in Blackfriars. In 1614 he is back in London on business regarding the collection of tithes while in 1615 he was named in a dispute over land enclosures near Stratford (see earlier blog, Hedging with Hamlet and Horatio).

If lack of private means pushes you upwards and insecurity keeps you hard at work, there are still other advantages to coming from a lower social position. One is obvious: you see more of the underside of life. Which means firstly you have a rich variety of personalities to draw upon – and both Shakespeare and Dickens people their work with wonderful low-life characters with equally wonderful names.

It also means you know your audience. Shakespeare wrote to entertain the groundlings as well as the grandees, while Dickens established an incredibly wide readership – his work fantastically popular with the working classes who were able to buy his novels in monthly serialised form.

Times of rapid change always produce insecurity about status and the blurring of social boundaries. The Victorians were masterly inventors of traditions which both fostered a false sense of historical continuity (hence all the gothic architecture) and confounded the newly rich with their baffling arrays of cutlery, peculiar dress codes, irrational pronunciation and arcane etiquette.

While primarily a form of entertainment, novels were therefore also guide books and self-advancement primers. When Pip is scorned by Estelle for calling ‘Jacks’ ‘Knaves’ thousands of readers must have noted the socially correct terminology and never made the same vulgar mistake again. In some ways Dickens’ most personal book, Great Expectations, expresses the pain and humiliation of social dislocation and questions the value of upward mobility.

Like Shakespeare, Dickens knew all about making his way in the world from lowly beginnings. For them, lack of social status had yet another asset: if you want to get on in life you have to learn how to read people – especially those who might be of use to you. This means you have to be observant, taking note of small detail. Understanding psychology helps anticipate need, mollify, flatter as require; in a word, manipulate. It is also of advantage to have a smooth tongue and quick wit. All these are great assets for anyone wishing to act or write.

It has been said that if Shakespeare and Dickens were alive today, they would be in Hollywood or writing soaps or writing soaps about Hollywood or something equally depressing. I think this probably true. Both wrote to make money and did so by appealing to as wide an audience as possible. They just happen to have been better at doing so than anyone who has written before or since, of whatever social origin.

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