As any fule no, today is the birthday of Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. He was born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He was the son of a poor tenant farmer and brought up to work in the fields. When he was 15, he fell in love with a farm-laborer named Nelly, and wrote his first poem for her: "O, Once I Lov'd A Bonnie Lass." Burns tried to make a living as a farmer, but he wasn't very good at it and became a tax collector. At one point, as the result of a tangled love life, he determined to leave Scotland and emigrate to Jamaica. He postponed his departure at the eleventh hour when his first book of poems Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect proved an instant critical and financial success. Burns dropped all his plans for Jamaica and moved to Edinburgh where he was lionised. He soon tired of metropolitan life and re-settled in Dumfries, where he died aged 40, possibly as the indirect result of having had a rotten tooth removed, which released a fatal infection into his bloodstream. He became one of the most beloved poets in Scotland if not the world, celebrated every year at Burns Suppers where the menu is always haggis with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes), and his Address to the Haggis, the Immortal Memory etc are all part of a hallowed ritual.
It is also the birthday of W. Somerset Maugham, born in Paris (1874). His father was in Paris as a lawyer for the British Embassy. When Maugham was eight years old, his mother died from tuberculosis. His father died of cancer two years later. The boy was sent back to England into the care of a cold and distant uncle, a vicar. Maugham was miserable at his school. He said later: "I wasn't even likeable as a boy. I was withdrawn and unhappy, and rejected most overtures of sympathy over my stuttering and shyness." Maugham became a doctor and practiced in the London slums. He was particularly moved by the women he encountered in the hospital, where he delivered babies; and he was shocked by his fellow doctors' callous approach to the poor." He wrote: "I saw how men died. I saw how they bore pain. I saw what hope looked like, fear and relief; I saw the dark lines that despair drew on a face; I saw courage and steadfastness. I saw faith shine in the eyes of those who trusted in what I could only think was an illusion and I saw the gallantry that made a man greet the prognosis of death with an ironic joke because he was too proud to let those about him see the terror of his soul."
When he was 23, he published his first novel, Liza of Lambeth, about a working-class 18-year-old named Liza who has an affair with a 40-year-old married man named Jim, a father of nine. Jim's wife beats up Liza, who is pregnant, and who miscarries, and dies. The novel was a big success, and Maugham made enough money to quit medicine and become a full-time writer. For many years, he made his living as a playwright, but eventually he became one of the most popular novelists in Britain. His novels include Of Human Bondage (1915), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), and The Razor's Edge (1944).
Somerset Maugham said, "To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."
It is the birthday of yet a third world class author: Virginia Woolf, born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London (1882) author of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), and The Waves (1931). She also wrote a book called A Room of One's Own (1929), based on lectures she gave at the women's colleges of Cambridge in which she said, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
Woolf herself wrote in her house in Bloomsbury in a downstairs storage room, which had been a billiard room. A room with a cold stone floor and a skylight, packed with hundreds of books, a bed, an old wicker chair, where she wrote for three hours every morning, using a wooden board for a table, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
At her summer house in Sussex, she wrote in a remodeled shed, with big windows, with views of the woods and hills. She sat in a chair and put a small tabletop on a cushion on her lap, and wrote on that. In A Room of One's Own, she wrote: "So when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life."
On this day in 1915, she wrote in her diary that her husband Leonard gave her a green purse and a book and took her to the movies. They had tea and decided to buy a printing press and get a bulldog.