Kent's history, abounding in prominent names, leaves behind a prolific legacy in the field of literature. Some of the most notable medieval playwrights originated from Kent and, partly due to the proximity to London and to excellent opportunities in terms of education nearby, found a fertile ground for their talent and often nonconformist ideas. Intensely involved with royalty, political and religious activism, Kentish writers, poets and playwrights all helped mould the culture of their times and develop the English language.
William Caxton and the first printing press in England
Among many other distinctive traits, Kent has got a special status in the history of English literature, as the very first printing press in England was invented by a Kentish literate. The one who introduced it was William Caxton, a man of many aptitudes, originally a merchant, yet also a writer, translator, printer and diplomat (the latter, from 1462 to 1470). His date of birth remains uncertain yet was placed within the interval between 1415 and 1422, probably in the village of Hadlow, although that information is not precise either. In 1472, after an ample experience in France, he set up a printing press in Bruges, in partnership with a calligrapher named Colard Mansion. There he translated and printed The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, which was the very first manuscript to be printed in English. He subsequently returned to England and established the first printing press in the country at Westminster, in 1476. His career in the translating and printing field was prolific, as he was multilingual, and an approximate number of a hundred manuscripts were printed and commercialised during his lifetime, which ended in 1492. Therefore he was the first book merchant in England as well. Among the books he printed was Geoffrey Chaucer's story collection entitled The Canterbury Tales. After William Caxton's death, the printing press was taken over by his apprentice, Wynkyn De Worde, who carried on printing new volumes of diverse genres, around 800 altogether, until he finally died in 1534, possibly 1535.
Renowned Kentish authors and literates
The 16th century
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586), poet. A medieval poet, soldier and diplomat, Sir Philip Sidney was born at Penshurst and was educated at Oxford. His fairly short life was quite prolific in terms of political activity and literary achievements. He travelled through Europe on several diplomatic missions, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, and simultaneously met various personalities with whom he interchanged experience and discussed cultural issues. His works include Astrophel And Stella, The Countess Of Pembroke's Arcadia and An Apology For Poetry.
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), poet, dramatist and translator. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Marlowe was born in Canterbury and attended Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. His life was engulfed in controversy as his writings were often considered non-concordant with the beliefs of his times; for that reason he was targeted by overzealous authorities several times and eventually accused of heresy, which was then punishable by death. Strangely enough, he was murdered before standing trial. His plays include Edward II and The Massacre at Paris.
John Fletcher (1579-1625). Originating from Rye, John Fletcher became one of the most celebrated playwrights of his period, his plays being regularly performed at court. John Fletcher's style included certain eccentricities which made it unique and unmistakable. After decades of writing many successful plays, on his own or in collaboration with other playwrights, he succumbed to the bubonic plague and for reasons unknown has not achieved the posthumous fame of his contemporary, William Shakespeare, although literary experts deem his work equally valuable. Among numerous other plays, he wrote The Woman's Prize, The Chances and The Pilgrim, all three being comedies.
The 17th century
Aphra Behn (1640-1689). One of the first women in England to achieve a fructuous literary career, Aphra Behn had a very adventurous life, marked by trips abroad, an incarceration due to debt and working as a spy for Charles II. A devout Catholic and royalist, Aphra Behn supported Charles II though her writings. She focused on a genre referred to as amatory fiction and produced writings of an impressive diversity - plays, novels, poems and short stories. She is best known for her novel Oroonoko, which dealt with the problem of slavery, and a play entitled The Rover, in two parts.
The 18th Century
Christopher Smart (1722-1771). Born in Shipbourne and a devout Anglican throughout his life, Christopher Smart also dedicated his existence to poetry, mostly approaching religious themes. His biography was marked by controversy and incarceration, first in a mental asylum and then in a debtors' prison, where he actually died. The reason given for his supposed insanity was religious fanaticism. His literary achievements, while alive, were linked to two magazines he collaborated on, whereas the awe he caused was mostly due to interpreting a female role in a stage performance, which was quite outlandish at the time. Among his most prominent works, he is remembered for A Song to David and Jubilate Agno.
William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Regarded as one of the most prolific literary critics to ever emerge out of England, essayist William Hazlitt was born in Maidstone and showed signs of brilliance at an early age. His writings cover a vast pallet of themes; he is mostly remembered as a literary critic and philosopher, although he manifested a strong interest in politics as well. Among his most notable essays was A Reply to the Essay on Population by Rev. T R Malthus (1807), in which Hazlitt passionately criticises Malthus's utilitarian views.
The 19th century
Sir Edwin Arnold(1832-1904). Born in Gravesend, poet and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold had a significant role in an intercultural exchange between England and India, as he worked there as a schoolmaster for seven years. His work entitled The Light of Asia, which brought him significant recognition, is illustrative of his experience and perspective on India. His journalistic activity consisted of writing for the Daily Telegraph, of which he later became editor-in-chief.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930). Originally from Walmer, Robert Bridges is mostly known for his poetry, as since 1913 and until his death in 1930 he was a poet laureate. He was educated to be a physician, a profession which he successfully practiced for a number of years, before finally retiring and focusing on writing. Nonetheless, his work is very diverse and comprises numerous hymns, prose and plays, in the form of verse drama. Some of his most notable creations include Shorter Poems (1890) and The Testament of Beauty (1929). He had a particular interest in developing free verse through a technique based on syllables.
Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933). Lexicographer Henry Fowler was born in Tonbridge. He was educated in Germany and England (at Rugby School and Balliol College), after which he became a schoolmaster; he specialised in Latin and Greek, completing a number of translations. He is particularly known for writing A Dictionary of Modern English Usage and The King's English, both volumes being comprehensive and highly explicative guides to a proper understanding and use of the English language. He also collaborated with other linguists for the completion of various works.
H G Wells (1866-1946). Perhaps one of the most notable English writers, Herbert George Wells was born in the Kentish municipality of Bromley. He had a fruitful literary activity and although he is known as a representative of the science fiction genre, his non-fictional writings are remarkable for their precision in anticipating the transformations to be undergone by society due to technological, political and moral factors. Such is his work entitled Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought, published in 1901. His well known connections to the Fabian Society, which propagated an extreme form of socialism, lead to his keenness for the idea of a world government, which was a peculiarly accurate prediction to say the least.