John Sutherland: The Victorians vs Fitzgerald
In day one at Cheltenham Festival, literary critic John Sutherland took on the task of Victorian literature and twentieth century classics
Jon Connell and John Sutherland’s talk – Under the Bonnet of Classic Fiction – was clearly an event for the hardcore bookworm: many audience members had their noses buried in books right up until the two started speaking.
Literary critic John Sutherland put some of the greatest novels of the 19th and early 20th century under the microscope with The Week founder Jon Connell, including Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Great Gatsby. Connell is the author of the Connell Guides to classic literature, which critically highlight themes and talking points. Sutherland said that nowadays literary critcism is like the “winky wanky bird; it disappears up itself at some point. It’s much more fun to write than to read.”
He brought up Connell’s identification of the use of hands in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. “You have Magwitch’s large, brown, veined hands; Miss Havisham’s wizard claws; Jaggers’ scented soap which makes our noses twitch; Pip is brought up by hand and is destined to have black hands, Dickens says very early on.” Little nuggets like these, he said, are what give him an “aboriginal pleasure” in literature.
The problem with criticism of Victorian literature, Sutherland said, is that we “boil it down to an aspirin-sized tablet and swallow it down and think we know it”. They moved on to one of the classics of the twentieth century: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which is having something of a revival in its ninetieth year, with a West End production and the blockbuster film due for release next summer. Connell said, gloriously simply, that Gatsby is a “young man’s novel about being young and the loss of young dreams. No-one, Fitzgerald said, should live past 30. The twenties are not only the best time of our lives, he said, they’re the only worthwhile time of our lives. Everything is thinning by the time we hit thirty – our hair, our briefcase load, our list of friends to call on.”
One of the main differences between the American classic The Great Gatsby and Victorian classics is that the nineteenth century author, Sutherland said, is in sympathy with their main character. Fitzgerald’s characters “don’t have the capacity to develop as people. Their view of the world is too limited. There is the tragedy of their unfulfilled potential; we never quite believe in Jay Gatsby.”
“Theodore Sturgeon, a sci-fi writer, says that ninety-nine per cent of sci-fi is crap. Ninety-nine per cent of everything is crap. Our approach is that we assume Dickens is a typical Victorian writer, when really he was completely unlike any other writer. He isn’t Victorian literature. We shall never understand the Victorians as much as they understand themselves,” Sutherland finished. “It’s very hard to recapture the past.”