08.06.09 6:20 AM ET
The Best of Brit Lit
Classics are timeless—or so we think. In the case of George Orwell, the distinguished historian Richard Vinen points out in the TLS this week that he has “escaped from his own time”: "Every school child who gets as far as GCSE English will have read at least one Orwell novel.... This means that most people read Orwell before they have any sense of the period in which he wrote; indeed, before they have much sense of why it might matter to understand the period in which a writer worked.” A volume of his writings for the Tribune from the years before 1984, and a new study about Orwell and Marxism, put Orwell rewardingly back in his historical place–-and show how the timeless work of literature emerged from the messy business of writing to the moment.
A much older escapee from history is Mary Magdalene, mentioned in all the gospels as a witness to Jesus' crucifixion, but otherwise a mysterious figure. Luke says that seven devils had "gone out" of her—presumably as a result of an exorcism performed by Jesus. John says that she was the first to encounter Jesus in the garden after the resurrection. But what else can be said about her with any confidence? The gaps in knowledge have tempted Gnostics and conventional churchmen alike to elaborate on her story, and ultimately have led to The Da Vinci Code. A. E. Harvey, former canon and sub-dean of Westminster, detects a hidden agenda in Robin Griffith-Jones' account of Mary Magdalene, "the woman whom Jesus loved".
According to Ronald Fritze, a historian and dean at Athens State University in Alabama, film, television, radio, magazines, and the Internet now provide a "charlatan’s playground" for "pseudohistorians and pseudoscientists of all stripes"—Atlantis, pre-Ice Age civilizations, the 10 lost tribes of Israel, and cosmic catastrophes, all delusions of the 19th century, flourish in this fine environment for persuading the gullible and snagging the interest of the naïvely curious. Vincent Crapanzano finds Fritze's Invented Knowledge itself in need of careful consideration.
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.