Can we ever know what will escape the oblivion of history?

We can never know why the modern reader prefers Jane Austen to Walter Scott, or if anyone will still be reading Hilary Mantel in a century’s time.

Many years ago I embarked on a postgraduate degree on the 19th century historical novel. Possessed at the outset of an unusual amount of enthusiasm, my ambition was to “discover” a great lost historical novelist and to champion them for a new readership and try to interest an uncaring world in their oeuvre. Unfortunately it didn’t go so well. Two of the historical novelists whom I thought were ripe for revival were Bulwer-Lytton and William Harrison Ainsworth. The former is dimly remembered but certainly unread these days, while the latter is barely even in print. Both were quite a big deal back in their day though – Ainsworth in particular, who outsold his friend Dickens in the 1830s and 1840s. I managed to find musty copies of his core texts in the library stacks: The Tower of London and Rookwood. Reading them was one of the most dispiriting experiences of my short-lived academic career.

The prose was leaden and over-explicatory, the overall tone one of debilitating earnestness, the characters wooden. I hadn’t yet encountered the work of Dan Brown at the time to provide a frame of reference but to call it a duller Boy’s Own version of The Da Vinci Code scribe gives you an idea of what it was like. Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii and Harold, Last of the Saxons weren’t much better. Like many academic researchers, I could have hunkered down, ignored the lack of literary value in the works, and pursued my objective analysis of them but I didn’t have the stomach for that. These were books that deserved to be forgotten. No purpose was being served in reminding people of their existence. If even one person were to be drawn to William Harrison Ainsworth on account of my endeavours I would feel responsible. It wasn’t the only reason for my abandoning my postgrad after less than a year but it was a factor.

Neither author would probably be too shocked that their work wouldn’t last – Ainsworth even in his lifetime experienced the cold shock of oblivion. Seated at dinner some time in the 1860s, long after he had ceased to be famous (he lived till 1882) he introduced himself to a young gentleman, who cruelly remarked “Ainsworth? I thought you were dead.” Maybe I should have reoriented my study of the 19th-century historical novel to cover forgotten books, as pretty much everything else I read I did so as a lone wolf. With the possible exception of A Tale of Two Cities, all the novels were obscure and now largely unread, even those written by authors whose flame is still very much alive: Barnaby Rudge, Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, George Eliot’s Romola and Trollope’s La Vendée. Unlike Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton’s books, these were still perfectly readable though even if contemporary readers might not have discerned so wide a gulf in quality.

Maybe historical fiction is just a genre which resists remembrance: even the titan of the 19th century, Walter Scott, whom I also read and was the subject of the sole chapter of the thesis I managed to write, is largely unread nowadays and is better known as the author of Ivanhoe than as the writer of the Waverley novels. There was nobody bigger than Scott in his day and even as late as the 1930s the great Marxist critic György Lukács could praise the revolutionary nature of Scott’s historically representative characters. These days, though, it is his contemporary Jane Austen who has the much bigger readership. Perhaps how writers of the past viewed a period further back in time doesn’t really interest the general reader. If this is the case, one might fear for the posterity of Hilary Mantel’s work. Or Patrick O’Brian’s.

L P Hartley’s remark about the past being a foreign country is now such common currency as to be almost a truism. It is the unknowability of the past that constitutes its wide expanses of uncharted terrain. We will never know what Queen Victoria, Napoleon or George Washington sounded like and even rare recordings of the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and James Joyce underline the oddness of diction and accents of only a century ago. Even one’s own family is as alien as someone from the other side of the world once you go back a couple of generations. It is estimated one is consciously remembered by one’s friends and relatives for about seventy years after one’s death, unless of course one is fortunate enough to attain a certain degree of fame or notoriety in one’s lifetime. After that, you are just a name in the death register, words etched on a gravestone, a dot in the firmament. The spread of technology, of course, means that traces of your existence are likely to linger on in one way or another but who is to say anyone will be interested in them? Other than historians, linguists, anthropologists and sociologists, of course. For it is they who piece together the past and claw back the diffuse and incomplete understanding we have of it.

Customs, techniques, know-how, entire languages disappear as their practitioners recede into the past. When Umberto Eco passed away recently, my first thought was how much knowledge contained in that great polymath’s head was now lost to the world. We have the distillate of it in his fifty or so books, but even that bottled essence may not be remembered for long. Sometimes the fall of civilisations can conceal technological and cultural practices and leave them unnoticed or misunderstood – Portugal’s tin mines were left unexploited for almost a millennium after the Visigoths overran the Lusitanian Romans. The concrete dome of the Pantheon in Rome so baffled people until engineering caught up with it again in the Renaissance that many thought it was a divine work.

Irish people are surprisingly indifferent to the excellent seafood that abounds in their waters (just compare the number of seafood restaurants in Irish coastal towns to corresponding areas in Spain and Portugal). One theory is the Irish who survived the Famine considered foraging in rock pools for shellfish a painful memory of the Great Hunger. But the linguistic traces suggest their ancestors were quite familiar with it – most of the Irish words for seafood are native to the language, ie not borrowed from English or other Indo-European languages: breallach (clam), gliomach (lobster), cloicheán (prawn), cuán mara (sea urchin) and so on. Indeed much of Ireland’s heritage has fallen victim to time and cultural domination – its language, its cuisine, its architecture (as delineated in Niall McCullough and Valerie Mulvin’s A Lost Tradition). There are many other nations in the world that have similarly seen their heydays come and go, be they the Inca, Aztec and Mayan empires, Benin City in the Ebo Empire or Lithuania, which was once one of Europe’s biggest states and is now among its smallest.

Oblivion, sadly, awaits most of us, even the most illustrious. The late Gilbert Adair, in the dying days of the 20th century, wrote a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday called “The Guillotine”, in which he proposed a number of cultural greats of the century that wouldn’t last, among them Le Corbusier, Robert Mapplethorpe, Erik Satie, and most improbably of all, Greta Garbo. Such an exercise, of course, says more about personal taste than any objective measurement of worth and some predictions in the past have been wrong. Samuel Johnson took one look at Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (which was a big success on its publication in 1759) and said it wouldn’t last. He was almost right – it languished in obscurity until the Russian Constructivists and other Moderns resurrected it in the 1920s. Vermeer was a largely forgotten painter for a couple of centuries until his tableaux of compact drama struck a chord with the Victorians. Short of being The Beatles, Steven Spielberg or Saul Bellow, there is no sure-fire way of avoiding being forgotten (just look at the number of Nobel literature laureates or Oscar winners that are barely remembered today). Ultimately it’s all pot luck and probably the best way of living on is to attain a bevy of (younger) dutiful boosters in your lifetime, or a diligent academic researcher who won’t “rediscover” your work and then promptly decide it ought not to be remembered.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.