The latest addition to my website is Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the brilliant conclusion to her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the adviser to Henry VIII. The novel starts and ends with two beheadings. It opens with the beheading of Anne Boleyn and ends with Cromwell’s own beheading, some four years later. In the meantime, we have seen Cromwell, a mixture of kind-heartedness towards to those in trouble and ruthless antagonism towards his and Henry VIII’s enemies, show cunning and skill in manoeuvring to make sure Henry’s will is observed but, at the same time, making numerous enemies, including being hated by many of the ordinary people, as well as the powerful lords, the latter taking full advantage of his weakness when the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves goes very wrong. Mantel gives us a superb and complex portrait of a man whom history has not looked upon favourably but whom she clearly respects and admires, despite his many faults.
The Guardian had an article about the most significant historical/literary figures of all time. To do this, they claim to use a principled assessment of a person’s achievements, whatever that may mean. They examine various sources but their primary source is Wikipedia where they look for length of article, Google Page rank and number of hits. (For those that do not know Page rank has nothing to with web pages but is named after Google’s Larry Page; it measures the quality and number of links to a page.) The authors have published a book on this which is called Who’s Bigger? and have been criticised, they say, for various reasons. These reasons include the unreliability of Wikipedia (which they reject) and their Anglocentrism which they partially admit but only partially. I have numerous criticisms which I shall use to criticise two of their lists – the overall top 30 and the top 50 literary figures (scroll down the article to find both of these).
The failure of their first list can be seen by the first entry, as it is a fictional figure. (Contrary to what many people will try and tell you, there is absolutely no reliable evidence whatsoever for the existence of Jesus. There is some rudimentary evidence for his non-existence, namely that contemporaries did not write about him.) If you are going to have such figures, then God should be ahead of Jesus and Allah ahead of Mohammed. And what about Buddha who probably did exist and is surely more important than Ulysses S Grant and Beethoven? There are other significant omissions, Mao and Lenin being obvious ones. As for their inclusions, there are three Americans in the top ten, a country that has only existed for 250 years, all ahead of Columbus (No 20), without whom there would have been no US as we know it. The top Englishman is Shakespeare. However important he was as a writer and however interesting, his influence on world events was paltry. Indeed, his influence on events in England (no Scots, Welsh or Irish in the top thirty) was far less than Henry VIII (11), Elizabeth I (13), Queen Victoria (16) as well as a host of others who do not appear – William I, Henry II, Henry V, Simon de Montfort, Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Wellington, Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and many others I could think of. The reason for this is clear. Shakespeare is a) interesting and therefore people write about him, link to him and read his Wikipedia page; b) he is known to people and taught around the world, whereas many of the British politicians I have mentioned will not be known outside the UK, despite their importance and influence; c) he wrote a lot of plays, there is still a controversy about him (who wrote Shakespeare?) and he is still performed all over the world, so his Wikipedia article is likely to be long (it is nearly 12000 words in length) (though he is behind Henry VII, around 16500, Elizabeth I, around 13000, Queen Victoria, around 12500, Churchill, around 22000, William I, around 14500, Oliver Cromwell, around 16000, the Duke of Wellington, around 165000, Lloyd George, around 17000, with the others getting less. Henry V, for example, barely tops 3000). The likes of Simon de Montfort, despite their primary importance in English history, are not very interesting even to the English and far less so to other nationalities. Educated foreigners are far more likely to have heard of Shakespeare than de Montfort, even though de Montfort was far more important and had more influence.
To pursue this argument from another perspective, let’s take Adolf Hitler. Most educated people will have heard of him and therefore will be less inclined to read his page. I have never looked at it till just now, to do the word count (around 19000 words). However, I have looked at numerous Wikipedia pages of obscure authors and historical figures, just because I knew little about them, so while the number of hits may have some validity, it may well not tell the true story. Hitler’s article length will be long as a) he was, of course, very controversial, b) he did a lot of things (directly and indirectly) during his life and c) his life and activities are very well documented. Simon de Montfort is almost certainly not as well documented so there will be less to say about him. Others may have done only one or two key things in their life. Gavrilo Princip, for example, who is not on the list but, without whom, we would probably never have heard of Adolf Hitler, did just one thing in his life of import so only merits just over 2000 words. No, he is not as significant as Hitler but, in terms of the influence he had on our world, he is certainly as important as Shakespeare. My final concern is anglocentricity. Twelve of the people on the list are English mother tongue. Sixteen spoke a European language. Only two – Jesus and Mohammed – spoke a non-European tongue. I have already mentioned Buddha and Mao but there are many others of import from the rest of the world who do not appear – from Asia: Mao, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Nehru, Confucius, Lao Tse; Emperor Hirohito, Akito Morita, Genghis Khan, Harun-al-Rashid, Yassir Arafat, Nasser, Mehmed II; from Latin America: Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara; from Africa: Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Senghor, Haile Selassie, Cleopatra… And so on. I am sure that you get the picture. All of these are more important – a lot more important – than Theodore Roosevelt (famous for a) charging up San Juan Hill (irrelevant for most people outside Spain and the US) and b) slaughtering a lot of innocent animals (No 23 on the list) and Beethoven (yes, he wrote a few good tunes) (No 27 on the list). They are probably, for the most part, more important than Queen Victoria who was a constitutional monarch and therefore had little influence and who spent much of her life in mourning for her late husband. Their answer to the charge of anglocentricity is yes, our rankings have an Anglocentric bias. But the depth of Wikipedia is so great that there are hundreds of articles about Chinese poets in the English edition., which must be one of the most inept defences I have ever seen. This list is massively anglocentric; it contains no Chinese poets (because most Westerners know little and care less about Chinese poets); it ignores many far more significant people from elsewhere, as I have shown. And I have not even touched on scientists/inventors – from Arkwright and Pasteur and Watt and Edison and Benz to Jobs and Gates, all of whom have had far more influence on our lives than Shakespeare.
It was not my intention to go on as much about the main list, so let me jump to the literary list. Three Americans in the top ten and five in the top twenty; three Brits in the top ten and nine in the top twenty (plus one if you count an Irishman who was a British citizen during his life). Tagore is the only writer in the list in the top fifty who is not European or American and even he was part of the British Empire during his life. No doubt Michael Gove would approve and he may approve of the fact that only two women – Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson (a ludicrous choice) – make the list (the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Murasaki Shikibu, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, J K Rowling (who has influenced far more readers than Dickinson), Simone de Beauvoir, Rachel Carson, Enid Blyton and Virginia Woolf are all missing in action). We know, of course, that Wikipedia is massively male-centric. The 20th century writers are Stephen King, H G Wells, George Orwell, James Joyce, T S Eliot and, perhaps, Henry James and Tagore, who both wrote some books in the 20th century – three Americans (albeit two of whom were British citizens), two Brits, one Indian and one Irishman (also a British citizen). Magic realism (García Márquez, Rushdie), Africans who have influenced an entire continent (Senghor, Soyinka, Mahfouz, Achebe), various non-Anglophone Europeans who have had more influence than James and Eliot (Grass, Mann, Kafka, Proust, Sartre, Camus) – all missing in action. Do people read Wells or James, outside academic institutions? Well, yes a, few do but not many and their influence is much reduced. This really is a sloppy list and its criteria are even sloppier. This proves, as we have seen elsewhere, letting geeks judge history and literature is not often a good idea.