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Literary Lifespans

Life expectancy at birth was 50 years in 1890s Britain. Now it stands at 80.

In this month’s Literary Review John Sutherland has an article entitled ‘Alms for Oblivion”, on the twin themes of British literary anniversaries and literary lifespans. The two paragraphs below - on literary lifespans - are excerpts from this article: “[Jane] Austen died aged forty-one, Thackeray aged fifty-two, Dickens aged fifty-eight and [George] Eliot aged sixty-one, while the three Brontës went to their reward with not a hundred years between them. Charlotte survived longest but failed to make forty. Trollope soldiered on to sixty-seven, having published, in the year of his death, a wry fable, The Fixed Period. Set in the 20th century in the fictional former colony of Britannula, it depicts a dystopian society overseen by young, energetic state-builders in which, pro bono publico, everyone is expected to volunteer for euthanasia aged sixty-eight.”

“We’re all living longer, novelists included. What is striking is the willingness with which our literary ‘long-livers’ (as George Bernard Shaw called them, in Back to Methuselah) look the grim reaper in his grisly mug as he comes ever closer to them. In 2011 it was noted that all the thirteen longlisted items in that year’s Booker Prize were centrally preoccupied with death. Julian Barnes (currently an active sixty-nine) won with The Sense of an Ending. Also in that year appeared AS Byatt’s similarly terminally titled Ragnarok: The End of the Gods. She is currently seventy-eight. We can confidently expect more from her, as she goes into her ninth decade. David Harsent has won this year’s

T S Eliot Prize, aged seventy-two. What, one wonders, might Dickens have given us with an extra ten years, or Austen with three more decades? Old age rather than death, to adapt Gore Vidal, is a good career move.”

John Sutherland is Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL. His biography appears in The Guardian, for which he regularly writes. See:

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