Last week the theory popped up that by 2090 Winston Churchill probably won’t be recognisable by his picture.
At first this seemed ludicrous. It’s Winston Churchill!
But the more I thought about it the more I conceded it was a probability. His deeds will have passed out of living memory by then, of course. The people just coming to the end of their lives won’t be the people who grew up hearing about him from their grandparents. 155 years after the end of World War II it may be almost forgotten. After all, we see pictures of all sorts of people in history classes at school – Custer, Shakespeare, Marx – and how many of those would we remember outside of the classroom? When I think of General Custer I vaguely remember a plumpish man, possibly with a moustache, but almost every man in that textbook looked similar.
If the time comes when people do look at a picture of Winston Churchill and not recognise him what does that mean? One theory is that the things he did for our country have slipped through the cracks but that isn’t really the case. He’ll still be documented in text books; his contribution won’t be forgotten, although it will be observed from a distance in the way we look at, say, Darwin now. Generally, we don’t underestimate his significance but we have the clarity of time to help us look at him objectively.
And what about authors? I think looking at them rather proves the point. How many Victorian writers would your average reader recognise?
Dickens? I can almost get him. Emily Bronte? I could but most people probably couldn't. George Eliot? Well, wouldn’t a lot of people be expecting a beard?
The point is that even if we can’t remember the faces of our literary heritage we can still enjoy their works and we know who they are from the mere mention of a title – Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch. If someone mentions Churchill and WWII perhaps in 2090 the average person will still know what they’re talking about.