Quoting The Great Gatsby at the royal wedding? It’s no love story | Sam Leith

Princess Eugenie must know F Scott Fitzgerald’s tragic hero is broken like a butterfly on the wheel of old money and inherited privilege

“Um. This quite strongly suggests that they don’t know what The Great Gatsby is about,” was the reaction of one Twitter user to the discovery that today’s royal wedding was to include a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in the order of service. You’d have to think he has a point. The Great Gatsby is a book riddled with adultery and sexual double standards. True love (spoiler alert) fails to win out in the cruellest possible way. The hero dies in the end and nobody shows up to his funeral. And the book has some very pointed things indeed to say about empty materialism, social privilege and the seamy criminal underpinnings of the glitz and glamour of high society.

I mean, for a wedding ceremony where the father of the bride is reported to have been furious that the BBC declined to broadcast it live and in full on national television, where the streets of Windsor are to be closed to traffic so that Princess Eugenie (ninth in line to the throne) and her groom Jack Brooksbank (brand manager for a tequila firm) could parade through the streets in a carriage waving to the common people ... it could all look a little bit on the nose, couldn’t it? Among other things, the tragic hero of Fitzgerald’s story is himself ghastly new money striving for reinvention, and the book’s tragedy is the way he is broken like a butterfly on the wheel of old money, social convention and inherited privilege. It’s not a book that roots for any American equivalent of the royal family.

That said, it contains some nice frocks, and makes mint juleps sound bloody delicious, so it’s not all bad. And the passage they did choose, describing Gatsby’s magnetic smile, reads well in isolation: “It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.” But the rest of the novel, of course, goes on to make clear how, to quote another great work, you could take a good look at that face and see that the smile is out of place. Gatsby is a contrivance, a performance, a seductive chimera, a fraud.

Still, they could have done worse. Remember the eyes of T J Eckleburg – the vast commercialised peepers of a deus mostly absconditus – lowering sightlessly over the Valley of Ashes? There’s a metaphor for the paparazzi if ever I’ve seen one. Above all – and this is one that will be in the minds of everyone whose car is snarled in a traffic jam, or who has to take the long route round to their kids’ football match, because the couple insisted on a regal procession by carriage through the streets of Windsor at lord knows what cost to the public purse – there’s the killer line: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

The 2012 film of The Great Gatsby
The 2012 film of The Great Gatsby. Photograph: Allstar

Fortunately, at the time of writing the royal carriage hasn’t (spoiler alert again) run over anyone’s mistress or similar.

But it’s worth remembering that Gatsby contains multitudes. It is a drastic underreading to see it as a simple polemic against wealth and unthinking privilege (though it contains that), or the chimerical cruelty of the American Dream (though it contains that too). It is a love story, and an achingly romantic one. It’s a book about time and loss and hopelessness and the impossible longing to reinvent yourself and capture a moment in and out of time. But, friends, it does end badly.

Safest, then, might have been to stick to the epigraph – a couple of lines from a poem by the (fictitious) poet Thomas Parke D’Invilliers: “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; / If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, / Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, / I must have you!’”

Better yet, if Jack Brooksbank were to have closed the ceremony by wearing a gold hat and jumping up and down on a trampoline until Eugenie cried “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you!” ... that would have been romantic, wouldn’t it? In fact, I’d have turned out on the streets of Windsor to see it.

• Sam Leith is literary editor of the Spectator


Sam Leith

The GuardianTramp

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