Books: A far, far better thing

Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? by John Sutherland Oxford UP, pounds 4.99, 256pp: D J Taylor unlocks classic secrets with an ingenious academic sleuth. But why isn't everyone a vampire?

THIS IS the third progress report from John Sutherland's continuing enquiry into the enigmas of "classic" (mainly Victorian) novels. The formula for these "further puzzles in classic fiction" is pretty well established. A discrepancy is pointed out or a question raised. Of what crime is Fagin in Oliver Twist being convicted? To which malady does Lady Dedlock in Bleak House succumb? A range of forensic and critical artillery is brought to bear on exposing, explaining and, more often than not, justifying an apparent "mistake".

Harassed by deadlines and the demands of serial publication, Victorian novelists were capable of making the most flagrant bloomers about their characters, changing locations or simply forgetting key evidence. One of the beauties of Sutherland's method is his trick of demonstrating that what sometimes looks like a simple error often disguises a deeper historical or aesthetic intent.

The reader puzzled at the Cratchit family's ability to cook Scrooge's turkey in the limited time available without going down with food poisoning has merely caught Dickens forgetting a minor detail. But, to balance this, there is a splendid essay on A Tale of Two Cities which uses an apparent slip-up to underline Dickens's mastery of English Law. Sidney Carton's possession of a defending counsel looks like an anachronism. Helped by a learned friend, Sutherland concludes that as Carton is being tried for treason, a period anomaly would have allowed him legal representation. With courtroom procedure, Dickens knew what he was about.

There is a great deal more in the 34 essays collected here. For instance, "Why isn't everyone a vampire?" According to Bram Stoker's exponential theory of vampirism, the entire world would have been neck-hunting by the time Dracula was written. "How long is Alice in Wonderland for?" "A few minutes and an epoch," Sutherland neatly concludes. As ever, one of the book's chief merits lies in the garnishes of historical detail along the way: the brief history of Victorian sanitation in the account of The Mayor of Casterbridge, or the survey of dental techniques woven into an investigation of Mr Carker's teeth (were they false?) in Dombey and Son.

In his introduction, which thanks his correspondents and shows what a collaborative affair this enterprise has become, Sutherland quotes the academic reviewer who wondered if the books' success was attributable to "the ingrained anti-theoretical prejudice of non-academic readers". Which is rather like wondering if people put up umbrellas because it rains. Few modern academics are doing quite so much as Professor Sutherland to connect the "common reader" with great books, and this collection - involved, devious and winningly unsacramental - is another demonstration of the qualities that make him such an engaging critic of Victorian, and other, literature.

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