Book review / A glimpse of EngLit's bloomers

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction by John Sutherland Oxford University Press, pounds 4.99

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction by John Sutherland

Oxford University Press, pounds 4.99

Ever since the publication of Thackeray At Work in 1974, John Sutherland - now professor of modern English literature at University College, London - has existed as an animated presence on the margins of 19th-century literary criticism. To mark him down as a "marginal" figure is not to disparage the vigour of what he writes, but to acknowledge his slightly anomalous standing. What with books about best-sellers and the literary marketplace, not to mention inspired analyses of the lyrics of REM, Sutherland has a maverick status among the fustier kind of Victorian specialist. The spectacle of some American academic rising up amid the torpid columns of Victorian Studies to rebuke his supposed raciness is one of the more regular sights in the modern scholarly journal.

The faint professional wariness that greets the Sutherland-style intervention is odd. His forte is exacting textual analysis designed to unravel the manner in which a book got written, and some of the problems that the composition presented to the author. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's merely that Sutherland's mode of enquiry has such a bustling and unacademic gait. Last year's Is Heathcliff A Murderer? - this volume's precursor - had an essay investigating what it was that Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, actually swept up. Gravely informed, hedged about with quotations from Mayhew et al, the result was a highly original piece of socio-historical research. But there remained a suspicion that at the same time the researcher was simply having fun.

And good luck to him. Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, which like its predecessor doubles as a shameless ad for the Oxford World's Classics series, spins some suggestive garments from its innocuous textual threads. Why does Robinson Crusoe find only a single footprint? How come Magwitch in Great Expectations manages to escape from a prison ship with his leg in chains? (Answer: Dickens knew nothing about swimming) Was Daniel Deronda circumcised? How does Fanny Hill avoid pregnancy? (Sutherland has a sharp eye for sex in the pre-20th-century novel.)

Some of this is only a shrewd reckoning of authorial error. Considering The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sutherland shows that the problem of who looked after the hound during its master's frequent absences occurred to Conan Doyle fairly late, when large parts of the story had already been printed. The only solution was some last-minute sticking plaster in the shape of an absconding deaf-and- dumb Spanish attendant.

Typically, though, Sutherland is able to demonstrate how apparent errors in major Victorian novels reveal the creative processes beneath them. A brilliant piece about the number of pianos owned by Amelia Sedley in Vanity Fair discloses both the awful confusion Thackeray can provoke by not bothering to check what he has written, and his simultaneous ability to gather up symbolic artefacts and make them resonate. An equally shrewd instance turns up in the discussion of Trollope's Ralph The Heir. Here Sutherland notices that the vulgar breeches-maker Mr Neefit briefly addresses young Ralph as "Captain". Using both textual and historical evidence he concludes that Ralph began fictional life as a military gent, only for Trollope to remove his army rank at a later stage. The highlight, perhaps, is Sutherland's exhaustive and hilarious analysis of the underwear used by Elfride Swancoat - the heroine of Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes - to fashion a rescue rope for her cliff-bound swain.

The final effect of Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, as with most of what John Sutherland writes, is to emphasise again the mundane processes by which even "great" literature gets written, and to reveal the simultaneous influence on it of creative vision and random impulse. Three cheers for its author, who remains the most readable critic of 19th-century English literature currently at work.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before