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
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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.