Can Jane Eyre be happy? John Sutherland, author of the bestselling Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, doubts it. As his second book of lit-crit puzzles is published, he analyses our lust for classic novels

PRINTING would be high on most people's list of inventions that have transformed Western civilisation. Few would list something even more influential - the book, or "codex", an invention which preceded Gutenberg and Caxton by at least a century. The manuscript book - written material stored on separate leaves (or folios), bound sequentially, that can be opened randomly using fingers and opposable thumb - had huge advantages over the ancient scroll.

It still does. Most of us can find a telephone number quicker with a bound directory than by trawling through a computerised database (an electronic scroll). Using books comes as naturally to humans as peeling bananas. Your two-year-old can open her picture book and peer intelligently into it. Keyboards are something else. You have to learn to use those. Most children will be ten before they can hammer out a tune on the piano or five-finger type.

The book (whether manuscript or print-based) was arguably the most perfect invention ever. If, by time machine, you could transport William Caxton to the present day, most of our technology would terrify or bewilder him. But one thing would be comfortingly familiar - the contents of Dillon's bookstore. Using his 15th-century hand-press, Caxton could easily turn out a passable version of the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel. Dust- jackets (an early 20th-century innovation) might faze him a bit, but otherwise the medieval and postmodern book are one and the same thing. And in some respects - its rag-based paper, wooden "boards" and calf binding, for instance - the medieval book was more durable, and certainly lovelier, than ours is.

As it moved from manuscript to print, the book carried with it functional elements which have survived as design features. Principal among these are the generous margins surrounding the printed material (look left and right, up and down, and you'll see them on this page; they wouldn't be there if I was hand-writing you a letter on notepaper). Paper is expensive and there is no obvious reason for these huge white borders. Why are they there?

They originate in the manuscript book's invitation to the reader to gloss, or comment on the text - to pick up your pen and join in a lively dialogue. The manuscript was less holy writ than a kind of scriptive seminar; something akin to a newly whitewashed public- lavatory wall. It was in this glossing that literary criticism originated, as an honourably "marginal" activity which explicated, refuted, or debated with the book in question, on the same site as the book.

We still have our fat white margins, but literary criticism has outgrown its original marginal status. And, at the same time, it has become culturally insignificant. It no longer matters. Walk round any of the big-city Barnes and Noble bookstores which are currently transforming the American bookselling scene. You'll find an attached Star-bucks coffee-house where you can relax between purchases with newspapers and magazines on batons, a children's recess where your kids can play-N-read while you buy, and acre upon acre of compartmentalised books. There are vast sections on computer books, how-to books, maternity books, Eastern knowledge books, Judaica; New Age books, any number of fiction categories, from classics to erotica. But you won't find literary criticism. No one wants to buy it.

Not that people don't want to do it. One of the more cheerful developments in American literary culture over the last decade has been the growth in self- motivated "reading clubs": groups of (usually middle-class) readers who meet socially in one another's homes to discuss a "good book". What results is a kind of literary criticism without literary critics. So numerous and influential are these clubs that the American book trade now caters specifically for them with targeted titles and budget-price recommendations.

In Britain, classic-reprint series are booming as never before. There are at least five major lines currently available: World's Classics, Penguin Classics, Everyman paper, Everyman hardback, and Wordsworth, the brash (and somewhat resented) newcomer. The range of product on offer is mouth- watering. Take a novel like Trollope's Barchester Towers: there are no less than five recently edited versions currently available, ranging in price from 99p to pounds 10. High-street bookshops will routinely have two or three for you to choose from. The bigger stores will have most of Trollope's other 46 works of fiction, if Barchester Towers doesn't please. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf all sell more copies in 1997 than they did at any point during their lifetimes. Never has so much British classic literature been consumed. Never has a greater variety been on sale at bargain price and in attractive packaging.

Nor is the boom entirely television- and film-driven (although, as with Middlemarch in 1994 and Sense and Sensibility in 1995, a successful screen adaptation can jump a 19th-century novel to the top of the bestseller list). The sales surge in classic reprints runs deep and strong. Each of Dickens's principal novels, for example, will sell between 10,000 and 20,000 every year in each of the major reprint lines. Make some simple calculations and you can work out that Dickens alone is selling around a million copies annually and generating some pounds 5 million in turnover for the British book trade. Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy probably outsell him. And, unlike transitory bestsellers like John Grisham (who will be as forgotten in ten years as Alistair MacLean is today), these classic authors go on and on selling inexhaustibly. In all probability even more people will be buying Dickens in 2007 (and, I would guess, in print-and- paper, not electronic form).

The classic-reprint lines got going in their current paperback form in the late 1960s, with the Penguin English Library (now called Penguin Classics). They have expensive, pictorial covers, clear type, and inexpensive paper. Rather like Milton's apples of Sodom, they looked wonderfully glossy on the outside but inside was something else. As pioneered by Penguin and World's Classics in the 1970s, the volumes carry quite an extensive academic apparatus: a long scholarly introduction and copious annotation, typically by an authoritative academic. It used to be assumed that readers valued this apparatus highly; an assumption that has been put in question by Wordsworth's and Penguin's recent success with stripped-down 99p and 60p classics. When push comes to shove, many readers want the text, it seems, not the critical packaging, though other things being equal, they want them both.

This leads to an odd paradox. Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Trollope and Woolf are selling by the tonne. Clearly there is a vast, intelligent, literate market. But an academic writing a critical monograph on one of these authors and publishing it with a leading academic publisher will do well to sell 800 copies. There is a huge appetite for classic literature; but outside universities, there is no appetite (positive distaste even) for critical books which help us to a better understanding of the literary book. Why?

One reason is that, having risen above its marginal condition, literary criticism has become too clever for its own good. A skip across recent academic press-catalogues is a deterring experience, speckled as the titles are with terms like "narrativity", "hermeneutics", "dialogical", "new historicism". Who are such books aimed at? Not the hundreds of thousands of book-shop consumers of classic reprints, for whom a term like "dialogical" means "keep out, half-brain", but fellow- academics, graduate students and tenure-review committees. At its worst, contemporary criticism makes the pharisaical assumption that, until this critic came along, no one (sometimes not even the authors themselves) truly understood the work. Take, for instance, a monograph which created considerable stir in 1993, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's Was Huck Black? (OUP). It is estimated that Twain's novel has sold some 20 million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1884. But until Dr Fishkin, to have argued that Huckleberry Finn was an African-American would have put one in the same camp as those deluded souls who claim that Hamlet is a cross-dressing woman. Fishkin makes a plausible case (although I personally don't buy it). But where does it leave those hundreds of millions of readers over the years who have blithely assumed that Huck is white (if rather grimily so) and will go on thinking so, whatever some professor says?

I believe that literary criticism is a useful, indeed a necessary activity. Two minds really are better than one when it comes to intelligent reading, and three are better than two. But those minds need to be in fruitful communication. The American growth in reading clubs and the British classic- reprint boom are heartening vital signs. Literature lives. And what is needed is a literary criticism which takes regard of and serves these newly recruited reading constituencies.

Obviously, criticism can't go back to the literal margins (although it's salutary to remember why the white borders are there). And it would be disastrous to talk down to the reading masses, like some Victorian adult- education lecturer out on the stump. What is required, initially, is to listen. What kind of questions does the intelligent lay reader of a classic-reprint text want answered? First of all, I would guess, such a reader wants elementary data; when the work was published, something about the biographical and historical circumstances out of which it emerged, and how the work was received. Classic reprints usually supply this information economically and efficiently. What more is wanted?

In editing classic novels over the years for World's Classics, Penguin and Everyman, I was struck by how interested readers were in "real-world" problems as they affect fictional narrative. Students of literature will recognise this as the "How many children had Lady Macbeth?" trap. Lady Macbeth, in her malevolent speech to her suddenly squeamish husband, tells him: "I have given suck, and know how sweet it is to nurse the babe that milks me." Later in the play, when Macduff is vowing revenge for his murdered wife and child, he says of Macbeth, "He has no children." What do we make of this? That Lady M had a child by a previous marriage? The child[ren] died in infancy?

Undergraduates are routinely taught that madness lies in this direction. It's a category mistake; you can only ask fiction the kind of questions fiction can answer. None the less, readers, in my experience, are fascinated by such puzzles. I gathered 34 of them together from standard works of classic Victorian fiction under the title, Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Does Becky kill Jos at the end of Vanity Fair? (trickier than it might seem). Why does no one notice that Effie is pregnant in The Heart of Midlothian, or that Hetty is likewise pregnant in Adam Bede? (different reasons). How, exactly, does Victor Frankenstein make his monster? (all the films get it wrong); why does Dracula come to England rather than neighbouring Germany? (he has his reasons); why doesn't the Invisible Man make himself an invisible suit? (Wells is at some pains to make it clear that he can); why doesn't Robert Louis Stevenson tell us what Mr Hyde looks like? (all the films do). Is Alec d'Urberville a rapist, or does he "seduce" Tess? (the Victorians had a very different line from us on the matter); where does Sir Thomas Bertram's wealth come from in Mansfield Park, and is demure Fanny Price a profiteer from the slave trade? Jo in Bleak House is a crossing-sweeper - what exactly does he sweep? (again, trickier than it may seem). Is Melmotte, in Trollope's The Way We Live Now, Jewish? (yes and no and maybe).

These questions are, undeniably, marginal. OUP, taking something of a risk, marketed the book as a World's Classic lookalike and priced it absurdly low for a critical monograph at pounds 3.95. The book sold like hot cakes and received friendly reviews (with a rather two-edged compliment, the Economist observed that if this sort of thing went on, literary criticism would get a good name). Most gratifying, however, was the large number of personal letters I received. Some courteously pointed out errors. But most were in a spirit of friendly solidarity. Simon Levene sent me a letter about Frankenstein whose trenchancy I relished: "Without seeming ragingly pedantic, may I mention p27, where you refer to a `metallic bolt attaching [the monster's] head to its body'? In fact, it is not a bolt but the ends of the electrodes through which the electricity flows into the monster. More to the point, why should Victor Frankenstein ever construct a body? Why shouldn't one body have done quite as well?" I wish I'd thought of that.

One deduction I draw from the response to Is Heathcliff a Murderer? is that for many readers of classic reprints, the pleasure itself comes from an extraordinarily fine-toothed combing of the text. In a letter to me, Paul Jenkinson, for instance, outlined no less than five possible chronologies of the central events in Pride and Prejudice. Having, by ruthless logic and recourse to the perpetual calendar, eliminated two of them, he concluded his letter: "It would greatly please me if you could determine which of these three [remaining] scenarios is the `real' one." I can't. The conundrum pivots on whether Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit Pemberley and unexpectedly encounter Darcy on 21 July, 28 July, 4 August, 11 August, or 18 August. It is, I warn you, a brain-stretching puzzle, not to be followed up unless you have a week or so's undistracted time and a very good head for figures.

Once you get in the swing, puzzles of this kind crop up everywhere, and I have gathered another 30-odd in a sequel, Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (another World's Classic snip, at pounds 4.99). It covers such familiar chestnuts as why Robinson Crusoe discovers only one footprint, whether Daniel Deronda, George Eliot's Jewish hero, is circumcised, and whether Black Beauty is gelded (yes, and no, in my view). Less familiar perhaps is a quibble about the sex of Lady Bertram's lap-dog in Mansfield Park. What job it is that Mr Pickwick retires from, why Fagin is hanged (and Pip, in Great Expectations, not even questioned by the police), what Heathcliff was going to lay down in his last will and testament, Mrs Jane Rochester's expectation of marital bliss (very bleak), how it is Magwitch swims to shore from his hulk with a "great iron" on his leg, and how Clarissa Dalloway, with her weak heart and a full basket, manages - in a similar athletic feat - to get from Bond Street to Victoria in five minutes.

There is a limit to how far one can go with this populist approach to classical fiction. Nor would I make any great claims for what one of my colleagues, unkindly but accurately, called "Literary Trivia" (with the implication that it was a parlour game for clapped-out academics unable to keep up with the pace of modern theory). But if literary criticism is to reassert itself as something more than an obstacle course for professional advancement, it will have to reconnect with what Dr Johnson called the Common Reader, finding a discourse in which topics of common interest can be discussed. Mutual puzzlement, and puzzle-solving, is a start.

! `Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?' by John Sutherland (OUP World's Classics, pounds 4.99)

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