Jumbo - The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation by John Sutherland, book review


Jumbo the elephant was a Victorian sensation, who between his birth in modern-day Eritrea and alcoholic death in the American circus of the incorrigible showman PT Barnum was the star attraction at London Zoo.

As John Sutherland, the literary academic, admits from the off, his new book is not really an “unauthorised biography” at all. It is more a treasure trove of elephant ephemera with eye-popping statistics on trunks, dung and sex and characters from Chunee, Jumbo’s popular show animal predecessor in London, to Disney’s fictional Dumbo.

The best of the details and juxtapositions are fascinating. Charles Darwin used elephants to explain the maths and science of evolution. The film of Dumbo proved an initial disaster at the box office because its finale of a dive-bombing elephant was rendered deeply inappropriate by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour within weeks of release. The construction of the world’s first skyscraper began in 1885, the year of the death of the elephant whose name became a byword for the biggest of everything (though, as a matter of fact, Jumbo is no record-breaker, size-wise).

But the narrative darts. Jumbo’s death takes place on page 134 of 277, not an impossible handicap for coherence but an indication of problems afoot.

There are sloppy repetitions. A prediction that elephants will be extinct within a decade is quoted twice within 50 pages, citing different sources. Elsewhere, only a page separates two different mentions of the revelation that food passes so swiftly through an elephant that 60 per cent emerges “much as it went in”.

And fact-checking would have removed the need for speculation that occasionally looks like padding.  Jumbo’s skeleton, which went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is  “presumably” still in storage. Could he have not asked?

It is a shame. Throughout there are glimmers of the book that might have been expected, given Sutherland’s distinguished back catalogue as a literary scholar, with entertaining elephant references from literary figures as diverse as Dorothy Parker, John Donne and the inevitable Rudyard Kipling. A consideration of the central significance of elephants in Heart of Darkness is enough to make any fan re-visit Joseph Conrad’s novella.

For Sutherland, seeing the film Dumbo aged nine was clearly a starting point for a book flecked with recollections of his childhood, his own children, even his alcoholism. And Jumbo is evidently a more commercial subject than an exploration of elephants in literature.  Yet “one assumes” –  to use his own Jumbo lexicon – that might have been a more rigorous read.

Elephant-lovers might not care.