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

 

Louise Jury
Friday 31 January 2014 01:00
Comments

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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in