DECEMBER 1999 |
John Sutherland is Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London, and specializes in raising questions arising from classic literature. This is one of four volumes on these lines - the others are "Is Heathcliff a murderer?", "Can Jane Eyre be happy?" and "Where was Rebecca shot?". The best way to describe what he does - and does very well - is to give an example from his present book, "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?".
Consider the Cratchit family in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". At eleven o'clock on Christmas Day Scrooge leans from his window and asks a boy to run to the poulterers' to fetch the large turkey in the window. We hear that it is twice the size of Tiny Tim, by any measure a very substantial turkey indeed. Let us err on the side of caution by estimating its weight at twenty pounds. The turkey cannot arrive at the Cratchit house much before midday; so when do the Cratchits sit down to eat?
Tiny Tim must have been gnawing his knuckles with hunger by the time the turkey is ready. The facts are plainly set out in the novel, yet the incongruity did not strike me when I read it, nor have I heard anyone raise the question before now. And this is only one of thirty-four such puzzles here.
Some of them are obvious slip-ups by the author. If Trollope sets out a plot which ultimately can only be resolved by assuming that two men share an office in a private house, each having his own desk in which one keeps a document which the other must never see, one is inclined to suppose that the difficulty arose from carelessness. It is hard to imagine that Trollope planned his plot that way. George Eliot's book "Middlemarch" features an avenue of trees that change species partway through, only to change back before the end. To be sure, it is a trivial slip, and plays no part in the development of the story, but once you notice it, it mars the tale slightly thereafter.
Then there are the oddities, the unfinished loose ends of a plot which wash over you first time round. In Fielding's "Tom Jones", who tells Susan the identity of the mysterious lady she correctly addresses as Madam Sophia Western and fills her in on plot developments which took place when she apparently wasn't around? And why wasn't Pip invited to Joe's wedding in "Great Expectations"?
Finally, there are questions untouched by the author, but intriguing despite that. What happens to Jim's family in Huckleberry Finn? What novel is Anna Karenina reading?
You will have gathered that I enjoyed Sutherland's musings greatly. They taught me that I ought to pay closer attention to the pieces I read, since almost all of his examples have passed me by. Admittedly, now that people know that Sutherland is on the lookout for these, they route them his way, and several of the puzzles herein were suggested by readers of previous volumes. If you spot any, no doubt he'd like to hear of them via OUP. I shall keep my eyes peeled. Any excuse to encourage a new collection, you see.
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.