This book is a series of 34 short and not quite so short essays looking at “anomalies, enigmas and mysteries” in 19th century fiction. The definition of “puzzle” is draw deliberately loosely. Some are genuine questions that would occur to any reader – how does Jane Eyre get Mr Rochester’s mysterious “celestial” message at the end of her novel? Others would not normally occur to an ordinary reader, particularly those in which the main concerns are timing. One does not normally worry too much about or even notice small anomalies in timings and obsessively working through all the time markers in a text to spot so called mistakes feels like a huge waste of time. (Othello is a great example of this – very few if any audience members and readers spot the parallel time schemes running through the play, which of course are anything other than accidental.)
Sutherland draws on his extensive knowledge of the most arcane and obscure of 19th century novels and the period in which they were written to answer some of his puzzles. Mesmerism, for example, is suggested as the answer to the Jane Eyre puzzle. This was a rich mine for Sutherland – “Can Jane Eyre be happy?”, and “Who Betrayed Elizabeth Bennett?” followed this book in due course, as well as a similar look at Shakespeare.
Obviously knowledge of the text (rather than a film of the text) is a useful prerequisite for enjoyment of each essay here, and as Sutherland fairly quickly moves from the novels that the average reader would be familiar with to ones that only students of 19th Century novels could hope to have heard of (“Is he Popenjoy?” anyone?) I found myself reading more to enjoy his scholarship and learn a little about the text and author, than to share the judgment on the particular puzzle in question.
Genuinely original insight into the core texts are of course elusive. These – Bleak House, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch – are some of the most studied works in literature. So it is in the margins that Sutherland finds some gems. In Bleak House the crossing sweeper Jo sweeps what exactly? Is it “dust”, an excuse for begging with no practical purpose, or is it excreta from the horses and humans of a crowded London? More controversially, what is the role of the slave trade in the prosperity of various families in Jane Austen’s novels? I particularly enjoyed the close reading of Frankenstein, soon to appear here, which looks at precisely how the good Dr creates his monster. In the absence of Hollywood’s lightning and hunchbacked servants, Sutherland deduces that there is a sexual component to the act of creation, which of course fits nicely with the creation myth reading of the novel.
I think I know why I enjoy this kind of literary sleuthing so much. In my blog entries the ones which I feel happiest about are the ones where I have from close reading and perhaps a bit of creativity come up with a new and different perspective on a novel – the parallel between A Casual Vacancy and A Christmas Carol for instance.