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Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction
Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction, by John Sutherland; xvi & 256 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, $9.95.
As a professor of literature at Cornell in the nineteen-fifties, Vladimir Nabokov was known for setting such examination questions as "Describe the pattern of the wallpaper in the Kareninas' bedroom." Although few students were able to provide the correct answer (Nabokov did, however, award a bonus point to the student who suggested it might be "little trains"), they were, nevertheless, forced to pay close attention to the details of the text and, in Nabokov's words, "to enter the world of the novel." Attention to the details of the text is the defining characteristic of John Sutherland's recent work (for which "literary appreciation" rather than "literary criticism" might be a more appropriate term) including Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? and the two previous books in the series (also published by Oxford University Press), Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996) and Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (1997). Indeed, in one of the thirty-five short essays which make up his most recent volume, Sutherland sets out to answer a question that would have no doubt delighted Nabokov: what English novel is Anna Karenina reading at the end of chapter 29? Sutherland's answer--that the book is an amalgam of works by Anthony Trollope and a sensational 1853 best-seller--is both revealing and refreshing. It is revealing in that it tells us something more about the novel and suggests that Tolstoy is indulging in a metafictional moment, and refreshing because Sutherland is content to leave his insight for the reader to ponder without additional comment.
Other puzzles that Sutherland addresses in this volume, besides, of course the title piece, include "What happens to Jim's family?" in Huckleberry Finn; "Is Betsy Trotwood a spinster?" from David Copperfield; "Why isn't everyone a vampire?" in Bram Stoker's Dracula; and "How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge's turkey?" from A Christmas Carol. Showing an eclecticism in both literary and worldly matters that is uncommon in academics, Sutherland takes his questions from anywhere, indeed, in his essay on the Cratchits' culinary prowess he charmingly reproduces the letter from the grade-school students who first posed the question. Elsewhere he cites advice, questions and corrections from readers of his earlier volumes, including among their number doctors, lawyers and dentists. His willingness to ponder again earlier questions, such as the June apple blossom in Jane Austen's Emma, are among Sutherland's many strengths as a critic, as is his willingness to admit that sometimes the attention he lavishes upon a question--such as the gender of Lady Bertram's lapdog in Mansfield Park--is not always proportional to the value of the investigation's outcome. Regardless of his protestations, however, Sutherland's insights are always fascinating, and it is perhaps the best compliment to his work to note that after having read it, one wishes to return immediately to the diverse (and often academically over-worked) texts which inspired it. [End Page 480]
It would, however, be wrong to think of Sutherland's work as a mere parlor game for the literati. Intended or otherwise (and I suspect that much of it is intended), Sutherland's approach to these texts is a rejoinder to those who would take classic literature and subject it to the indignities of class, gender or some other type of political analysis. At times Sutherland's approach is subtle. Taking, for instance, the question of the color of the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, through careful analysis of the texts and a judicious use of history and authorial biography, Sutherland convincingly makes the case that like many children being born in that period, the monster was jaundiced. This explanation would seem to undermine the claims of those who would see in the novel evidence of a nineteenth-century fear of the "Oriental," and most refreshingly...