Book Review / A Glimpse of EngLit's Bloomers

Article excerpt

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction by John Sutherland

Oxford University Press, pounds 4.99

Ever since the publication of Thackeray At Work in 1974, John Sutherland - now professor of modern English literature at University College, London - has existed as an animated presence on the margins of 19th-century literary criticism. To mark him down as a "marginal" figure is not to disparage the vigour of what he writes, but to acknowledge his slightly anomalous standing. What with books about best-sellers and the literary marketplace, not to mention inspired analyses of the lyrics of REM, Sutherland has a maverick status among the fustier kind of Victorian specialist. The spectacle of some American academic rising up amid the torpid columns of Victorian Studies to rebuke his supposed raciness is one of the more regular sights in the modern scholarly journal. The faint professional wariness that greets the Sutherland-style intervention is odd. His forte is exacting textual analysis designed to unravel the manner in which a book got written, and some of the problems that the composition presented to the author. Perhaps, on the other hand, it's merely that Sutherland's mode of enquiry has such a bustling and unacademic gait. Last year's Is Heathcliff A Murderer? - this volume's precursor - had an essay investigating what it was that Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, actually swept up. Gravely informed, hedged about with quotations from Mayhew et al, the result was a highly original piece of socio-historical research. But there remained a suspicion that at the same time the researcher was simply having fun. And good luck to him. Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, which like its predecessor doubles as a shameless ad for the Oxford World's Classics series, spins some suggestive garments from its innocuous textual threads. Why does Robinson Crusoe find only a single footprint? How come Magwitch in Great Expectations manages to escape from a prison ship with his leg in chains? …