THE USES OF ERROR
In Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite spends an entire chapter railing against the pedantry of the late Oxford scholar Enid Starkie. In her biography of Flaubert, Starkie disparages the novelist's "careless" treatment of Emma Bovary's eyes. (They are described, at various times, as blue, black, and brown.) Flaubert didn't screw up, insists Braithwaite--in fact, the novelist quite intentionally transformed Emma's irises to fit the psychology of the moment. Exact chapter and verse is cited. Touché.
A similar strategy informs Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, a piquant collection of essays penned by eminent Victorianist John Sutherland. This Oxford anthology of literary anomalies--featuring chronological contortions and gaffes in classic novels--achieved tremendous success in England last year, with sales of more than 30,000 copies. In fact, it's already spawned a sequel, Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?
Rather than chastise authors for their mistakes, Sutherland marshals the pedant's skills to mount (usually cheeky) defenses of a novel's logic. Typically he begins by pointing out what appears to be a colossal blooper, then--adopting the attitude that a genius like Jane Austen simply couldn't have set apple trees blooming as late as June or switched the sex of Lady Bertram's pug--attempts to resolve it by rhetorical sleight of hand. In other essays he exposes a flub ("the scene of the Tullivers' drowning in The Mill on the Floss is, by any understanding of the laws of hydrodynamics, incredible") only to assert that the slip just makes the novel more interesting. "I've always found that there's much value in going back to the level of basic paradox," says Sutherland, who teaches at University College London. "These puzzles really illuminate the narrative process."
Several pieces are Braithwaite-like responses to fellow academics. In 1979 Stephen Marcus puzzled over Daniel Deronda's belated realization that he is a Jew, and concluded that "in order for the plot of Daniel Deronda to work, Deronda's circumcised penis must be invisible." Is this a stupendous, and particularly Victorian, oversight? Sutherland reopens the case by duly acknowledging that George Eliot's hero is given up for adoption at age two--past the age at which "every Jewish male child routinely would have gone through the bris." Furthermore, Daniel attends Eton, where "in the school's communal sleeping and bathing facilities he would surely--given his dark, Semitic appearance and tell-tale penis--have been taunted as a Jew, if only in sport." Since Mordecai's suggestion of Jewish ancestry hits Daniel like a thunderbolt, the novel indeed appears flawed. But wait: Sutherland reminds us that Daniel's rebellious mother, the Princess, was highly scornful of Jewish law. In one passage she recounts how her father insisted upon "the wisdom of such laws, however silly they might seem to me....the long prayers in the ugly synagogue, and the howling, and the gabbling, and the dreadful fasts." Considering the Princess's contentious relationship to Judaism, would she really have let her son be snipped?
To weary professors, Sutherland's hoary hors texte approach might uncomfortably evoke the undergraduate smart-ass who keeps derailing the discussion of colonial politics in Kim by demanding to know how old the hero is. (Nobody knows.) Indeed, readers who lack patience for trivia may be tempted to strangle the professor, who is given to pronouncements like, "If one speaks the dialogue at the speed it would have been spoken, the time elapsed is a bare four minutes. This is insufficient time for the lemons to have arrived." (The puzzle concerns Felix Holt, The Radical. Never mind.) Writing in the TLS, Tony Tanner recently groused, "I don't much care...if dogs change sex, the sun sets in the east, characters finish journeys before starting them or slip into chronologically impossible garments.... Fiction has a license not available to history--or zoology, climatology, or the history of fashion, come to that."
Sutherland's detective work is aided by his long-standing interest in the ways Victorian manuscripts were created; accordingly, his approach often highlights bumps on the road to publication. Take his inquisition into the oddly protean piano owned by Vanity Fair's Amelia Sedley. (During the course of the novel, the instrument somehow clones itself--twice--and switches brands from Broadwood's to Stothard's.) While exposing some carelessness, the essay primarily illuminates how Thackeray's habit of never looking back during serialization clashed with his supreme talent for developing recurrent symbols.
"Looking at mistakes actually brings you closer to the text," insists Sutherland. For example, how does Magwitch, the escaped convict in Dickens's Great Expectations, swim across the Thames with a "great iron on his leg"? Such a heavy weight would have surely drowned him the minute he jumped off the ship. This boo-boo has its origins not so much in Dickens's sloppiness, Sutherland explains, but in a widespread Victorian ignorance of swimming. "Dickens's readers shared his vagueness about what human limits are in water. At best Victorians could float, dog-paddle, or thrash about a bit." In fact, Sutherland notes, the freestyle stroke wasn't even invented until 1873. Until then water existed in novels primarily for shipwrecks and drownings. Dickens was at least trying to be innovative.
Today's novelists can't count on such ignorance among their readers. Indeed, since the publication of his books in England, Sutherland has received dozens of letters from British readers assailing him for his own mistakes and fallacies. One reader insisted that, upon examination of the meteorological record, 1814--the setting of Emma--was a "dreadfully cold year," thus rationalizing the stubborn presence of those June apple blossoms. A group of Londoners challenged Sutherland's claim that Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, returning home after purchasing flowers on Bond Street, could have zipped back to Westminster in ten minutes. (They were armed with stopwatches, of course.) Other readers have approached him in desperation. As Sutherland reveals in his foreword to Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?, a certain "Mr. Jenkinson outlined no less than five possible chronologies of the central events of Pride and Prejudice. Having, by ruthless logic and recourse to the perpetual calendar, eliminated two of them, he concluded his letter: 'It would greatly please me if you could determine which of these three [remaining] scenarios is the "real" one.'" Alas, Sutherland cannot.
Though his books are published in Oxford's World's Classics series right alongside Hardy and Trollope, some of the press's scholarly referees have deemed Sutherland's puzzles an undignified endgame for literary criticism. "I was told that a couple of delegates were dubious," he chuckles. But the books have proven so popular that Oxford is now looking for someone to assemble a collection of Shakespearean conundrums. Maybe we'll finally figure out how old Hamlet is--and what he was actually studying at Wittenburg.