Puzzling Over Literature: John Sutherland on C19 Fiction

This blog post returns to the subject of essays, literary essays in particular, in the shape of John Sutherland’s collection of pieces delving behind the scenes of some well-known nineteenth century novels. Not surprisingly, the book’s title Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (OUP, 1996) attracted me straightaway. I can’t remember how long Sutherland’s book has been on the TBR Pile, but I probably bought it in the year of publication. Sutherland later wrote follow-up collections of articles on literary puzzles called Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (1997) and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (1999) neither of which I have got around to buying, which given the parlous state of the unread pile is probably just as well.

Is Heathclif a Murderer?

Literary Puzzles…

I have dipped into Sutherland’s collection at various times over the years, but this time I set out to read all of the essays (thirty-four) in the book. The pieces vary in length from about three and a half pages up to eight pages, so I found them ideal for bus and Luas journeys. I began, as I did when I read the Somerset Maugham essays, with those discussing books that I have read. Obviously, the literary puzzle that Sutherland dissects has more resonance if you have read the original work. Even so, there were certainly things that I had never noticed before; such are the benefits of a very close textual reading. I have discovered that there is a definite plot spoil element to my mission. I won’t however reveal these to you, dear reader. Suffice to say that  I will know what plot features and anomalies to look out for in for instance, Jude the Obscure, The Master of Ballantrae and Phineas Finn when I finally get around to tackling them.

In his introduction, John Sutherland acknowledges that his solutions may not be the most plausible. He explains the rationale behind his exploration of these literary brainteasers, which he defends from any accusation of mere frivolity:

But I would argue that however far my solutions are fetched the problems which inspire them are not frivolous. It is worthwhile for readers to be curious where Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth comes from, or to wonder why The Picture of Dorian Gray is so ‘queerly’ disturbing, or to inquire why George Eliot and Henry James consciously flawed the printed endings to their greatest novels. It is less crucial, but no less thought-provoking, that Henry Esmond –the highly literate creation of a highly literate author-should quote from a work forty years before it will be written. The questions which have provoked this book are, I maintain, good questions.

If you are the kind of reader that says, ‘But hang on a minute, didn’t that…’ or ‘That timing doesn’t make Can Jane Eyre be Happy?sense’ or who argues about what the author really meant in writing the closing paragraphs, then this is the book for you. Some of the puzzles can be shown to be errors as the result of hasty writing; perhaps due to mistakes in plotting; or inaccuracies arising from the pressure of producing a story in instalments. Others are more intriguing (and as Sutherland points out, not in any way frivolous), such as the question of whether Thomas Bertram’s wealth was acquired on the backs of slaves. Some questions are of identifying plot location, explaining seasonal oddities or tracing missing days. Other questions arise simply out of the passage of time, as the modern reader misses allusions that would have been familiar to a contemporary reader.

The solutions that Sutherland offers in his essays have either been sending me back to re-read or have inspired me with an urge to read the original. One of the books with a mystery is Vanity Fair, which has been on my shelves since the 1980s. It is part of my classics series with the green/gold binding (Book Club), so as they all look alike, I won’t scan in a picture. Not only have I never read Vanity Fair, I have never read anything else by Thackeray so this seems as good a moment as any to rectify that omission. Be prepared for updates on my experiences with the folks inhabiting Vanity Fair. For obvious reasons, I will not even tell you the title of Sutherland’s piece on the mystery in Vanity Fair. You will just have to read it yourself (after reading the book of course!)

Has anyone else read any of the books in this series? Do drop me a line…

Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?

Picture Credits: Book jackets taken from Amazon.



A Maytime Poetic Interlude: London Bells

Browsing through the ‘One City One Book’ poetry book, If Ever You Go brought to my mind last year’s birthday present from my daughter. She chose to buy me the new edition of Poems on the Underground, which I have been picking up to read every so often. For this edition, the editors have decided to collect poems into themed sections including The Darker Side, The Artist as ‘Maker’, Exile and Loss and The Wider World. All of the poems in the anthology have been featured on the London Underground poetry posters at some point since the project began in 1986. My smart new edition was published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the famous underground.

Poems on the Underground

Poetry in Motion

It seemed appropriate to follow on from April’s Dublin theme, with a poem from the section on London. I have chosen one from that ever-prolific poet Anonymous, as a nod towards my last #PoetryinJune blog post in 2013 when he/she insisted on sneaking in to close the series. Another reason for choosing this lighthearted London poem is that many of you probably remember it from childhood (or at least a version of it).  According to a Wikipedia article the following version first appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, c 1774 (but with ‘ye’ rather than ‘the’). An excellent source of information about nursery rhymes is Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press), though I’m not sure if it’s still in print. I thought I had a copy tucked away somewhere but it must have been wishful thinking on my part. I think I’m right in saying that Iona and Peter Opie’s work on British nursery rhymes and childhood lore in general is the best source available. 


London Bells

Two sticks and an apple,
Ring the bells at Whitechapel

Old Father Bald Pate,
Ring the bells at Aldgate

Maids in white aprons,
Ring the bells at St Catherine’s.

Oranges and lemons,
Ring the bells at St Clement’s.

When will you pay me?
Ring the bells at the Old Bailey.

When I am rich,
Ring the bells at Fleetditch

When will that be?
Ring the bells at Stepney.

When I am old,
Ring the great bell at Paul’s.


This is the version that I grew up with; the last bell was sung to represent a very deep, slow, imposing peal:

Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and Lemons

Oranges and lemons,
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.

You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.

When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.

When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.

When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.

I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.

Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!

The Wikipedia article I’ve linked above suggests some meanings behind the rhyme and also quotes yet another version of it. We used to play the game illustrated in this nineteenth century plate, when you went round and round and got your head ‘chopped off’ if you were too slow. It’s strange how you play games as a child without ever really thinking about what the words or rituals mean. But let’s not get into too much blood thirsty stuff now, as I shall be off to bed shortly and don’t want to be dreaming of the dark doings in the Tower of London.

So, altogether now:

Here comes a candle…


#PoetryinJune: Elizabeth Jennings

I read The Young Ones (1964) by Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) again recently, and I thought that if I substituted ‘Luas’ or ‘Dart’ for ‘bus’ it easily be a scene in Dublin in 2013. Not that much has changed, it seems to me, except the hair styles of the young women. I often look at teenagers in Dundrum Shopping Centre and think that they look so much more self-assured than I did at their age. I can sympathise both with the satchel and the school coat; at one point I think I had a grey duffel coat which was hardly the height of teenage glamour. One of ‘The Young Ones’ I was not. Perhaps that’s true of most of us in each generation.

The Young Ones

book jacket of Recoveries

A gorgeous edition of Recoveries

They slip on to the bus, hair piled up high.
New styles each month, it seems to me. I look,
Not wanting to be seen, casting my eye
Above the unread pages of a book.

They are fifteen or so. When I was thus,
I huddled in school coats, my satchel hung
Lop-sided on my shoulder. Without fuss
These enter adolescence; being young

Seems good to them, a state we cannot reach,
No talk of ‘awkward ages’ now. I see
How childish gazes staring out of each
Unfinished face prove me incredibly

Old -fashioned. Yet at least I have the chance
To size up several stages-young yet old,
 Doing the twist, mocking an ‘old time’ dance:
So many ways to be unsure or bold.

For Elizabeth Jennings poem, I have once more borrowed from The Oxford Book of English 20th Century Verse (with many thanks to the late Philip Larkin’s choices). However, as I have used the cover already and in any case it is rather a sombre jacket to depict the bright young things of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ I have snipped a picture of the edition that The Young Ones originally appeared in. The lovely looking cover of Recoveries (Deutsch, 1964) is tempting me to indulge in a purchase. I only know a handful of Elizabeth Jennings’ poems so this would be a nice addition to my TBR Pile.

Now I just need an excuse to treat myself….any suggestions will be gratefully received… 

#PoetryinJune: Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit’s (1858-1924) stories were a big part of my childhood; I loved The Phoenix and the Carpet and the fantasy of being able to fly away to strange lands with a magical creature. The adventures of the Bastable family came a close second. I didn’t realise that Edith Nesbit wrote verse until I did a little digging around after reading Man of Parts (David Lodge) which tells of H.G.Well’s relationship with Edith Nesbit and her involvement with the Fabian Society.

I found a couple of Nesbit’s poems in The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse, which I have used in an earlier post. I chose to post an extract of the following verse because it struck a chord with me. We spend a lifetime accumulating knowledge and skills which we hope to pass on to the next generation, but as the woman in Nesbit’s poem says, not everything can be written down and saved. I love the plea in the last line; I think I’d like to know something too.

The Things that Matter

Portrait of Edith Nesbit

Edith Nesbit

Now that I’ve nearly done my days,
 And grown too stiff to sweep or sew,
I sit and think, till I’m amaze,
About what lots of things I know:
 Things as I’ve found out one by one-
And when I’m fast down in the clay,
My knowing things and how they’re done
Will all be lost and thrown away.

There’s things, I know, as won’t be lost,
Things as folks write and talk about:
The way to keep your roots from frost,
And how to get your ink spots out.
What medicine’s good for sores and sprains,
What way to salt your butter down,
What charms will cure your different pains,
And what will bright your faded gown.

But more important things than these,
They can’t be written in a book:
How fast to boil your greens and peas,
And how good bacon ought to look;
The feel of real good wearing stuff,
The kind of apple as will keep,
The look of bread that’s rose enough,
And how to get a child asleep.

Forgetting seems such silly waste!
I know so many little things,
And now the Angels will make haste
To dust it all away with wings!
O God, you made me like to know,
You kept the things straight in my head,
Please God, if you can make it so,
Let me know something when I’m dead.

Poem originally published in the Rainbow and the Rose (Longman, 1905)

I discovered the Edith Nesbit Society, devoted to discussing and promoting Edith Nesbit’s life and work while trawling the internet. It has occurred  to me that it would be useful to compile a directory of all of the literary societies that I come across in the course of my blogging. I think it would fit in alongside the Bibliography pages. It’s probably a long-term project, but these last few #PoetryinJune posts have made me realise just how many literary societies are active, so I would like to support them in a small way.

That’s all for today’s #PoetryinJune – check out the link above for more information on Edith Nesbit.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia – with thanks

#PoetryinJune: Wilfred Owen

My choice of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) today is another nod to the GCE ‘O’ Level syllabus of x number of years ago when I was at school in Birmingham and would have been knee-deep in exams at this time of year. If I tell you that I took mine in the year that Virginia Wade won the Women’s Singles title at Wimbledon….well I will leave you to work it out.

As I don’t have the original copy of the poetry book from school (we didn’t have to buy our own text books) then the next best thing is the Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse (edited by Philip Larkin, 1973, 1985). This is stamped as once belonging to a college in Coventry but I promise that I came by it honestly, via a second-hand book shop.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?

Jacket of OUP 20th Century Verse

Horror of War

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
 Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
 The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

I haven’t read Wilfred Owen for a while, though he was my favourite from the syllabus. The problem with studying anything for an exam is that you hack it to pieces until sick of it. I have found that for me, Owen’s poetry  has survived the school experience and that after a certain grace period, I could read it again. I also still read Owen because of my interest in reading about the First World War – in literary fiction, poetry, biography and history. He was the first World War I poet that I read and I could probably trace my interest in WWI all the way back to that stuffy classroom and Wilfred Owen. Perhaps I should do a First World War post in the near future?

That’s all for today’s edition of the poetry reading challenge, but drop me a line with your school literary loves (or hates)….