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.



Reading Somerset Maugham on Emily Brontë

Ten NovelsI have been reading some of the literary criticism essays in Somerset Maugham’s book (mentioned in a recent post), beginning obviously enough with those about books that I have read. First, I turned to the essay on Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights for the simple reason that I read Wuthering Heights so many years ago that it is probably due for a re-read. This essay seemed like a good way to begin to re-acquaint myself with both the book and the author. It also inspired me to dig out my copy of the Brontë family biography by Juliet Barker (1994).

Several writers have presented their views of the Brontë family since Somerset Maugham wrote his essay (1954), but Juliet Barker’s book, simply called The Brontës (1994) promises to be the definitive account. I somehow managed to miss a revised edition that came out in 2012. Perhaps I will give myself a very late Christmas present (I still have a voucher to spend) and upgrade my original copy. Meanwhile, it was interesting to see what Maugham made of Emily Brontë’s personality from the available sources. He did point out that to be able to talk about Emily; he needed to go back to her father’s origins and to approach Emily through her family, as she is difficult to know. Maugham’s portrayal of Patrick Brontë is much more negative than Barker’s image. She has painstakingly reconstructed hers from evidence culled from newspaper and church archives about Patrick’s political activities and presented a less one sided view.

It might seem obvious but the main fact to bear in mind when reading biographies about authors (or indeed any historical person) is that time and fresh documentary evidence often reveals a different picture. In some respects, that is not strictly true of Emily Brontë since she left very little personal testimony and apparently had no friends so there is a lack of social correspondence. Apart from her poetry, juvenilia and her only novel, evidence is indirect. However, over the years a much clearer picture of the whole family has emerged due in particular to Juliet Barker’s diligent archive research, which illuminates Emily’s character as far as it is possible to do so.

Here is a description of the fifteen-year-old Emily taken from Maugham’s essay, quoted here in full, as it seemed a shame to cut it short. Though he does not give the full reference, it was taken from the earliest biography of Emily by Mary Robinson, which was published by W.H. Allen in 1883 (I found this reference in Barker’s sources).

a tall, long-armed girl, full grown, elastic as to tread; with a slight figure that looked queenly in her best dresses, but loose and boyish when she slouched over the moors, whistling the dogs, and taking long strides over the rough earth. A tall, thin, loose-jointed girl – not ugly, but with irregular features and a pallid thick complexion. Her dark hair was naturally beautiful, and in later days looked well, loosely fastened with a tall comb at the back of her head; but in 1833 she wore it in an unbecoming tight curl and frizz. She had beautiful eyes of a hazel colour.

She was clearly an active girl, who loved the outdoors, perhaps one who would have been impatient with the restricted life of a well brought up lady. Physically she must have been what is often termed handsome, rather than conventionally pretty. Clearly, she ‘scrubbed up well’ as the saying goes. Emily was apparently painfully shy with anyone outside the family circle and Maugham quotes from Charlotte Brontë’s letters to show that the sisters at times had a difficult relationship. After learning from Juliet Barker that few writers have quoted from Charlotte’s original letters, using instead unreliable published ones, I am sceptical of Maugham’s conclusion, “One is inclined to think that Charlotte never knew her sister”.

It is illuminating to consider the different approaches to studying the Brontë family and Emily in particular. Due to the lack of straightforward biographical evidence, many writers have tried to find the real Emily through her writing. On the other hand, Juliet Barker considers it misguided to use literary criticism. As she says in her introduction, “Trawling through the Brontës fiction in search of some deeply hidden and autobiographical truth is a subjective and almost invariably pointless exercise”. She also rather scathingly refers to “theories of varying degrees of sanity” earlier in her introduction. I assume that she places in that category the theory, to which Maugham and other literary critics subscribe, that Emily Bronte was a lesbian. As far as I can recall, as it’s been twenty years since I read Barker’s biography, she doesn’t suggest this possibility from her study of contemporary sources.

One of the biggest myths that grew up around the Brontës was that they lived very harsh and isolated lives in a lonely moorland house. Maugham doesn’t perpetuate this idea, as after he visited Haworth, he described the house as situated at the top of a hill, “down which the village straggled”. However, he does mention that there was a graveyard on both sides of the parsonage, which some folks (but not perhaps curates) may have considered being a gloomy location. He also pointed out that the mood of the moorland varied with season and would not always have been wild and bleak. Indeed, he described his visit thus,

The countryside was bathed in a haze of silver-grey so that the distance, its outlines dim, was mysterious. The leafless trees had the elegance of trees in a wintry scene in a Japanese print, and the hawthorn hedges by the roadside glistened white with hoar frost. Emily’s poems and Wuthering Heights tell you how thrilling the spring was on the moor, and how rich in beauty and how sensuous in summer.

I didn’t find the location particularly bleak either when I was there a few years ago, and the house was solid and pleasant looking, though of course it would have been cold in winter without central heating. However, the Brontë sisters’ lives would have been no harsher than for any other country curate’s family in the nineteenth century. They could obviously afford a servant (Tabby Ackroyd) to help around the house. Emily helped with domestic chores, and I liked the image of her kneading bread with a book propped up in front of her as she worked. Industrious yet slightly impractical: (turning pages with a floury hand?)

The fact that Maugham included Wuthering Heights in his ten most important novels, despite asserting that it is very badly written, intrigued me. Maugham is critical of the construction of the novel (fitting two sets of events and characters into a unit) and the unrealistic dialogue that Emily gives Nellie Dean to say. However, his verdict is that, “It is a very bad novel. It is a very good one. It is ugly. It has beauty. It is a terrible, an agonizing, a powerful and a passionate book.” He discusses the unevenness of the novel and the reasons why Emily might have chosen to tell the story in the way she did, instead of perhaps choosing a first person narrative. He felt that she wanted to distance herself from events, in effect to in hide her from the passion. His reasons? Somerset Maugham’s theory located Emily as both Cathy and Heathcliff, “I think she found Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in the depths of her own soul. I think she was herself Heathcliff, I think she was herself Catherine Earnshaw”.

Now I do really need to read it again…let me know what you think! Drop a line in the comment box.

Maugham on Fiction: An Inspiration for an Essay Reading Challenge

Maugham early in his career

An early career author picture

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading some of William Somerset Maugham’s essays from Ten Novels and their Authors (1954, 1978). I skipped through the book to pick out authors that I have read so far for The Landing TBR project. The collection has also reminded me (as if I needed it), that I have many books on the shelves that I have not yet tackled. Perhaps this essay collection will give me the impetus to explore writers, such as Balzac and Dostoyevsky that remain on the TBR Pile. Maugham includes Tolstoy and War and Peace in his Ten Novels selection and attentive Landing readers will recall that I finally got around to reading War and Peace last year. Reading Dostoyevsky would enable me to continue the Russian literature theme that developed after my reading of Tolstoy’s novel. Maugham also writes about Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights, which caused me to want to re-read that novel, as well as to dig out the Juliet Barker biography of the Bronte family from the back bedroom stash to check a few facts.

What I do have in mind for this year however, is to begin a new Landing Challenge to explore some of the essay collections scattered around the house (not all of them live on The Landing). I was thinking of dipping into a few collections rather than solidly reading all of them. Some collections belong to me (and I am more likely to have read some of these) but the ones belonging to He Who Put The Shelves Up are largely still on my mental ‘to read sometime’ list. My plan would be to tackle a few of the essay collections spaced out over the year, in between reading other books. I might set out to cover (no pun intended) some literary essays first, since chance led me to the Maugham collection.

Ten Novels

A bargain at 90p!

I have been trying to read up a little on Maugham’s life and career but have found several apparent contradictions in online sources so I won’t give you more than brief biographical details here. I am however intrigued enough to attempt to track down a definitive account so when I do, I will post up about it. Somerset Maugham was born in the British Embassy in Paris in 1874 and died in Nice in 1965. His father Robert was a lawyer and his mother Edith Snell was a writer. Orphaned by the age of ten, an aunt and uncle in England brought him up. Maugham was a homosexual at a time when it was still illegal and therefore dangerous to admit publicly, though his orientation was accepted in the literary circles he frequented. He did however enter into what proved to be a short-lived marriage with interior designer Syrie Barnardo and had a daughter, Liza. But more of Maugham’s life and times when I have researched further.

Of the subjects in Maugham’s collection, I have read Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, so I will read his essays on these books and talk about them in my next blog post.

And then there’s the remaining five novels that he discuses…..back to the TBR Pile!

Serendipity: Jane Austen, a family letter and Somerset Maugham

While I was over visiting my parents before Christmas, I had my usual riffle through their bookshelves in search of old friends. I came across a book that I had completely forgotten leaving behind. (Or did I lend it to someone?) The book in question was Almost Another Sister: The Story of Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s Favourite Niece by Margaret Wilson (George Mann Books, 1998) which I see from my note on the flyleaf that I actually bought in the year of publication.

Fanny Knight book

The picture on the cover is Fanny’s childhood home, Godmersham Park

In the previous year were published biographies of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes so I was well into Austen family history by the time I bought the Fanny Knight book. I can’t remember how I came to hear of it, but I must have ordered it especially as it wasn’t published by a mainstream publisher. The book represents the extensive research of archivist and former teacher Margaret Wilson, who embarked on a study of Fanny Knight while working at the Centre for Kentish Studies (formerly the Archives Office).

Frances (Fanny) Knight (1793-1882) was the daughter of Jane Austen’s elder brother Edward who had the good fortune to gain a benefactor in Thomas Knight, a wealthy cousin. He made Edward heir to his estates on condition that Edward took the family name. By the time that Edward took the name of Knight, his daughter Fanny was a young woman of nineteen. It must have been strange for her to change from Austen to Knight, given that she probably anticipated changing name yet again on marriage. In 1820, when she was twenty-seven, Fanny married Sir Edward Knatchbull a widower with five children. The couple went on to have a further nine children.

Margaret Wilson has delved into family archives, Fanny Knight’s diaries and surviving letters to paint what she calls a ‘cameo’ rather than a ‘full biography’. This is due to the patchy nature of the available sources, such as the brief diary entries and scraps enclosed which the author describes thus: ‘The overall effect is of a multitude of minutiae, like tiny fragments of a jigsaw picture which is too complex ever to complete in full yet offers tantalising glimpses of the finished scene’. Nevertheless, the book is a fascinating account of a life that bridged two centuries and saw many changes as the Regency period gave way to the Victorian age.

As Fanny grew up, she visited and corresponded with Jane and her sister Cassandra. There was a strong connection between the branches of the Austen family, Jane in Hampshire and Fanny’s family in Kent. Apparently, Fanny was particularly close to Aunt Jane, though sadly not many of their letters survive. A quote from one of Jane’s letters to Cassandra gives an idea of how fond Jane was of Fanny:

A young Fanny Knight

A Young Fanny Knight

I am greatly pleased with your account of Fanny; I found her in the summer just what you describe, almost another sister – and could not have supposed that a niece would ever have been so much to me. She is quite after one’s own heart; … I always think of her with pleasure.

At this point you are probably wondering where Somerset Maugham fits into the picture. It is simple (and highly serendipitous). I was skimming through the bibliography of Fanny Knight when I came across mention of a collection of essays by Maugham, Ten Novels and their Authors. (1954, Pan Macmillan 1978). This sounded familiar so I had a root around on the shelves (in the living room, not in the landing ones this time) and lo and behold, I unearthed the very book. I had picked it up at a second-hand bookstall in Wexford a couple of years ago and never got around to reading it since.

Maugham has an essay on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, which he feels to be her best book. His collection of essays has its origins in a challenge issued to him (by the editor of a journal called Redbook) to pick out the ten greatest novels in the world. Maugham comments ‘Of course my list was arbitrary. I could have made one of ten other novels, just as good in their different ways as those I chose, and give just as sound reasons for selecting them’. But he goes on to speculate that if a hundred readers produced a similar list, selecting perhaps two or three hundred novels, then ‘I think that in all the lists most of those I have chosen would find a place’. 

Fanny Knight in later life

Fanny Knight (Lady Knatchbull)

Margaret Wilson makes use of Maugham for his discussion of a particular letter that Fanny Knight wrote to one of her sisters many years after Jane Austen’s death. If you are a clued-up Austen fan, you will know to what letter I refer, as Margaret Wilson says that ‘Fanny has acquired a poor reputation’ because of the much-debated letter. In this much quoted letter, Fanny is clearly responding to a query or alluding to a previous conversation about her late aunt when, in 1869 she writes,

Yes my love it is very true that Aunt Jane from various circumstances was not so refined as she ought to have been from her talent, & if she had lived 50 years later she would have been in many respects more suitable to our more refined tastes. They were not rich, & the people around with whom they chiefly mixed, were not at all high bred, or in short anything more than mediocre & they of course though superior in mental powers & cultivation were on the same level so far as refinement goes – …

Both Maugham and Wilson quote the offending passages and Wilson also includes the remainder of the letter in an appendix. The discussions about what Fanny did or did not mean by her remarks are interesting. It was all new to me as I had never heard about these criticisms of Aunt Jane. Key to understanding the letter seems to be the changing social times and also Fanny’s social elevation as the result of her marriage. I was amused by Maugham’s reflection that, ‘It is regrettable, but it is a fact, that children do not look upon their parents, or their relations belonging to another generation, with the same degree of affection as their parents, or relations, look upon them. Parents and relations are very unwise to expect it’. In other words he is, perhaps wisely, not particularly surprised that Fanny should be rather mean about the aunt who cared for her so much.

Ten Novels

A bargain in 1978 at 90p!

I would love to have Jane Austen’s thoughts on the offending letter. I am sure that would be worth reading! Since that is an impossibility I will have to make do with reading more of Maugham’s literary criticism. I feel sure that he would be a good subject for a further blog post as he has plenty to say on the art of fiction. Perhaps my new TBR Challenge should explore all of the lit crit lurking around on The Landing!

Any thoughts?