Can Jane Eyre be happy?

If you recognise the title of this post, then you have probably come across the bibliophile world of John Sutherland. He has written biographies of Walter Scott and Stephen Spender, but what I know him best for are his series of “literary puzzle” books.

They are a fun and intelligent read, the kind of book you can dip in and out of – the catalogue has them listed under the subject “literary recreations” which is as good a description as any.

Some of the neat puzzles and questions in the books:

  • Who invented cyberspace? (William Gibson, Neuromancer)
  • Why does Patrick Bateman wear two ties? (Bret Easton Ellis, American psycho)
  • When exactly does Rents read Kierkegaard?
  • Why is Moll’s younger brother older than she is? (Daniel Defoe, Moll Flanders)
  • What English novel is Anna reading? (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • Why the “single print of a foot”? (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719)
  • Is Black Beauty gelded? (Anna Sewell, Black Beauty, 1877)

I started thinking about these wonderful books again when I heard John has published his memoir The Boy who loved books. Ian Sansom gives it a great review in The Guardian and says of Sutherland:

He is a thoroughly brisk, likeable, no-nonsense sort of critic, more interested in sketching in contexts and explaining careers than in the niceties and delicacies of language. “‘A literary sociologist’, I liked to think of myself over the following decades,” he admits. “It helped mask the fact that I wasn’t much of a critic.”

He’s being modest, of course: he is rather a lot of a critic. As well as his academic work he writes columns for newspapers and magazines, and the series of books – Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (1996), Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? (1997), and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (1999) – in which he hunts out and explains inconsistencies in classic novels, may be the closest thing there’s ever been to bestselling literary criticism.