Thick reference books traditionally have been solemn tomes, housed and read in library reference rooms where sudden snorts of laughter are unexpected and unappreciated. By this standard, the doorstopper under review here would set off warning lights in librarians who, browsing through it, come upon the entry for Evelyn Waugh: “Waugh was very unhappy. He attempted suicide by drowning but was foiled by an inconvenient shoal of jellyfish.”
This is one of those books you can open to any page and start reading. The author, John Sutherland, is emeritus professor of modern English literature at University College, London, as well as a former long-time member of the Caltech faculty, a dual background that makes him accessible to readers on both sides of the Pond. Now an editor, columnist, and critic in London, he has written what he calls “an idiosyncratic history of fiction in English.” His publisher calls it “opinionated,” and I call it a reference book that rocks.
He begins with what scholars agree is the first novel in the English language, The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan, the 17th-century Christian soldier in Cromwell’s Roundhead army who threw over the simple comforts of hearth and home to do battle for the Lord. This much is found in every Bunyan biography, but Sutherland also relates the kind of minor details that grab the reader’s attention, e.g., The Pilgrim’s Progress is the only book Huck Finn ever read. He didn’t understand it (“[It was] about a man that left his family. It didn’t say why”) but it stuck in his mind because he and its author were both troubled runaways. We also learn that Thackeray found his title “Vanity Fair” in Bunyan’s text — and Sutherland suggests wryly that the peace and quiet in which to write that Bunyan found in prison was what Virginia Woolf wanted for women when she called for a room of one’s own — except that “the lock was on the outside.”
Most of the volume concentrates on writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the novel peaked. Bridging the two is Henry James, whose critics have ever been faced with the impossible task of finding some way to comment on his maddening, interminable, convoluted sentences without having to quote those same maddening, interminable, convoluted sentences. Sutherland gets around this by quoting instead Henry’s explanation of the physical injury that made him 4-F for the Civil War. Something happened when he was 18 as he helped to put out a fire in a stable. This is how he described it in a memoir: “[He was] jammed into the acute angle between two high fences, where the rhythmic play of my arms, in tune with that of several other pairs, but at a dire disadvantage of position, induced a rural, a rusty, a quasi-extemporized old engine to work and a saving stream to flow, I had done myself, in face of a shabby conflagration, a horrid even if an obscure hurt.”
What did he do to himself? As with so many of his sentences, nobody has ever untangled this one, but it “has been interpreted as everything from castration to lumbago.” His literary bent for concealment, inconclusiveness, and cryptic allusions did not extend to his personality: “His conversational charm was legendary and he developed table-talk into an art form.” But he had something to hide that has kept a century’s worth of biographers busy, chiefly in pursuit of shameful sexual secrets. Perhaps, says Sutherland, it was “the size of the master’s membrum virile.” (Rejoice with me: Couth is back and it’s funnier than vulgarity.)
He has no patience with “the fogs of feminist mystification” surrounding Virginia Woolf’s claim that she was sexually abused as a child, contending that the story, now accepted as Revealed Truth, has become “the royal road to understanding her tormented genius” and given her “canonical status . . . [as] a writer of near-Shakespearian importance to English literature.” He argues that a more realistic reason for her 1941 nervous breakdown and suicide was something that alarmed most of Britain at the time: the prospect of a German invasion. “She was the wife of a leftist intellectual Jew. . . . The Hogarth Press, which she and her husband Leonard ran, was Freud’s authorised English publisher.”
Many of Sutherland’s most interesting picks are writers we have forgotten, never heard of, or remember for the wrong reasons. In the last category is Frank R. Stockton, acclaimed adventure novelist of late-19th-century America, who was praised by Mark Twain. Nobody today reads his novels but everybody knows his 1882 short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?” It tells of the trial by ordeal undergone by the prisoner of an ancient “semi-barbaric king.” The prisoner is shown two doors. Behind one is a beautiful woman who will love him; behind the other is a ravenous tiger that will tear him to pieces. Ordered to open one of the doors, he steps up to them, and . . . The next words are The End. The reader was left to stew in frustration and Stockton became our national tease.
He might have had a subconscious reason for stopping his character just in time. In 1844, his cousin, Captain Robert Stockton, was demonstrating new state-of-the-art weaponry on the U.S.S. Princeton, docked on the Potomac, at an A-list political event attended by President John Tyler, several cabinet members, and Dolley Madison. When Cousin Robert’s cannon was fired, it exploded, sending flaming shards of molten iron into the crowd and killing Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer.
“Ouida” — not to be confused with the board game — was the pen name of Louise Ramé, an English girl with a touch of Frenchness from her Channel Islands father that she pieced out with an unquenchable romanticism and a gift for self-promotion to make herself the Barbara Cartland of mid-Victorian publishing. Her blockbuster bestseller of 1867 was Under Two Flags. The hero is the Hon. Bertie Cecil of the Life Guards, who battles wicked Arabs in North Africa. Captured and condemned to death, Sutherland recounts, “he is saved from execution by Cigarette, the gamin camp follower who loves him madly, and who throws herself into the hail of firing-squad bullets meant for his breast (ballistically improbable — romantically beautiful).”
Ouida made a fortune and spent it with no concern for the future, renting whole floors in luxury hotels, buying a villa in Italy, and giving money away to animal-rights and anti-vivisection causes until, by the time of her death in 1908, she was destitute, with “more dogs than readers.” England, once at her feet, commemorated her with a small monument in her home town of Bury St. Edmunds: a watering trough for stray animals.
Bram Stoker? He didn’t look a thing like Bela Lugosi, because he was Irish: red-haired, handsome, a brilliant scholar and star athlete at Trinity College, Dublin. All in all, what Americans call “well-rounded,” a Big Man on Campus who boned up on Transylvania in the British Museum.
Mickey Spillane? He took several years off from recording the gut-slamming, pistol-whipping, woman-beating adventures of Mike Hammer when he converted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He also took another sabbatical to write children’s books.
It’s hard to choose a favorite biography from this treasure, but I have settled on Mary Webb (1881–1927), queen of the English rural novel, that genre in which everyone keeps saying “Eee, by goom, thart summat.”
Born in remotest Shropshire, Webb regarded country folk as “children of nature,” set apart from and superior to the brutal denizens of the larger world who would inevitably destroy them. This is exactly what happens in her novel Gone to Earth (1917), in which, says Sutherland, “Webb hit her grim groove.” He cites her opening paragraph: “Small feckless clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky — shepherdless, futile, imponderable — and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears.”
The heroine of Gone to Earth is Hazel Woodus, daughter of a Welsh gypsy and a coffin-maker, who is such a child-of-nature that she wants no human companionship: Her only soulmate is a pet fox she names Foxy. Enter Jack Reddin, the lustful squire who rides to hounds and pretty farm girls with equal brutality. The novel ends when Foxy gets loose and becomes the prey of the bloodthirsty hunt just as Hazel has become the prey of the lustful hunter, and so to save her furry soulmate and herself she scoops him up in her arms and jumps down a mine shaft.
“Amazingly,” writes Sutherland, “Rebecca West chose it as her book of the year — something one can only ascribe to a critical neurosis triggered by the war (going badly for the Allies in 1917) and her disastrous love affair with H. G. Wells.” But it gets worse. Webb’s 1924 novel Precious Bane is a love story. The heroine, Prue Sarn, is beautiful but for a harelip, which leads the villagers, never inclined to move with the times, to suspect her of being a witch. But Kester Woodseaves, a manly weaver, loves her anyway and abducts her by force, and together they whisper sweet rural nothings:
“Tabor on, owd nag!” says Kester.
“But no!” I said. “It mun be frommet, Kester. You mun marry a girl like a lily. See, I be hare-shotten!”
Webb got an even better celebrity plug for this one shortly after her death, when Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, in an Oprah-ish moment, praised her “neglected genius” and her publisher brought out her entire collected works. Her revival lasted long enough to make a bestseller of a spoof of Gone to Earth called Cold Comfort Farm (1932), by Stella Gibbons, who sets her story in “Howling, Sussex,” and pens a spot-on Webbian opening paragraph: “Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns.”
This is no way to maintain scholarly silence in library reference rooms. Better to read your own copy at home where you can underline it to your heart’s content.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.