It’s hard to say which are more remarkable, the inflated ambitions of this enormous book, its actual achievements, or the perversities with which the author has undermined them. An admired academic—Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and former longtime faculty member at the California Institute of Technology—and a widely read literary journalist, John Sutherland has set out to give us the Lives of the Novelists (English-language novelists, that is). Or as he puts it in his subtitle, “A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.” The self-congratulatory nod to Samuel Johnson’s magnificent Lives of the English Poets is as embarrassing as it is presumptuous.
Sutherland’s vast previously published work is strangely uneven. There are his popular columns in The Guardian that pose ingenious literary puzzles and then solve them with tough research combined with informed intuition: “Is Heathcliff a Murderer?” “Where Does Fanny Hill Keep Her Contraceptives?” “How Does Mrs. Dalloway Get Home So Quickly?” And the question you may never have dared ask yourself, “Was Daniel Deronda Circumcised?” (George Eliot wasn’t telling.) One hundred of these are gathered together in an irresistible omnibus volume called The Literary Detective.
His biographies of Walter Scott and Mrs. Humphry Ward (to whom he refers all too frequently in Lives of the Novelists) are estimable (his biography of Stephen Spender less so). His useful reference book The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction (almost seven hundred pages) reflects the twenty years he tells us he spent compiling it while indulging in “the highly pleasurable task of reading some 3,000 novels.” Both here and in the new book you can discover such esoterica as Frank Danby’s Doctor Phillips, A Maida Vale Idyll, a best-selling anti-Semitic novel of 1887, about which Sutherland tells us:
The novel is remarkable for the viciousness of its satire on the English Jewish bourgeoisie…. It created a furore. Rather perversely, the Athenaeum read the novel as “a deliberate insult to the medical profession.”
We also learn that “Danby” was the pseudonym of Julia Frankau, who was herself Jewish, the mother of the novelist Gilbert Frankau, and the grandmother of the twentieth-century best-selling novelist Pamela Frankau.
Here too are such prodigies of productivity as L.T. Meade, who in 1898 alone, a typical year, displayed her versatility:
In Mary Gifford a woman doctor establishes a practice in the East End. In The Cleverest Woman In England a wife devotes herself so entirely to propagating the cause of the new woman that she ruins her marriage and dies of smallpox. Girls Of St Wode’s is a story of the new university-trained Girton and Newnham girls. In A Handful Of Silver the heroine Audrey refuses to marry the man she loves, because she is encumbered by her father’s debts. In On The Brink Of A Chasm a …
Lives of Which Novelists? October 11, 2012