John Sutherland, an academic and editor of many classic books, plays literary detective in this book of short essays. It’s an interesting premise, although some of the puzzles he investigates are tediously pedantic. Who cares whether the pug belonging to Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park is male or female? Why do we need to know how many pianos Amelia Sedley of Vanity Fair has? I feel that all of the essays should have been equally interesting. The questions of whether Jane Eyre can be happy with the bigamist and Bluebeard-like Mr Rochester, or why Robinson Crusoe finds the single footprint, are more thought-provoking and wide-ranging.
Obviously to get any enjoyment out of this book, you need to know the classics to which Sutherland refers. Out of the 34 classics featured, I’d read 22. I skipped the essays about those I hadn’t read. I think this book would be a useful resource for literature tutors. The writing style is not as academic as some literary criticism is, as it’s intended for any classics fan. However, there were some words I’d not encountered before.
Not particularly recommended but if, like me, you find it in a charity shop, you could give it a go.
First published in 1997 by Oxford University Press. Revised edition in 2017 by Icon Books.