Woolf's invisible taxi

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction
March 27, 1998

How many children had Lady Macbeth? asked L. C. Knights in a famous lecture in 1933. The question was posed in order to highlight the supposedly ridiculous tendency in literary criticism to imagine the lives of fictional characters beyond the pages of a text or the stage of a theatre. Literature should be studied as a created work of art, Knights believed; allusions to reality or assumptions about a character's inner life should not intrude. But since that time, new historicist critics have argued that the literary text is one created product in a diverse array of cultural products and have ventured beyond the text frequently when arriving at their interpretations. They consider the historical context to be all important and a concentration solely on the text to be an act of bad faith. They often urge that the significance of a text lies in the details that are omitted rather than in the words the author gives us. The hors texte, in other words, is back in fashion with a vengeance.

The newish literary fashion gives John Sutherland the academic endorsement to indulge what we suspect is a private obsession (and one closely shared by many other scholars): to tease out, in a series of essays entitled "Can Jane Eyre be happy?" what he calls the "seeming errors, anomalies, illogicalities and contradictions" in a range of well-known stories, to show where the narrative just does not make commonsense. On the one hand, as Sutherland admits, this panders to the worries of literal-minded readers, those mean-souled people who are bothered, for example, by the fact that the countryside around the Mill on the Floss floods so impossibly rapidly, rather than just accepting the spirit of the story and the drama of the climactic moment. On the other hand, it does raise serious questions about the relationship between fact and fiction in narrative. If an author has provided certain factual details in order to ground his or her story in some identifiable world, then we expect those details to connect logically and for the world to make sense. If they do not, we perhaps feel cheated and we become confused about the nature of the representation. Is this realist fiction? Or is it fantasy? How reliable is the author in whom we have put our imaginative trust?

As one might expect, the puzzles which work best in Sutherland's book are the ones to be found in fictions which are most concerned with factual precision. The essay on Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway is particularly fine. Mrs Dalloway's walk from Westminster to Upper Bond Street is carefully plotted, complete with map, and timed (Sutherland himself has walked the course) as accurately as Woolf herself describes it. The anomaly is pointed out: how, after this long walk, does Mrs Dalloway succeed in arriving back at her house in Westminster in apparently only ten minutes? The answer - a taxi - proves to be of more than trivial interest. From this fact, Sutherland can go on to ponder Woolf's silence about the material or mechanical means of support in her fictions, her attitude to class, the elitism of her characters and her writing. The invisible taxi comes to symbolise all that is deliberately left out of her aesthetic world, a token by which we can measure her priorities in fiction.

Daniel Defoe is another good candidate for this kind of detective work. His novels, based on the best-selling kiss-and-tell pamphlets of the day, blur the distinctions between fact and fiction. They attempt frequently to shore up the nagging doubts of the incredulous reader over the outlandish nature of the tale with catalogues of material objects and facts to weigh the text down with reality. Robinson Crusoe keeps wild fantasies at bay by listing his possessions, his money and his daily activities. So it is all the more surprising that, as a well-balanced realist, he should spot a single footprint on the sand and not stop to wonder why there were not more, a long track of prints made by the mysterious creature. The solution to this puzzle that Sutherland reaches - that the print was made down by the shore and that the other prints had been washed away by the tide - is a little far-fetched and disappointingly banal. But the general point is well made. Despite the emphasis on factual detail in the novel, much operates on the level of symbolism and thus the sinister resonance of a single unknown footstep has more impact for the reader than the temporary lack of logic or verisimilitude.

Less amenable to the Sutherland treatment are texts which are not primarily concerned with the imagination's confrontation by material fact and where the essays are less about detection and more about interpretation. The essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, which considers the causes of the narrator's madness and the possibilities of her cure - effectively the whole significance of the story - raises more questions about confessional narrative, women's writing and psychoanalytic criticism than it is possible to explain, let alone answer, in a seven-page essay and merely irritates by its superficiality.

Back by popular demand as a sequel to the best-selling Is Heathcliff A Murderer? Puzzles in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Sutherland's Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? is a very clever marketing ploy. Each essay focuses on a text which has been published recently by World's Classics and to which the reader is directed at the essay's conclusion. In many ways the book reads as a more imaginative method of presenting a publisher's catalogue, the archetypal "enjoyed-this-puzzle?-then-read-the-book'' sales strategy. But like all clever marketing ploys, it works because it has such a broad appeal. The literal-minded can feel vindicated; the Classic FM devotees can buy carefully selected entrees into the classic stories they feel they should love. And academics, for whom Is Heathcliff A Murderer? is already something of a cult, can live temporarily in the scholarly paradise of the land of footnotes, the naughty-but-nice fantasy Notes and Queries of their dreams.

Jennifer Wallace is lecturer in English, University of Cambridge.

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? More Puzzles in Classic Fiction

Author - John Sutherland
ISBN - 0 19 283309 X
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £4.99
Pages - 232

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