Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles In Classic Fiction, by John Sutherland
This book is by no means flawless, it should be noted. An example of its flaws comes in the titular mystery of the book, where the author engages in some armchair psychology that argues that it was Charlotte Lucas, whose jealousy about the beauty of Elizabeth and the possibility that she could marry Fitzwilliam Darcy led her to try to sabotage it through telling Lady Catherine De Burgh, and thus leading to the classic ferocious conversation that in fact is what finally brings the hero and heroine together in marriage. Other commentators have rather intelligently noted that it was probably a gossipy Lucas who told the couple what was going on and it seems quite likely that it was William Collins who ended up telling Lady De Burgh. This is one example of several puzzles, and though the author appears to be most proud of his conclusion here, most of his other mystery messages are thankfully at least more plausible. This is not a book that solves puzzles as much as shows the cleverness (usually) of the author in finding solutions to puzzles that the author does not consider to be all that important, demonstrating how it is that authors kept, or failed to keep, enough balls in the air to deal with the potential of plot holes, not realizing how it is that novels would be read in the future.
This book is almost 250 pages and it is divided into a few essays that deal with various puzzles that the author is interested in classical novels. What sort of mysteries is the author interested in? Here is a selection: why is Moll Flander’s younger brother older than she is, who has Susan been talking to in Tom Jones, what do we know about the first Fanny Price, another look at apple blossoms in June, how old is Frank in Rob Roy, does Dickins lynch Fagin, how do the Crachits cook Scrooge’s turkey, how many siblings does Dobbin have in Vanity Fair, does Carker have false teeth, what is Henry Esmond’s great scheme, is Betsey Trotwood a spinster, does the ending of the Mill on the Floss make sense, how long is Alice in wonderland, is Franklin Blake a thief and a rapist, what happens to Jim’s family in Huckleberry Finn, and so on. These are, at least sometimes, very interesting questions. The author demonstrates, in many cases, just what authors took for granted from the past, and why it is that things that were not mysterious to the authors’ original audiences were in fact more mysterious to later readers who lacked the necessary context.
One of the notable aspects of this book is the way that the author demonstrates his own character through his discussion of various classical literature puzzles and his own efforts to solve them. It is not only that the author reveals (sometimes for worse, mostly for better) his knowledge of these novels, but what puzzles he finds to be interesting and what answers to those puzzles he finds striking is a sign about the author and his own interests. At times this shows him to be an immensely sensitive person. For example, his discussion of why Pip is not invited to the wedding of Joe is because Joe and his fiance spent their savings in order to take care of Pip and get him out of debt and did not want to answer any awkward questions of why they had no fancy reception (or perhaps any at all) and only had a pauper’s wedding. Similarly, the author explores the religious doubts of Mr. Hale that leads the family to lose the income that he had as a rector, as well as the gentleness of Mrs. Gaskell in writing about the sexual degradation of Ruth. Not all the mysteries are so consequential, but they are definitely all demonstrative of what the author is thinking.