Caroline Moore

Entry to the sacred grove

Text settings

The Lives of the Novelists

John Sutherland

Profile, pp. 818, £

Some readers may wonder if we need this book. Surely, the argument might go, one can summon up potted ‘lives’ on the internet, while serious biographies take book form. And how can even 294 lives of novelists offer, as the cover to this book claims, ‘a comprehensive history of the English novel’?

Reason not the need: this book celebrates enjoyment. And it is itself hugely enjoyable. Few, if any, of those Wikipedia entries are well written, let alone witty; most current literary biographies weigh in at around 800 pages: Sutherland’s brief lives display the soul of wit — whose essence is to encompass the unexpected.

There is a difficult balancing act, here. Sutherland’s potentially fatal Cleopatra is the donnish joke. There are, indeed, plenty of these (Thomas Arnold was ‘a man who raised religious “doubt” to acrobatic heights.’). But the compendium rarely declines into mere facetiousness. It is saved by Sutherland’s magnificent and infectious enthusiasm for the books he reads.

It is enthusiasm, indeed, that informs the book. Sutherland himself makes no claims whatsoever to being ‘comprehensive’. Indeed, his introduction gives the lie to his book cover, stating unequivocally that ‘a single book and one person’s reading career (however obsessive) cannot contain or cover this richest of literary fields’. Sutherland is a self-avowedly ‘idiosyncratic’ bouncer, barring ‘some great names’, but letting in ‘a number of writers not normally granted entry to the sacred grove’.

It will be easy to see why most of those writers who did get in got in. What they have in common is that they are all novelists who have meant something to me, or who have come my way over a long reading career and stayed with me, for whatever reason.

There is no point, then, in complaining about or querying the criteria for so personal a selection. But what does Sutherland like? He has an engaging enjoyment of the pleasures of pulp, and is fascinated by blockbusters through the ages — from Ouida to Peter Cheyney, author of Dames Don’t Care, Dangerous Curves and Your Deal, My Lovely. He likes his detectives hard-boiled and his films noir, though he knows that bad films, like trashy books, can be irresistible (‘who would miss the spectacle of the future Governor of California in skin-tight spandex doing battle with the future Governor of Minnesota dressed up as a tin can?’). He has a soft spot for sci fi — or speculative fiction — but has little time for fantasy.

Though he is fond of Guinness Book of Records-style statistics, he does not allow Tolkein into his pantheon, despite global credentials (Turkmenbashi, the late dictator of Turkmenistan, even believed it necessary to ban his people from dressing up as hobbits). Tolkein’s literary legacy, as father of ‘high fantasy’ is undisputed, if usually dire. Even those who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings itself may feel like Hugo Dyson, who, when Tolkein read aloud to the Inklings, was ‘lying on the couch, lolling and shouting and saying, “Oh God, not another Elf.”’

As Sutherland says, the criteria for inclusion are his: one cannot complain about omissions. One might, however, query his statement, in a discussion of whether travel broadens the mind, that ‘J. R.R. Tolkein never left England (rarely Oxford, and rarely even his own college)’. Five months on the Somme in 1916, it might be suggested, gave Tolkein a glimpse of life outside the common room.

All this makes Sutherland’s criteria sound thoroughly blokeish; and indeed he repeatedly quotes the opinions of Kingsley Amis — who preferred guns to elves, and verbs to adjectives. But in fact he is impressively omnivorous. His passion for Victorian fiction alone would be enough to ensure that female writers are not under-represented.

Perhaps this book may at last lay to rest the tired feminist myth that women in the 19th century ‘had’ to publish under male pseudonyms. In practice, up until the 1880s, the Victorian novel was dominated by women writing as women. The standard cloak for anonymity was ‘A Lady’, not ‘A Gentleman’; and the Macmillan archives for the period show that there were actually more male authors pretending to be female than vice-versa. Unfortunately, none of them was as good as Charlotte Brontë or Mary Ann Evans.

Sutherland shows a magpie eye for telling details, striking quotations and oddities. He quotes the graphic pornography written by Edith Wharton, which gave a most startling twist to the ‘solidity of specification’ praised by Henry James. He tells us that Kenneth Graham’s wife only allowed him to change his underwear once a year.

Here is a quick quiz, for those who enjoy such literary quirks. Who was the writer whose ashes Barry Humphries was forced, ‘out of politeness’, to consume? Whose last words were either ‘Love, love, love!’ or (more plausibly) ‘Get those fucking nuns away from me’? Which novelist is the great-grandmother of Samantha Cameron? Which writer drank himself to an early death in Hollywood — but did so, uniquely, with pots of tea? And who, among those legions of writers addicted to stronger brews, once woke up from an alcoholic blackout to find he had been ‘slumbering alongside an African-American’ whose penis had been amputated? (See answers below).

The Lives of the Novelists is partly a literary curiosity cabinet, eccentric and beguiling. But it also offers a splendid array of recommended books. I have already ordered and devoured Ella Hepworth Dixon’s Story of a Modern Woman, billed by Sutherland as an ‘overlooked masterpiece’. It is: a disillusioned, funny, sad, resilient autobiographical novel, describing the life of a woman struggling to earn her own living in the late 19th century. The details are vivid. She scrapes a living as a female journalist, paid threepence a line, and, suffering from overwork, is ordered by her doctor to take a ‘nerve-tonic’ made up of arsenic and strychnine and a bottle of burgundy.

For those modern women of today whose preferred drug is fiction, I heartily endorse the prescriptions of Professor Sutherland.

Answers: M.P. Shiel; Norman Douglas; Enid Bagnold; Edgar Wallace; and — sorry, this one is a cheat — Professor John Sutherland, self-described in Last Drink to LA.