Thursday, 25 October 2007

A Nasty Case Of The Vapours

From the BBC website. Why heroines die in classic fiction: a preview of A Nasty Case Of The Vapours, which is on Radio 4 tonight (Thursday, 25 October) at 11.30am on Radio 4. The programme delves into literary forensics: what was wrong with Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the Lady Dedlock in Bleak House? The presenter, Vivienne Parry, asks a number of historical-medical experts about the possibilities: TB, typhus, suicide, and so on. You can listen to the programme by clicking here (launches BBC Radio player).
      I'm pleased to see one of the experts quoted is Professor John Sutherland, Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London. Sutherland has been described as "a sort of Sherlock Holmes of literature" for his astute analyses of obscure topics in fiction. Sometimes he explains obscure references and historical details; sometimes he attempts to find contemporary explanations for authors' mistakes, inconsistencies or anachronisms. For a taster of his methods, see Puzzles, Enigmas and Mysteries in the English Novel: Real Approaches to Fictional Universes (PDF), Sutherland's 1998 Adam Helsm lectue on the topic.
      For example, Charles Dickens appears to have shared a general early-Victorian lack of knowledge about swimming, or he would have known the unlikeliness of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, a middle-aged heavy smoker laden down with a legiron, managing to swim several hundred yards in the Thames in winter. (Compare with the modern "50:50:50 rule" for hypothermia onset: the average adult has a 50-50 chance of swimming 50 yards in water at 50 degrees). In the same novel, Sutherland argues, we simply have to assume plot expediency for some details, such as the older Magwitch being under threat of death sentence in a story set some years after the real-world abolition of the death penalty for returning transportees, and Pip (simply because he's the hero of the book) receiving no legal comeback for aiding an escaping criminal.
      With yet other examples, Sutherland attempts to find internal explanations to make a coherent story incorporating such problems, such as finding a far darker story of incest beneath the surface detail of Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Speckled Band.

A sampler of the titles:
*Is Heathcliff a Murderer? (Great puzzles in 19th century literature: Why does Dracula come to England? How does Frankenstein make his monsters? Why does Jane Austen describe apple blossom in June? etc).
*Can Jane Eyre be Happy? (32 more literary puzzles: Why does Robinson Crusoe find only one footprint? Where does Fanny Hill keep her contraceptives? How good a swimmer is Magwitch? etc)
*Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (Further puzzles in 19th century literature: Victorian drug habits, railway systems, sanitation, and dentistry).
*Where was Rebecca Shot? (Puzzles, curiosities and conundrums in modern fiction: Trainspotting, Rambo's knife, Piggy's (non)burning glasses, cyberspace, Inspector Morse, A Clockwork Orange, and John Grisham's 1990s The Firm that strangely has no personal computers).
* Henry V, War Criminal? (and other Shakespeare puzzles, co-written with Cedric Watts and Stephen Orgel: Is it summer or winter in Elsinore? Do Titania and Bottom make love? Is Hamlet's father's ghost stupid? etc).
      Sutherland's articles are always worth reading: see the John Sutherland page at the Guardian for an ongoing selection.

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