Look here, Mr Goodwood

John Bayley

  • Is Heathcliff a Murderer? Puzzles in 19th-Century Fiction by John Sutherland
    Oxford, 262 pp, £3.99, June 1996, ISBN 0 19 282516 X

A learned, indeed an erudite little book; but also one that is so absorbing, so readable, so quietly and deftly humorous, that it shows up all the dull pretentiousness of nine-tenths of the stuff that gets written nowadays about Eng. Lit. A fascinating and major paradox is involved; but what would be the point of the author displaying it when a fabulous gathering of fictional puzzles will do it for him? The best critic, like the best novelist, leaves the reader to decide. The paradox remains, however. On the one hand, the novelist must tell the truth, and want to tell nothing else: on the other, he has the irresponsibility of a creator whose fondness for his creatures is no guarantee that he will not kill them or save them at a whim, show them up or let them down. You want a happy ending? Dickens, Hardy and above all Thackeray will oblige, however much with tongue in cheek. Dickens and Hardy will do it, while taking the opportunity, in letters or prefaces or afterthoughts, of making clear that it goes against their artistic consciences. Thackeray will exhibit the absurdity of novel-writing with a shrug and a smile of apparent shamelessness.

You, the reader, may settle your fable-land in your own fashion. Anything you like happens in fable-land. Wicked folks die ... annoying folks are got out of the way ... the hero and heroine happy ever after ... Ah, happy harmless fable-land, where these things are! Friendly reader, may you and the author meet there on some future day! He hopes so; as he yet keeps a lingering hold of your hand, and bids you well with a kind heart.

Overdoing things in that fashion, as Thackeray does at the end of his massive saga-novel The Newcomes, has a certain subtlety of purpose behind it. The reader is made to feel a bit embarrassed and ashamed, as if he were being wheedled in oily tones by the proprietor of a pornography shop, who at the same time impresses on him the fact that, while completely in sympathy with his client’s requirements, he himself, the novelist-pornographer, is above such matters. It’s far more effective, as well as more evidently sincere, than the defence Thackeray made to some intellectual friends of George Eliot, who got at him in his own coin by teasing him about the happy end they would wish for two of his characters. He could only reply: ‘the characters once created lead me, and I follow where they direct.’ Oh yeah?

As Sutherland intriguingly shows, many Victorian endings cause puzzles. Was Becky Sharp a murderer at the end of Vanity Fair? – did she kill Jos Sedley? Thackeray here is being even more smilingly serpentine in the way he deals with his reader. He hints, nudges and winks, encouraging the reader to feel how clever he is not to miss the hints, such as the fact that Becky’s solicitors have the names of well-known murderers. In seeming to blunder by making Becky at the end entirely out of character, as a murderess, Thackeray manages to show that there are some things the little adventuress will not do; but since she has no reputation left everyone, including many of his readers, will be happy to think she might. As Sutherland puts it: ‘Does Becky kill Jos? Of course she doesn’t – but maliciously wagging respectable tongues will never believe otherwise.’ The reader who wants her to be as bad as her reputation is wrongfooted. Respectability is always at a shady premium in Vanity Fair, and by not having any Becky remains her own kind of heroine.

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