Novelists and Their Quirky Lives, Since 1660Share
Lives of the Novelists is a history of novels written in English, covering John Bunyan (1628-1688), who wrote the first novel, all the way to quite recent times.
It's enlightening to widen the scope of our novel knowledge. That's part of the point of this recent 818-page book from Yale University Press: Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives by John Sutherland.
Not only does John Sutherland write very engagingly, but he is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and a former long-time faculty member at the California Institute of Technology. He is also the author of more than 20 books, editor of 30 more, and a radio and TV columnist and critic.
He chose 294 writers whom he figures are worth reading and "likely to remain so for at least another century." Included are early novelists unknown to many of us, such as Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), a slave and then abolitionist, and Olive Shreiner (1855-1920). Sutherland includes many popular authors of what we now call genre novels, such as Stephen King.
Nibble at this large volume randomly, or gobble it up from beginning to end, and either way you'll come upon nuggets of wry humor. The tone is entertaining throughout, rich with anecdotes (many about sex and drinking), and there's nary a wasted word. Unlike most encyclopedias, this one's full of Sutherland's own opinionated assessments and conjectures.
Some paraphrased tidbits (sorely lacking Sutherland's witty exposition):
- Nathanial Hawthorne: Did he carry on for years with his sister Ebe and then model Hester Prynne after her? His writings hint at something dark and criminal in everyone's life.
- George Eliot: Having changed her name, partly due to her negativity toward "silly lady novelists," Eliot had an unconventional love life. In the last year of her life she married a man 20 years her junior, who "appears to have attempted suicide by jumping into a canal in Venice during the wedding trip."
- Herman Melville: Could he have been a closet homosexual? Sutherland quotes a odd passage from Moby Dick describing the brotherly joys of the removal of sperm from a whale ("let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness").
- H. Rider Haggard: A woman he'd wanted when they were both much younger, but who hadn't waited for him, reappeared, now penniless and infected with venereal disease. Haggard, the author of King Solomon's Mines, cared from then on for her and her family. Later he became quite racist and anti-Semitic.
- Kenneth Grahame: The man who would later write The Wind in the Willows led a somewhat risky bohemian life, and when he finally married, no one had a good time of it. His cranky wife put him into special underwear (according to a biographer) that was only changed annually.
- John Kennedy Toole: The young author of A Confederacy of Dunces, published (not so easily) by his mother after he killed himself, left a suicide note that his mother destroyed. He had previously written another book which his mother tried not to have published because she didn't want to share royalties with her dead husband's family.
Though Sutherland hedges his bets and clearly hasn't meant to write a potboiler, reading dozens of these startling vignettes gives one the impression that novelists have regularly struggled with family, religious, alcohol, and sexual issues. And that wouldn't be so startling at all.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.