October 28, 2011 9:15 pm

Lives of the Novelists

John Sutherland’s idiosyncratic and erudite compendium of fiction writers’ biographies

John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists is the fruit of a truly staggering amount of reading – the culmination of half a century’s engagement with fiction.

At one point Sutherland, a critic and emeritus professor at the University of London, mentions that he discovered Ella Dixon’s neglected masterpiece The Story of a Modern Woman (1894) while working his way through 3,000 novels for a guide to Victorian fiction. It’s a clue to the scope of his expertise.

In a brief introduction, Sutherland explains that the 294 novelists he has included – all of them writers in English – are those “who have meant something to me, or who have come my way over a long reading career and stayed with me”. Consequently, there are glaring omissions and some strange inclusions: Harold Robbins and Jeffrey Archer make the cut but Maria Edgeworth, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling and PG Wodehouse do not. That’s fine, as Sutherland acknowledges that he has been “very selective”. Yet the assertion on the jacket that “this is the most complete history of fiction in English ever published” looks questionable.

These cavils are small, though, because the attraction of Sutherland’s jumbo volume isn’t its completeness or, indeed, its account of literary history, which is necessarily fragmented. Instead, it is the mixture of informed quirkiness and savoury opinion. Few people will want to read the book from cover to cover; it appeals as a font of erudition, into which one can dip congenially.

The entries are arranged chronologically by author’s date of birth, beginning with John Bunyan (1628) and ending with Rana Dasgupta (1971). They vary in size but few are more than four pages long. The relationship between word count and a writer’s importance is slight: Dickens gets less space than Ian McEwan, while there is more on Theodore Dreiser than on Jane Austen or George Eliot. Sutherland also argues persuasively for the inclusion of certain writers who are not usually treated as novelists: Olaudah Equiano, Thomas De Quincey, and the sexually athletic Victorian memoirist known simply as Walter.

Naturally, the most successful purveyors of fiction are not always the most riveting biographical subjects. Time spent writing is time not spent on all the other departments of life, and there are plenty of figures here who, such as Oliver Goldsmith, are “the despair of biographers”. Of Samuel Richardson, author of the daunting Clarissa, Sutherland says, “the little we know ... is scant and what is unknown to us is almost certainly unexciting”.

Yet Lives of the Novelists abounds with fascinating characters, many of them worth reclaiming from obscurity. For instance, the artistic and eccentric Lewis Wingfield posed as a black minstrel and worked as an attendant in a madhouse. During the siege of Paris in 1870, he relayed his news reports by balloon. Booth Tarkington, author of The Magnificent Ambersons, could reputedly write with one hand while playing poker with the other. John Creasey, who was apparently capable of knocking out 15 novels a year at his peak in the 1930s, displayed with rueful pride his collection of 743 rejection slips.

More alarmingly, the Manxman Hall Caine, whose book The Christian (1897) was the first novel to sell a million copies in Britain, fathered a child with a 14-year-old in 1883. Dennis Wheatley, another whose books once sold prodigiously, kept a diary that he called his “fornicator’s game book”. L Frank Baum, who wrote The Wizard of Oz, was before that a journalist whose editorials for a Dakota newspaper argued the need to exterminate the local Sioux Indians. Less unsettling, but equally curious, is Amanda Ros, the Irish author of books so infamously awful that they have inspired several reading groups (numbering such eminent writers as CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley) devoted to locating the most ludicrous examples of her prose.

Sutherland generally lets the facts speak for themselves but he can be pungently opinionated. Is it exactly “to Stockholm’s shame” that Philip Roth has not won the Nobel Prize? Or true that Elmore Leonard is “the greatest American novelist never to be mentioned in the same breath as Nobel Prize’’? Isn’t it chancy to claim of Graham Greene that “no novelist, until John Grisham, has more successfully adapted into film”?

But mostly Sutherland gets things dead right. He is witty and humane. Sometimes it is his descriptions that pique curiosity: the “incorrigibly self-deprecating” Flannery O’Connor “was fascinated by the magnificent fan displays of the peacock and liked being pictured posed alongside her prize specimens”. And then there are the weirdly intriguing titles he salvages from oblivion. Previously I knew nothing of JH Ingraham’s The Beautiful Cigar Girl or Frank Danby’s Dr Phillips: A Maida Vale Idyll. Each sounds banal to the point of being surreal. The most gratifying effect of this peculiar but rather wonderful book is that it makes you want to slink off and ransack a well-stocked library.

Henry Hitchings is author of ‘The Language Wars: A Proper History of English’ (John Murray)

Lives of the Novelists, by John Sutherland, Profile Books, RRP£30, 818 pages

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