Prof John Sutherland

  • London


John Sutherland was born in 1938 and is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London.

He has taught in universities world-wide and is also Visiting Professor of California Institute of Technology. Author of many books and articles, his interest lies in the areas of Victorian fiction, the history of publishing and 20th-century fiction. He writes for The Guardian and is a well-known literary reviewer.

His book, Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography (2004), was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award. Recent books are How To Read a Novel: a User's Guide (2006), and a book of memoir - The Boy Who Loved Books (2007). Curiosities of Literature, a miscellany about reading, and Magic Moments: Life-changing Encounters with Books, Film, Music were published in 2008.

John Sutherland's latest books are: Love, Sex, Death and Words: Tales from a Year in Literature (2010), written with Stephen Fender; 50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know (2011); and Lives of the Novelists: A History of Ficiton in 294 Lives (2011).

Critical perspective

Professor John Sutherland’s latest book is Curiosities of Literature (2008), a literary miscellany intended, he says, to ‘communicate the random pleasures’ in reading books and about writers’ lives, ranging through Dickens, Hardy, Hemingway et al.

to ‘The [Harry] Potter Effect’. Grouped in 13 sections (‘as little stewpots – with many ingredients, but with a dominant flavour’), and ending with ‘a Terminal Quiz’, it entertains as it informs on such topics as food, bodies, smoking, the history of product placement in books, and – of perennial interest - ‘Sex and the Victorians’. In the latter, we learn about the honeymoon problems of John Ruskin, the Carlyles, and George Eliot, as well as the significance of Oscar Wilde’s green carnation. The book’s format – linking snippets of information, anecdote, trivia and opinion - is actually a revival of ‘a perennial bestseller’ from the early nineteenth century. As with most of his books, the contents largely revolve around his favourite Victorian novels and novelists, which is also Sutherland’s own academic specialism. Victorian fiction ‘has always spoken to me more eloquently than any other literature’, he has observed. Early on in his career he made important contributions to Thackeray scholarship and has subsequently edited many works in the field including The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction (1989).

Sutherland is also known to the book-buying public as a ‘Literary Detective’, for his volumes of novelistic puzzles and unsolved literary ‘crimes’: Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in nineteenth-century literature (1996), Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction (1999) and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction (1999). These Sutherland described as being ‘a relaxed conversation with other readers of classic (principally Victorian) fiction’. Indeed, readers’ responses were a principal resource in keeping the series going, and making them bestsellers. Sutherland – and his readers – often suggest ingenious answers to at times prosaic questions (‘How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge’s Turkey?’), catch authors out in their occasional errors, and touch upon more serious issues such as Jane Austen and slavery, or anti-Semitism and the Victorian legal system  (‘Why is Fagin hanged and Why isn’t Pip prosecuted?’). Dickens is perhaps Sutherland’s favourite author, relishing the way that he ‘loved playing cat-and-mouse with the reader’, as evidenced by Inside Bleak House (2005), his guide in 20 instalments to ‘the first detective novel’. He shows how Victorian London’s social conditions provoked Dickens’ campaign for sanitary reform (‘Filth … emerges as the true villain’), and points out that the novel’s issues are ‘still with us’.

In addition to his life as an academic (having taught at universities in Britain and the USA for many years), Sutherland is also a prominent commentator on literary matters for the media. He has done a great deal of literary journalism and been a regular contributor to The Guardian and the New Statesman. In 2005 he was Chairman of the Booker Prize panel, giving his casting vote to John Banville’s novel The Sea. He has also written Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of British History through the Nation's Bestselling Books (2002), a survey of the phenomenon of best-selling books (’Bestsellers fit their cultural moment as neatly as a well-fitting glove’, he neatly observes, ‘and rarely come back’). Sutherland’s interest in the lives of writers has produced two substantial biographies, the first being The Life of Walter Scott (1995). This focuses as much on Scott’s professional life - enormously prolific as an author but also with a legal career - as on personal relations. Political, publishing and financial matters predominate; ‘The bankruptcy and the heroic clearing of his debts is arguably the one "event" of Scott’s life’. Perhaps most interesting are Sutherland’s detailing of Scott’s influence on subsequent Victorian fiction: his dashing heroines, chivalrous gentlemen and ‘the witty servant type’.

His authorized biography Stephen Spender (2004), short-listed for the Whitbread Biography Award, was a more personal project (Sutherland having been a colleague of Spender’s at University College London during the 1970s). This again balances literary career, personal life and politics, viewing him as ‘an adventurer in sex as in ideas’. Arguably it is even more revealing about Spender’s role at Encounter magazine amidst the controversy over CIA funding of the magazine in the 1950s. One of the aspects he rightly admires about Spender was his ability ‘to keep many irons in the fire: writer, journalist, reviewer, lecturer, editor’ – somewhat like Sutherland himself. Spender, he observes, was also remarkable for ‘opening so much of his private life up for public inspection’. And his career ‘bridge[d] American and British post-war culture’. All these features arguably apply to Sutherland’s own literary career – less spectacular but equally energetic and wide-ranging.

In compiling The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction (2000), Sutherland refers to wanting to ‘recover some of the childhood pleasures I had experienced in my first encounters with fiction’. This subject informs much of his memoir The Boy Who Loved Books (2007), although, as he relates in unsparing detail, such pleasures were a counterbalance to the constant upheavals of a wartime childhood and his later struggle with alcoholism (overcome by.1983 at the time of his biggest career move to California). His account of his personal relationships – most importantly with a charismatic but often absent mother, his father having been killed on war service – is set alongside his developing relationships with books, and later alcohol. Both seemed connected: ‘drinking recreated the conditions of childhood. Solitude; myself alone’.

Perhaps his most important development came during his time as a student at Leicester University, where he came under the influence of a distinguished English department that included Richard Hoggart, Malcolm Bradbury, and Monica Jones (Philip Larkin’s companion and muse). The latter seemed to him ‘a version of my mother …. She too was chronically at odds with her environment’. It was under their influence that Sutherland not only read widely in Victorian fiction but also ‘drank vastly’. Even after 20 years’ sobriety, in his afterword he observes of books that ‘They should, like alcohol, dissolve barriers: put one in touch with the shared conditions of humanity’.  The latter is what Sutherland himself has done so well – in his books and commentaries illuminating the personal and social contexts of writing and writer’s lives. John Sutherland has, it is widely acknowledged, put academia and the General Reader back in touch with each other. And he has added greatly to the pleasures of literature.

Dr Jules Smith, 2008


Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives
50 Literature Ideas You Really Need to Know
Love. Sex, Death and Words: Tales from a Year in Literature
Magic Moments: Life-changing Encounters with Books, Film, Music
Curiosities of Literature
The Boy Who Loved Books: A Memoir
How to Read A Novel: a User's Guide
Inside Bleak House
So You Think You Know Jane Austen?
So You Think You Know Thomas Hardy?
Stephen Spender: The Authorized Biography
Eminent Victorians/Lytton Strachey
Reading The Decades: Fifty Years of British History through the Nation's Bestselling Books
Literary Lives
The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction
Henry V, War Criminal? and other Shakespearean Puzzles
Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?: Further Puzzles in Classic Fiction
Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?: More Puzzles in Classic Fiction
The Moonstone/Wilkie Collins
The Way We Live Now/Anthony Trollope
The Woman in White/William Wilkie Collins
Where Was Rebecca Shot?: Curiosities, Puzzles and Conundrums in Modern Fiction
Vanity Fair: A Novel Without A Hero/William Makepeace Thackeray
The Life of Walter Scott: a Critical Biography
Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Puzzles in nineteenth-century literature
The Oxford Book of English Love Stories
Barchester Towers/Anthony Trollope
Rob Roy/Sir Water Scott
Rachel Ray/Anthony Trollope
Armadale/Wilkie Collins
Victorian Fiction: Writers, Publishers, Readers
Later Short Stories/Anthony Trollope
Early Short Stories/Anthony Trollope
Pendennis/William Makepeace Thackeray
An Eye for an Eye/Anthony Trollope
The Master of Ballantrae; Weir of Hermiston/Robert Louis Stevenson
The Sea-Wolf/Jack London
An Old Man's Love/Anthony Trollope
Organic Gardening
Mrs. Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian
Ralph the Heir/Anthony Trollope
John Barleycorn: 'Alcoholic Memoirs'/Jack London
The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction
Is he Popenjoy?/Anthony Trollope
The History of Henry Esmond/William Makepeace Thackeray
He Knew He Was Right/Anthony Trollope
Offensive Litearutre: Decensorship in Britian, 1960-82
Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s
The Book of Snobs/William Makepeace Thackeray
Victorian Novelists and Publishers
Fiction and the Fiction Industry


Whitbread Biography Award