John Sutherland, Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation (Aurum Press, 2014)
Such was my ignorance I didn’t even realise Jumbo was a particular late-nineteenth century elephant, the world’s most famous elephant. The story of the life and death of Jumbo as he is captured in Africa and exhibited – and mistreated – in Paris, London, and the USA is a fascinating one. It offers a cross-section of the era in the most incredible way – colonialism, emerging technology, sexual mores, exhibits. This was an elephant with links to both Queen Victoria and P. T. Barnum, the great American showman.
Sutherland is witty and draws on an immense knowledge of literature and culture, his range of reference spanning from Dickens to Conrad to Dumbo. The book’s greatest flaw is probably in the contrast between the title and the actuality. Jumbo dies halfway through the book, and doesn’t get born until a few chapters in. Sutherland says at the beginning he is actually attempting “a kind of fantasia… [c]all it elephantasia.” Not the biography of Jumbo so much as a wide-ranging cultural history of elephants in Britain and US, beginning with Colchester in Roman times. The problem is not so much false advertising (though that is a problem) but structural imbalance. Jumbo takes up about half the book; it needs to be either less or more.