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Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation [Hardcover]

John Sutherland
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

6 Feb 2014
The first comprehensive 'biography' of one of the first celebrity animals who gave us one of our favourite words.
Jumbo, Victorian England's favourite elephant, was born in 1861 in French Sudan, imported to a Parisian zoo and later sold on to London, where – for seventeen years – he dutifully gave children rides and ate buns from their hands, all the while being tortured at night to keep him docile. Worldwide fame came when he was bought by the American showman and scam artist P.T. Barnum in 1881, despite letters from 100,000 British schoolchildren who wrote to Queen Victoria begging her to prevent the sale. Barnum went on to transform Jumbo into a lucrative circus act and one of the most loved animals of all time, establishing elephants as a regular feature of funhouses and menageries the world over. 
Using the heartwrenching story of Jumbo's celebrity life, tragic death in Canada in 1885, and his enduring cultural legacy, Jumbo is personal and fascinating reflection on our cultural elephantiasis by one of our most distinguished literary-critical detectives, which is guaranteed to amuse, stimulate, provoke and delight in equal measure.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd (6 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1781312443
  • ISBN-13: 978-1781312445
  • Product Dimensions: 14.3 x 2.5 x 22.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 501,077 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


‘This isn’t just a book about killing elephants; it’s a book about being horrible to elephants in more general ways. It’s very good. It’s one of those books that shows you the world through the lens of a small part of it. Sutherland’s tone throughout is one of dry wit; the track where Jumbo died, he points out, was known as ‘the grand trunk’. Sutherland makes Jumbo his main character, and shows us that by looking at this elephant’s life, and the lives of other captive elephants, you can learn a lot about people too. It’s a tall tale. And rather superbly put together.’

(William Leith Spectator)

‘Hugely entertaining survey of Jumbo’s sad life and strange legacy.’

(Robert Douglas-Fairhurst Daily Telegraph)

‘This book is so wonderful, so charming, I promise it will allow everyone to find the little Jumbo inside themselves.’

(Helen Rumbelow The Times)

‘A treasure trove of elephant ephemera with eye-popping statistics on trunks, dung, sex and characters from Chunee, Jumbo’s popular show animal predecessor in London, to Disney’s fictional Dumbo. The best of the details are fascinating.’ 

(Louise Jury Independent)

‘I can think of nobody better to trumpet the elephant than Sutherland. Academic yet conversational, and at times very funny, he is the perfect guide.’

(Stephen Griffin Sunday Express)

‘It's a fascinating story, told stylishly and wittily.’ 

(Bernard Porter Guardian)

'It is a “fantasia”. Or rather, an “elephantasia”. The word sets the tone. The author, a former professor of English at University College London, is out to entertain—punning, digressing, mixing it up, high and low. But, behind the banter, he has a savage story to tell.'


‘A wonderfully engaging and learned narrator.’

(Katie Law Evening Standard)

‘Sutherland’s fascinating and eclectic book is a fitting tribute to Loxodonta africana and it deftly evokes the manifold and ever more pressing threats to the species.’

(Philip Hoare, Samuel Johnson Prize-winning author of Leviathan, or, The Whale. New Statesman)

‘Elegant cultural history. Jumbo is a compelling portrait of a wonderful creature and less wonderful human motivation.’

(Tristan Quinn TLS)

About the Author

JOHN SUTHERLAND is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus, UCL. He has taught at the Universities of Edinburgh, London and at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of many books on many subjects. He is well known as a journalist (of a high and low kind) and reviewer and was the Chair of the Man Booker Prize committee in 2005. 

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a most entertaining (but curious) book.

It tells the story of the first celebrity elephant -- the eponymous Jumbo. Abruptly, then, about half way through it stops his story with Jumbo's death and then goes on to provide a miscellany of elephant related stories and information. The chapter relating the various executions of criminal elements amongst the elephant world is morbidly interesting. Throughout the author intersperses the narrative with curious and seemingly more or less random facts about himself (I once lived in California; I was an alcoholic, etc.) and opinions about such things as the general opinions of Americans. Throughout he remains engaging and friendly -- in fact, just a little too informal for taste.

However, what (and you may agree) was a constant irritant (and I mean irritant) throughout was that the author (John Sutherland) interjected the text with a never ending plethora or comments in brackets (like this ()). I would say (but this is just a guess) that he related parenthetical comments about three (though it could have been more) times per page. Some comments were just general thoughts (and that is fair enough), some were there to provide elaboration (by which I mean real embellishment); some were seemingly connected to nothing (Rudolf Nureyev died in 1993) -- but all, as time progressed grated (as I am sure that you can imagine).

Notwithstanding, the material is so absorbing and the author is so good natured that I would recommend this book. One last comment -- the binding and cover are very attractive.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Why have elephants got big ears...? 5 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Because Noddy won't pay the ransom money!

Feeble elephant jokes to one side, here's the actual review.

I bought this book as I'm interested in natural history, the nineteenth century, and in knowing what was so bad about it that the previous reviewer only gave it one star.

Obviously this whole thing is subjective, but I have to say I very much enjoyed "Jumbo", although at first I was a little confused by what it was about. Naturally an elephant, but an "unauthorised" biography that claims, inside, "this is not a biography of the world's most renowned elephant". How curious.

It is, instead, part biography, part scene-setting, and part observations on the broader topics of elephants. Sometimes the logic is a little strained (the link between Claudius' elephants in Britain, the watertower in Colchester, and the apparent collective belief of the inhabitants of that town that they were somehow cheated by not being named the capital city, is a good example of this) but some intriguing ideas and theories are put forward.

Jumbo himself is dealt with thoroughly, but is dead by half way through the book, after which it starts to look at lesser-known elephant-related subjects (the section on elephant electrocution, elephant hanging, and Jumbo's successor, are very well researched although frankly rather disturbing.) Given this, I would have to disagree with the description posted by the previous reviewer that this is "yet another book about a dead elephant" - it looks much more at the relationship between humans and elephants than it does any elephant in particular, including Jumbo.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars How very droll! 3 Jun 2014
The trouble with pop history is that it is being so well done these days. If you are going to try to compete with Joseph O’Connor, Simon’s Schama and Winchester, Jared Diamond, David McCullough and even the likes of Bill Bryson, you have to do a lot better than this... They are the standard expected from popular history. Alternately you can have a bash at Beevor or Shirer if you want to more historian then popular.

This book by Sutherland is neither a work of serious historical endeavor, not a populist romp. It’s just rambling about an elephant. In his introduction he says

"This is not a biography of the world’s most renowned elephant nor of its famed owners, the London Zoo and Phineas T. Barnum. Those things have been expertly done elsewhere, and I am grateful and indebted to them. What is offered here is, to borrow a term from the first time I ‘saw the elephant’ (on screen, that is), a kind of fantasia. Call it elephantasia."

I have no idea what he is talking about. All I see here is a dreary pompous mishmash of a ‘biography’, a social history and conceits. The subject matter has no independent inertia – it is not the Tudors or the Gnostics, Lincoln or the Peloponnesian War. To make a success of this kind of minority interest it has to sparkle like THE STAR OF THE SEA or be simply brilliant in its own right a la STALINGRAD.

There are numerous extracts directly lifted from historical sources, more or less on every page, which completely interrupt the flow. Sutherland’s own voice is straight out of a Cambridge lecture theater. He is a man who laughs at his own jokes in the SCR

The only market I can see for this is grandfathers at Christmas who once expressed an interest in elephants and who already own elephant ties, elephant sweaters, elephant slippers, etc., and visitors to London Zoo.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sad Elephantasia 20 May 2014
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
We love elephants; think of Horton and Babar, for instance. The elephant house is one of the most visited sections of the zoo, even though the big beasts usually do nothing but stand around. Circuses give top billing of all the animals to the elephants. And because we love them so, we have done elephants little good. That sad conclusion plays throughout the specific story and the larger descriptions within _Jumbo: The Unauthorized Biography of a Victorian Sensation_ (Aurum Press) by the prolific author on Victorian themes, John Sutherland. That “unauthorized” in the title is the book’s first joke; there is much good humor on display here in a truly sad story. The second joke comes before the text, where the author tells us the book isn’t what it says on the cover, “This is not a biography of the world’s most renowned elephant, nor of its famed owners, the London Zoo and Phineas T. Barnum.” In fact, only the first half of the book deals with Jumbo himself; his sad death comes midway in the book, which thereafter covers Jumbo’s afterlife, other less famous elephants, the ivory trade, and more. Sutherland calls this an “elephantasia;” like just about everyone, he clearly loves elephants, and he has written with lightness, puns, and humor, all the while telling an infuriating story of misunderstanding and mistreatment of magnificent animals.

Jumbo was to start in zoos and graduate to the circus. He had been born around 1860 in what is now Eritrea, an orphan so early that his mother was not around to socialize him into being a proper elephant. He wound up in a zoo in Paris, and failed to prosper or make a hit with the public. At the Zoological Society of London he had at least a sympathetic keeper, Matthew Scott. This did not save him from being tormented by whip or spear, but Jumbo was more tractable when Scott was around. Scott had a fondness for the bottle, and any success he had in bonding with Jumbo or getting the elephant to do his bidding is at least partially because Jumbo got his dose, too. When Jumbo was old enough to go through the aggressiveness of hormone-driven male elephant sexuality, the zoo was eager to get rid of him, and P. T. Barnum made a timely offer. The British press milked the protests against selling Jumbo to a Yankee; even then, reader rage was encouraged to increase circulation. But a deal was a deal, and with enormous difficulty in 1882, Jumbo was crated and shipped to his new country. Jumbo was a popular circus attraction until 1885 when he and the rest of the Barnum and Bailey circus were being loaded onto train cars after a show in St. Thomas, Ontario. There was some sort of rail confusion, and a train headed for Jumbo, who for some reason, charged into it, dying instantly as his tusks were driven into his brain. It was not much of a setback for Barnum. He promptly told the papers that Jumbo had died a hero, protecting another elephant. Then Barnum had Jumbo skinned, and stuffed (with extra volume added so he would look bigger), and displayed at a quarter a view. It was a sad end to a sad life.

There is so much more sadness here. There is Topsy the elephant who in 1902 killed a drunken visitor who abused her by feeding her a lighted cigar. She had to be executed, and there was just the man to do so: Thomas Edison wanted to show the world how dangerous alternating current was, and did so by arranging Topsy’s electrocution. To make sure everyone knew that alternating current was so awful it could even kill an elephant, Edison arranged for the procedure to be filmed, and you can see it on YouTube to this day (using alternating current for your computer, of course). Another elephant was hanged for homicide (the unpleasant details of how one would hang an elephant are here). It is happier to learn about Dumbo the elephant, even if the Disney film failed because of Dumbo’s flying attack on the circus, funny enough when the film came out but not funny after Pearl Harbor a few weeks later. Sutherland’s delight in literature is on show; John Donne wrote about elephants, as did Dorothy Parker, and of course Rudyard Kipling. But so did Joseph Conrad; remember that in _Heart of Darkness_, Kurtz was an ivory hunter. And the ivory went to billiard balls and piano keys, and though we have substitutes for those now, there are still rich people who want genuine ivory tchotchkes, and don’t care about cost or elephant welfare. Humans have not played the elephants fair despite our abiding affection for the big, lumbering beasts, and _Jumbo_, for all its weird and funny and sometimes touching stories, is a sorrowful and angry book.
5.0 out of 5 stars John Sutherland continues to amaze and enlighten us all. 17 Jun 2014
By Warren Dennis - Published on Amazon.com
Who would have thought the history of elephants in captivity could be compelling? Only John Sutherland and now those who read the marvelous book.
4.0 out of 5 stars Sharp and witty 1 Jun 2014
By Todd Thompson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A tragic story told with engaging wit and sarcasm. Aside from the biography of Jumbo, it is, somewhat, a sordid tale of Jumbo's owners and trainers, including one P.T. Barnum. It is full of elephant facts, lore, rumors, escapades, and tragic executions at the hands of homo sapiens.
4.0 out of 5 stars Jumbo - Upsize - the connection 27 May 2014
By Carolyn Erikson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Prof Sutherland's encyclopedic knowledge of Literature and compassion for pachyderms, in particular the African Elephant, are combined into a witty, enjoyable and informative book - funny and sad..
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