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What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved [Hardcover]

John Mullan
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Jun 2012

Is there any sex in Austen? What do the characters call each other, and why? What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage? And which important Austen characters never speak? In What Matters in Austen, John Mullan shows that you can best appreciate Jane Austen's brilliance by looking at the intriguing quirks and intricacies of her fiction - by asking and answering some very specific questions about what goes on in her novels, he reveals their devilish cleverness.

In twenty-one short chapters, each of which answers a question prompted by Jane Austen's novels, Mullan illuminates the themes that matter most to the workings of the fiction. So the reader will discover when people had their meals and what shops they went to, how they addressed each other, who was allowed to write letters to whom, who owned coaches or pianos, how vicars got good livings and how wealth was inherited. What Matters in Austen explores the rituals and conventions of her fictional world in order to reveal her technical virtuosity and sheer daring as a novelist. Though not a book about Jane Austen's life, it uses biographical detail and telling passages from her letters to explain episodes in her novels; readers will find out, for example, what novels she read or how much money she had to live on or what she saw at the theatre.

Inspired by an enthusiastic reader's curiosity, written with flair and based on a lifetime's study, What Matters in Austen will appeal to all those who love and enjoy Jane Austen's work.

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What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved + The Real Jane Austen + Jane Austen: A Life
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (7 Jun 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408820110
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408820117
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 26,133 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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One effect of reading Mullen's compendium is to make you appreciate the sheer density, the tight-woven intricacy, of every scene and every exchange in Austen. His approach illuminates, because no detail is redundant. Every remark, every accident, every material exchange, is a revelation (Guardian, Books of the Year)

Any new book on Jane Austen raises the urgent question, would I get more pleasure from reading this than from re-reading my favourite Jane Austen novel? If you decide to give What Matters in Jane Austen a chance you'll know after a few pages that you've made the right choice (John Carey, Sunday Times)

If you want to know what Jane Austen's characters look like, which of them never speak, how old they are, what they call each other, why it's risky for them to visit the seaside, what games they play, or how much money is enough, this book will tell you, in minute and richly entertaining detail' (Jane Shilling, Daily Mail)

A fine collection of essays ... Like all good literary critics, he has the happy knack of making you read even familiar works with fresh eyes, and the essays in this book are among the best of their kind ***** (Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, Daily Telegraph)

Every remark, every accident, every material exchange, is a revelation (Guardian)

Absorbing ... Whether the topic is age, sex, death, money, illness, holidays, accidents, the weather or marriage proposals, Austen's reticence has seldom been handled with such delicate precision ... Such is the quality and incisiveness of Mullan's critical engagement with Austen that the only thing to regret about his book is that there isn't more of it ... What Matters in Jane Austen? is a model of clarity, verve and perception (The Literary Review)

If you love Jane Austen you'll love this book too - it's almost as good as finding an unpublished novel ... Fascinating (Lady)

Book Description

From 'Is there Sex Before Marriage in Austen?' to 'Which important Austen characters never speak?' the Guardian Book Club columnist answers 21 apparently trivial questions that reveal deep and hidden truths about Jane Austen's fictional world

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
65 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book that illuminates Jane Austen 10 Jun 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
When I was a student there was a furious debate about whether art, literature and music should be judged purely in terms of their own merit or whether they should be looked at in the context of the time and conditions in which they were created. This book is weighty evidence in favour of the latter argument.

Because of the clarity and simplicity of her prose style, Jane Austen's books are very accessible to us. We read and understand the stories, we appreciate her jokes and can empathise with her characters. What John Mullan's book does is illuminate all the social nuances that modern readers miss, such as the significance of using a person's Christian name (not just an indication of how well you know someone) or what going to the seaside can entail. The result is like wiping clean a familiar but grimy picture, the story is the same but it glows with a colour and life missing before.

This is not a dry book fit only for serious students of Eng. Lit. It is amusing and witty and slips down very easily with the added benefit of seriously improving your knowledge and appreciation of Jane Austen and her time.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must for lovers of Austen 15 July 2012
By Elaine Simpson-long TOP 1000 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
The interest in Jane Austen never seems to wane and books proliferate each year with sign of diminishing in any way whatever. One does wonder if authors will ever exhaust what can be said or discovered about her, but while they continue to write I am a happy bunny and not complaining. The full title of this book is What Matters in Jane Austen - Twenty Crucial Puzzles solved. Now I am not sure that the word crucial is applicable here - none of the chapters deal with a matter that would worry us too unduly or cause us sleepless nights, but they were hugely interesting and entertaining and here is a sample of a couple:

How much does Age matter? "She was fully satisfied of being still quite as handsome as ever, but she felt her approach to the years of danger" This is, of course, Elizabeth Eliot in Persuasion who is in her late twenties and by contemporary standards, getting on a bit. The author opens this chapter by pointing out how much TV and cinema adaptations of the novels have fixed character's ages in our minds. Mrs Bennett cannot be much more than 40 and that it is likely she married early. Mr Collins is viewed by many readers as being middle-aged, but he is a 'tall, heavy-looking young man of five and twenty' though played by David Bamber in THE TV series, who is in his mid forties. In Sense and Sensibility Elinor Dashwood is played by Emma Thompson, then aged 36 but Elinor is nineteen. We must also remember that Marianne, when marrying Colonel Brandon, can only been about 17 and he is 35, but the point being made is that Marianne has been aged, metaphorically speaking, by her heartbreak and experience.

What do Characters call each other? "in the whole of the sentence, in his manner of pronouncing it and his addressing her sister by her Christian name.......
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read for Jane Austen fans 11 Jun 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Jane Austen's novels are some of my favourite books to re-read regularly and I also enjoy reading books about Jane Austen's work. This book is a marvellous read for any Jane Austen fans. It provides the answers to some fascinating questions such as which characters never speak in the novels but still play a very large part in the plots. The author explains how significant it is when characters call each other by their Christian names in an age when even husbands and wives would not use them to each other.

Modern readers are apt to think that there is no sex in Jane Austen because the writing is subtle. Anyone who has read the scene between Elizabeth and Darcy when he proposes to her for the first time can be left in no doubt about the sexually charged frisson between them. It is not overtly described but it is still there in the way they both behave and in what they say. Characters in the novels marry and have babies - Mrs Weston in Emma and Charlotte Palmer in Sense and Sensibility not to speak of Colonel Brandon's sister-in-law, Eliza not to speak of Charlotte Collins in Pride and Prejudice who is pregnant by the time the novel ends.

Characters die in the novels - most notably Mrs Churchill in Emma who is also one of the powerful non-speaking characters. Jealousy, envy, snobbery and hatred all make an appearance in the novels as of course do pride and prejudice. Jane Austen does not gloss over the less pleasant aspects of life in early nineteenth century England especially for women or over the less pleasant aspects of human nature.

I found this book an absolutely fascinating read and it is written in an easy approachable style. In my opinion it can only add to anyone's pleasure in reading Jane Austen's novels. There are plenty of notes on the text and a bibliography which will give the interested reader plenty of other texts to study.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jane Austen, literary pioneer 27 Jun 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As well as his day job as a professor of English at University College London, John Mullan writes a very entertaining column about contemporary fiction in the Saturday edition of 'The Guardian'. This formed the basis of his earlier book, 'How Novels Work'. With his latest book, John Mullan takes a detailed look at Jane Austen's prose fiction. As he mentions in the 'Acknowledgements' section at the end of the book, Professor Mullan road tested a lot of this material in a series of lectures to various branches of the Jane Austen Society. I was present at the Quaker Meeting House in York, when Professor Mullan gave a talk for the North of England branch of the Jane Austen Society, in which he previewed material which I now recognise in the chapters 'What do characters call each other?' and 'Which important characters never speak in the novels?'

The book is subtitled '20 crucial puzzles solved', and these twenty puzzles provide the basis for the book's twenty chapters. Despite her cosy and genteel image, as Professor Mullan shows, in her own day, Jane Austen was a cutting edge literary pioneer. Whilst her contemporaries, like Mary Brunton ('Self Control'), preferred perfect heroines, Jane Austen wrote about very flawed protagonists such as Miss Woodhouse in 'Emma'. Furthermore, as Professor Mullan demonstrates in his chapter on Jane Austen as an experimental novelist, Austen virtually invented the free indirect style, and 'Emma' the novel is a bravura display of technical brilliance in its extensive use of free indirect discourse.

In conclusion, this book is an interesting study of the Austen canon which helps to provide the reader with several insights about Jane Austen's six novels. It was almost as entertaining as reading the novels themselves.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
An excellent book; well set out very readable and informative. A good reference book.
Published 1 month ago by Joan C.
5.0 out of 5 stars Educational
A fascinating read and goes some way to explaining why Austen is difficult to beat. Also, food for thought for budding writers.
Published 2 months ago by Susan Blake
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb
Having studied Jane Austen's Persuasion at 'A' Level I wished that this book had been available back in 1965! Read more
Published 2 months ago by Mr. S. Dickinson
4.0 out of 5 stars For Jane Austen Lovers
This is an interesting book that makes you go back and read the novels again but with a different perspective. If you like JA you will like this book.
Published 8 months ago by Jane Stevens
4.0 out of 5 stars Great fun
This is great fun to dip into. John Mullan explores a variety of issues in Jane Austen's novels, such as why age and income matter. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Georgia Hill
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining
A good bedside book for Jane Austen admirers. Fills some of the gaps and provides reflection of her well-loved novels.
Published 9 months ago by Emily Matheson
5.0 out of 5 stars Great reading for all Jane fans
This is a fascinating book - of the expected and unexpected! - that gives a vivid reflection of the Jane Austen world.
Published 11 months ago by Dan y Graig
5.0 out of 5 stars My Thoughts
I really enjoyed the format. All twenty chapters have a question as the title and each chapter explores possible and plausible answers. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Julie Ann Penner
5.0 out of 5 stars Wholly intellectually satisfying
John Carey commented that reading 'What Matters in Jane Austen?' is as much of a pleasure as re- reading an Austen itself. Read more
Published 12 months ago by miranpr
4.0 out of 5 stars Oops. Bought it as a gift, then kept it.
Some books end up as loo-reading by design, some by accident. This was an accident. But it's going on the long-term middle shelf because - despite its repose in The Office for a... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Pierre Saint-Saens
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