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.