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.
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.......marked a perfect agreement between them" Sense and Sensibility again. Calling each other by Christian names intimates a close relationship. Emma cannot imagine calling Mr Knightley George, though she eventually must, Mrs Weston in the same novel always addresses her husband as Mr Weston and we never know the christian names of Mr Allen, Mr Palmer, Mr Bennett or Dr Grant or Admiral Croft. Mrs Elton, a vulgar upstart addresses her husband as Mr E which I think is a ploy by the author to show us just how ghastly she is. The use of a person's Christian name is a rare privilege and can carry weight and a woman who lets her man use her name has given him a great privilege.
As I said, I don't think any of these 'puzzles' are in any way crucial, but they do make for fascinating and delightfully interesting reading. Others chapters are How Much Money is Enough?; Why is it Risky to go to the Seaside? (loved this one) Is there any sex in Jane Austen (Andrew Davies has shown us Jmthat, yes there is); What Games do Characters Play and How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?
I do like these kind of books and though I have been fairly light hearted in my review and comments above, I have to say that the questions addressed here do tend to make you think more about the books - certain things brought to my attention by John Mullan had never crossed my mind, and the chapters on the niceties of social interaction, the gauging of status and position by money help to round out views already formed by one's reading.
I loved reading What Matters in Jane Austen by Claire Harman a year or so ago which was another seemingly light hearted and easy to read book but sharp commentary and insights are contained in both these titles. Just beause they are 'popular' Austen writing, rather than academic, does not make them any less valuable and this book is staying firmly on my Austen book shelf alongside all her novels (of which I have several editions), her letters, at least two biographies and other tomes. I never ever tire of reading Jane Austen or reading about her, the more I do, the more I become totally enchanted all over again by her incisive with and pointed pen. I love her astringency and style and only wish she had been with us a little longer and had given us more titles to read. But in Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma, we have the perfect collection which will never be superseded. I know there are people out there who cannot take to Jane and who dislike her and I have to constantly remind myself that she herself said that 'half the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other'
An essential read for lovers of all things Jane.
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.
on 27 June 2012
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.
on 20 August 2013
John Carey commented that reading 'What Matters in Jane Austen?' is as much of a pleasure as re- reading an Austen itself. I would agree, but the advantage of having John Mullan's impressive knowledge of social history and literary styles means that you now feel a much better informed reader than you were on first acquaintance with Austen. What is more, Mullan is a very generous critic in that he makes you feel that his conclusions could easily be your own. 'The novels' he writes, 'employ nuances.. that shape any sensitive reader's understanding,' allowing you to flatter yourself that you are that sensitive reader.
Mullan quotes Austen, 'I hope somebody cares for these minutiae,' and it is entirely fortunate that he himself does. The detail with which he is concerned is both populist and utterly fascinating. He tells us that Austen's characters who `talk rubbish about the weather' are not to be trusted; that `rum people' are likely to be found at the seafront. He indulges Austen-ites, by telling us how characters really looked compared to their presentation in the film versions; that Mr Knightly uses Emma's forename, but she never uses his; that there are fifty-five female names compared to twenty-six male in her fiction. You begin to understand how Austen's first readers would have interpreted the books, how, for example, they would have `seen' the characters' mourning clothes, and their accompanying servants. In this regard, John Mullan's analysis really does lift Austen's novels off the page enabling you to appreciate what it is that she actually does to make you like her so much.
And it is a joy that John Mullan is as delighted by Jane Austen and her novels as we are. He describes her use of the first person as 'a dazzling little reality effect.' He believes her to be, `too honest not to mention a character's looks' when they are first introduced. His exploration is all the better for the fact that he clearly simply likes reading her.
I like reading John Mullan because his writing is accessible. He is funny, 'If (the characters) have had sex, the author knows nothing about it,' deferential, 'In his brilliantly single minded analysis... Christopher Ricks....,' and provocative, `Are sisters not more intimate ... than any of Austen's lovers?' This an easy holiday read which is wholly intellectually satisfying.
on 28 December 2012
I have read all of Jane Austen's novels several times and I was surprised at how many new details this book revealed to me. John has selected twenty interesting topics for in-depth study, illustrating his points by reference to the novels themselves. I thought that the choice of topics was a little quirky at times, and I didn't necessarily agree with all of his conclusions, although I found all of them worth reading and will make the time to read several of the chapters again. I think I shall enjoy reading Jane Austen's novels even more next time.
on 3 July 2012
Decades of consideration of the Austen oeuvre have been distilled into this book. Each chapter covers a separate topic, such as monetary values, blushing, the comparative reputations of various seaside resorts and how proposals are made. Each argument is pinned down with copious references and quotations, but is always flowing and wears its erudition lightly. It made me realise that a rereading of her works is long overdue. Professor Mullan's pupils should consider themselves fortunate.
on 2 October 2012
I liked "what matters in Jane Austen", it had fun questions with detailed examples.
Though I would recommend that you have read all Jane Austen novels recently before reading this book: I started skipping certain passages because it was too long ago since I had read Emma or Mansfield Park and had forgotten how it went exaclty and who was who... So I'm going to reread those book and then reread those passages I skipped this time.
on 8 August 2012
This is an outstanding work of literary criticism which is compulsive reading for any lover of Jane Austen's novels. Each chapter illuminates her work through close analysis of an apparently superficial aspect such as the importance of the weather or the games people play or the right way to make a proposal of marriage. Each leads to a profound appreciation of Austen's themes and style. A must for students!
on 28 December 2012
Full of intriguing insights, but you do need more than a passing acquaintance with Austen's novels especially to grasp those essays that are more about the text (blunders, what characters say to each other) than social history (money, mourning, games). But for old Jane hands, this is a hugely diverting read, and - as it is broken into manageable chunks - very easy to dip in and out of, for reading in bed or for snatching a few minutes with a book.