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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty crucial puzzles solved, by John Mullan

I have loved the works of Jane Austen since I was very young, and find her novels endlessly re-readable. I have never really stopped to wonder why that is. What is it marks these novels out from other works of fiction, that means I can read any of the major six once a year or so, never find them tedious, and always find something new to please me and something old to remind me how much I love them? There is an answer of sorts in this book, mainly because, in an elegant and enjoyable way, its 20 essays make me stop and wonder why and then neatly present me with a plausible explanation.

John Mullan’s essays are based on 20 questions. He is not the first to bring out a book devoted to asking questions about the content of Jane Austen’s fiction: John Sutherland and Deirdre Le Faye in 2005 brought out So You Think You Know Jane Austen? A Literary QuizBook, which is much more geeky, has different levels and says jauntily dismissive things like ‘Under 5[/20]? Throw this book across the room and go back to watching TV.’ John Mullan is altogether gentler with his readers, but no less (in fact maybe in his detail even more) rigorous.

There was a taster in the Guardian (where John Mullan writes regular literary journalism,including the Ten of the Best series, and has therefore built up a following) in the form of a quiz: Ten Questions on Jane Austen. This has no marks awarded, no put-downs for those who’ve failed to understand the question. The questions are handily supplied with their answers (no need to ‘turn to page 74′) which give boiled down versions of some of his essays and illustrate his approach.

Mullan poses questions that enable him to pull together evidence from the novels to reveal the nature of Jane Austen’s genius. He contends that she is above all an innovative, even experimental novelist, and the first question he asks, informally, in his introduction is whether she was consciously aware of her originality and had the idea that she was doing something new that would outlive the work of her predecessors and contemporaries. He makes the very interesting point that her particular genius was developed in isolation from any influence other than her voracious reading. She was not part of any coterie, or a member of any formal or informal literary establishment. Her attempts to meet her contemporaries were few, and came to nothing.

Jane Austen worked out entirely for herself how she wanted to make her characters reveal themselves to the reader. She gives, and withholds, information about their emotions, their thought processes and their paths to action or inaction. She had limited tools of expression to narrate emotion and impulse, owing to the social conventions of her age, but she used them to the full and extended them in ways that readers of fiction are now familiar with (though they may not be able to put a name to them). He points out her limitations too, crediting her success to her innovations of style rather than content.

It might be a wrench to think of Austen, the conservative literary genius in a revolutionary age, as an experimental writer, but such she was. This has nothing to do with subject matter: indeed, provide some bare plot summaries of her novels, and they can be made to sound less daring than those of her contemporaries such as Maria Edgeworth or Mary Brunton. Her brilliance is in the style, not the content. Even when it comes to her characters, her success is a matter of formal daring rather than psychological insight. We hear their ways of thinking because of Austen’s tricks of dialogue; their peculiar views of the world are brought to life by her narrative skills.’

Now, this is one of the most succinct explanations I have yet found as to why those who have not read her novels, or tried them and not persisted, may not been affected by the qualities that make her admirers go back to her works again and again. (See below for a common misperception of the audacity of Jane Austen’s novels with regard to sex).

The essays were of variable degrees of interest to me, and so they will be to other readers. They all work by asking a question, then pulling together the evidence from the novels, and from what we know of Jane Austen’s own experience of society, mostly drawn from her surviving letters. As is often the case with a book with this structure, it is a little indigestible to read at a stretch, but an utter delight for Janeites, and I assert potentially persuasive for the unconvinced, to dip into. The questions can be straightforward (What Games Do Characters Play? What Do Characters Read?) or of interest in revealing the social context of the novels (How Much Money Is Enough? How Much Does Age Matter?). Some are based on the author’s insights, and are the sort of questions that switch on a light in the mind of the Janeite reader (Why Is It Risky to Go to the Seaside? Gosh, yes – P&P is crammed with young ladies who are seduced (or the attempt made) at South Coast resorts, isn’t it. And Edward Ferrars contracts his ill-advised secret engagement at Plymouth. And Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars run away to Dawlish after their elopement (what makes Dawlish so funny, I wonder?) And so on! Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels? Now you come to mention it, we only know what Captain Benwick actually says thanks to Richard McCabe on screen, not thanks to reading Persuasion.)

The hoariest, oldest question is of course Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? Answer: yes, just as much as you might expect, and between the sort of people you might predict. Really. Janeites roll their eyes and wonder whether we really have to go there. But yes – we do: while perfectly sensible (generally) literary journalists like John Crace can assert ‘Even if Jane Austen had been free to to write about sex, it doesn’t seem as if she would have had much enthusiasm for it. The pleasure in Pride and Prejudice is all in the social twists and turns, the will-they-won’t-they-of-course-they-will, with Elizabeth and Darcy’s wedding merely the pay-off’, we do. This was in an article with the title ‘Reader, I shagged him…’ (Unoriginal – Tanya Gold, probably among others, got there first.) Oh good heavens. Of course, Jane Austen could not write like E L James and get published. But what does ‘in want of a wife’ really mean? Having his dinner ordered and his linen taken care of? Wherefore Mr Bennet? Mr Palmer? What were Lydia and Wickham up to between running away from Brighton and being cajoled and bribed into matrimony? As for Mansfield Park – written off because the heroine Fanny Price is so very, very morally upright, the novel is in fact a seething mass of desire, vice and adultery, through which she glides, never putting a foot wrong. But virtually every other character among the younger generation does, or wants to. An intelligently argued corrective to this nonsense never comes amiss.

I think this book is a must for all Janeites, but as I’ve been reading it I have been thinking about its potential interest to a wider audience. My personal conclusion is that it is not necessarily going to make much sense to the uninitiated, or cut much ice with the unconvinced, so closely does it rely on a knowledge of the novels for the accumulated detail to make sense. But if anyone is even slightly intrigued to find out what all the fuss is about, it is worth getting hold of if only just for the introduction and the final essay How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen? I have just one real bind with the book – the mimsy, cutesy, almost unreadably bland cover art. How is that going to make it leap off the table in the bookshop of your choice and find itself in your handbag, going home with you? (I read the Kindle ed, however, where that stricture doesn’t really apply). But I highly recommend this book to anyone who has read any Jane Austen, whether as a devoted admirer, or someone who is intrigued by her reputation. This book is highly enjoyable, easy to read (literary criticism by stealth) and will certainly add greatly to the enjoyment of reading Jane Austen’s novels of genius again.

John Mullan: What matters in Jane Austen? Twenty crucial puzzles solved. London: Bloomsbury, 2012. 352 pp.
Also available in Kindle and EPub DRM editions. Paperback edition due January 2013

7 comments on “What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty crucial puzzles solved, by John Mullan

  1. kirstyjane
    November 15, 2012

    This is an absolutely wonderful review — so lucid and so very elegant — of what sounds like that rare bird, a really really good piece of accessible academic writing. I must read. But first I must re-read Austen.

  2. annebrooke
    November 15, 2012

    Fabulous, Hilary – I loved this. I am absolutely of the opinion (and always have been) that the marvellous Mansfield Park is a hotbed of sin, sex and shame that Fanny, because she is so gloriously innocent, just doesn’t see. It even has slavery, well gosh! You’re right about the cover of this book also – shockingly bad, which is a shame …

  3. Hilary
    November 15, 2012

    Thank you both – that’s very kind. I really enjoyed reading this and I hope it showed. It is aimed at the thoughtful reader, Comrade K, very accessible but with academic rigour in the assembly of examples and evidence. I think it is excellent that the general reader is treated with respect. But then, we Janeites – we have a reputation!

  4. Kate
    November 16, 2012

    Well, that’s another one for the work reading list, though i might wait till after Christmas and get the cheaper version. I’ve often been dubious about dumbing-down-the-classics guides, I’ve never enjoyed John Sutherland’s works in that line, they seemd patronising and show-offy. But I like Mullan (though I can’t abide his interviewing voice on R4), so this one sounds better than others I’ve tried.

  5. Hilary
    November 16, 2012

    Kate, what I enjoyed about this in comparison to Sutherland is that Mullan is taking the watch apart to see how it works, rather than the Sutherland approach of plugging it into a diagnostic machine to see what the author left out. (Not sure I’ll ever enjoy Rebecca as much now I know how big the plot hole is.)

  6. Pingback: When all else fails, I turn to Jane Austen! « Books in the Burbs

  7. Jackie
    November 22, 2012

    This was an impressive review, not just of the particular book, but how it fits in with the larger picture of Austen scholarship. I think you as a Janeite, obviously got more out of it than the average reader. Yet, like your review, may lead to new insight into Ms. Austen’s books.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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