Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles SolvedWhat Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Format: Hardback
Original Publication Date: 2012
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Literary
Series: No

This enjoyable book by John Mullan is a collection of analytical essays, combing through Jane Austen’s books to answer various targeted questions. Each essay is roughly 15-20 pages long which took me, a relatively slow reader, about 20 minutes to read. The questions he asks of Austen’s books are aimed at revealing levels of detail and pattern that would likely have passed by the average reader. For example some of my favorite essays were:

Chapter 3: What do the Characters Call Each Other?
Chapter 9: Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?
Chapter 13: How Much Money is Enough?
Chapter 19: When does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?
Chapter 20: How Experimental a Novelist was Jane Austen?

Mullan takes each question and points out the occurrences and significance in each of the novels. In some cases this means pointing out some things that would have been obvious to her contemporary readers like the discussion of money but are lost on the modern reader. Sometimes he is pointing out patterns and speculating about what Austen was inferring. He also sprinkles in some snippets from Austen’s life and letters to illustrate how her actual experiences support the interpretations presented. I’ll admit that there were a few instances I felt he might be attributing meaning to the meaningless but overwhelmingly this was a book that enriched my own appreciation of her books and made me want to re-read all of them.

I particularly enjoyed the final essay on Austen being an experimental writer. I feel like she is often dismissed as the chick lit of her day and that there is nothing challenging about her work. The usual defense against this is to point to her wit which was extraordinary and her insightful observation and portrayal of Regency era society. Mullan points out that she also used some techniques that were not common in novels of the day. For example her heroines are rarely perfect (with possibly the exception of Fanny Price), but are still likeable despite myriad flaws and misjudgments. She also, particularly in Emma, somewhat pioneered the idea of portraying as reality the worldview of her protagonist – we the reader believe the world to be ordered as the protagonist sees it even when she is quite wrong in her view. He points out that in Persuasion, the reader is not just in Anne’s head we are almost in her body at times, experiencing only what she physically experiences. He indicates that at the time this approach was unusual and distinctly Austen’s own style.

My biggest complaint is that I think I would have enjoyed this book most if I had been able to dip into it on a leisurely basis whenever I was craving a little jolt of Austen. Unfortunately, I got it from the library where there were many other holds so I had to rush through rather than savor.

Overall it was a pleasure.

So have you ever noticed some details in Austen's novels that you thought particularly brilliant? Do you ever dream of finding a man who has $10,000 a year?

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