February 09, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

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 Jane 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 Jane 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 Jane Austen? will appeal to all those who love and enjoy Jane Austen's work. (Source: Goodreads)

My Thoughts
I received this book as a birthday present from a very good friend of mine, who happens to be a fellow Janeite. The book had received very good reviews from critics and readers alike and the summary on the dust jacket sounded very promising; hence, I was really looking forward to reading it. In addition, I had read earlier another book by John Mullan (Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century) that I liked. So, I truly wanted to like this book, but unfortunately it just wasn’t meant to be.

My first problem with What Matters in Jane Austen? is that there seems to be a confusion as to which audience John Mullan has targeted at with his book: Jane Austen scholars, Janeites, or undergraduate students? The cover and the summary seem to suggest that readers belonging to any of these three “clubs” will find something in this book, but, in my opinion, John Mullan’s work does not satisfy the members of the first two.

I am neither a Jane Austen expert nor a literary theorist. However, for my doctoral thesis in the field of political philosophy, I had conducted extensive research into the moral thought of Jane Austen; hence, I read many a secondary literature on Jane Austen’s oeuvres. Comparing John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen?, for example, with Richard Jenkyns’ A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen it might be asserted that Mullan’s analysis doesn’t provide unique or fascinating insights into Jane Austen’s thought. To me it seems that any thorough reader or researcher will nod in agreement while reading about Mullan’s findings, but there won’t be an aha! effect. In other words, Jane Austen experts will find this book rather unsatisfactory.

The following part of the review may contain SPOILERS; so, do not read on, unless you want to!

For example, chapter 11 is on sexual relationships in Austen’s novels and, as sex is not necessarily a topic that springs to my mind while reading Jane Austen, I was expecting to learn about some sexual activities that might have escaped my attention. But, for me it was not new information that Lydia Bennet had sex before her marriage or that Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to Mr Collins wasn’t just platonic. (How would they have otherwise produced a child?) And, that Frank Churchill was sexually attracted to Jane Fairfax, even if he claimed the opposite, was rather obvious to me.

Chapter 15 on the books that Jane Austen’s characters read was especially disappointing in this regard. I was very keen on reading this chapter, because I hoped to receive some book recommendations. I hoped to discover classic books that I haven’t heard of yet. But, I think, even recent fans of Jane know that Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho is a favourite book with Catherine Morland. Likewise, I believe, that every Janeite knows that Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield and Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest are two books particularly mentioned in Emma. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that for Jane Austen, “[l]ack of reading in a man is a sure sign of worthlessness” (p. 231).

Also, as another reviewer has mentioned, it may seem unnecessary to write a whole chapter on blushing. For me this chapter (chapter 17) was a very tiresome reading, because, once again, I got the impression that I read banalities. Is it really a new and original idea that Jane Austen’s characters blush not only for themselves (because they are shy or whatever) but also for other people (because those people behave improperly)? Maybe it’s just me, but I’d somehow known that already.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that there was nothing in this book that could be praised. On the contrary, I liked to read about card games that the characters play (chapter 10) and about the risks of going to the seaside (chapter 6). I liked that Mullan used Jane Austen’s letters to substantiate his findings. Moreover, I truly liked Mullan’s writing style. In contrast to many other non-fictions, which I have been unlucky to read, this book is an easy reading despite the analytical approach. Mullan is not highly theoretical and avoids using academic jargon; hence, even laymen will understand what he wants to say.

In sum, I would recommend this book to undergraduate students of English literature for whom Jane Austen’s novels are compulsory reading and who have to analyse her works, her writing style, or the techniques she uses from a literary point of view. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to Janeites who want to learn fun facts; they should rather read annotated versions of Austen’s oeuvre. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend this book to Jane Austen experts, as it might not live up to their expectations. Also, it is very unlikely that I will ever re-read John Mullan’s book; hence, I am giving What Matters in Jane Austen? three cherries only.

Title: What Matters in Jane Austen?
Author: John Mullan
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Release Date: 2012
Format: Hardcover
Length: 352 Pages
ISBN: 978-1408820117
Language: English
Source: Gift

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