- Hardcover: 352 pages
- Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; 1 edition (January 29, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1620400413
- ISBN-13: 978-1620400418
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 66 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #255,084 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved Hardcover – January 29, 2013
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Virginia Woolf once remarked that of all great writers Jane Austen was the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness. If only she'd had Mullan's delightful, though repetitive, book at hand, perhaps Woolf would have discovered the reasons that Austen remains among the greatest, yet most enigmatic, of English authors. Austen expert Mullan (How Novels Work), an English professor at University College London, cleverly captures the novelist's brilliance by answering a set of 20 questions—ranging from unpromising ones such as How much does age matter? and Why is the weather important? to more seductive ones such as Do sisters sleep together? and Is there any sex in Jane Austen? —that uncover the details that give Austen's novels their depth and lasting appeal. Through his answers, Mullan demonstrates that Austen introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousness of her characters, and perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters that rendered them utterly singular. In one amusing chapter, he provides many examples of the subtle ways that Austen requires the reader to think about sex. Mullan's humorous guidebook encourages first-time Austen readers to pick up her novels and lovers of Austen to re-read for new details. Agent: Derek Johns, AP Watt. (Jan.)
Nearly 200 years after her death, Jane Austen continues to inspire a publishing boomlet. Books in the nonfiction column range from the lightweight to the academic. This entry from the author of How Novels Work (2006)is just right. Mullan poses 20 questions related to strategies Austen employs to reveal character or advance plot. Chapters examine, for example, How Much Does Age Matter?, Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?, and Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders? Some chapters deal with matters related to the characters’ milieu, such as the games they play and the books they read. Mullan isn’t concerned with explaining Regency-era customs, however, except to make clear to the modern reader what would have been apparent to a reader in Austen’s time. The focus is always on showing how Austen puts various devices to work in the service of a story’s arc or a character’s psychology. Mullan’s close reading will provide serious fans with plenty of new insights for the next time they pick up one of Austen’s books. --Mary Ellen Quinn
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He approaches the business episodically, through a series of inquiries that range from trivial matters such as “Do Sisters Sleep Together?” to subtler points of style such as “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?” Each of his leading questions opens a little window on her work, examining issues of her cultural context or her literary technique. The essays embrace all the published novels, with (sadly) only glancing mentions of the juvenilia and unfinished works. (I wish people paid more attention to *The Watsons*!)
Along the way, he illuminates aspects of her world of manners such as the fine points of naming—why it’s rude for Mrs. Elton to call Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to be sure, but also what Elizabeth Bennet is telling us about herself when she stops saying “Mr. Darcy” and starts referring to him as “Darcy.” (Speaking of the mega-couple, Mullan showed me a lot about their mutual attraction that I had overlooked during a gazillion rereadings of *Pride and Prejudice.*) What other critic would have considered an examination of how Jane Austen uses weather? Or what cues we should pick up from mentions of visits to the seaside?
Mullan has a keen eye for the telling detail, and a clear voice for explaining just how and what it’s telling. His analysis of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s meeting at Worthing is especially illuminating; and the conclusions he draws from the characters who are not given direct dialogue in the novels goes far beyond the usual platitudes. (*Emma* shows particular skill in the way it uses people speaking and not speaking: Mr. Perry drives the plot without ever saying a word, and Miss Bates reveals the truth without saying anything that we or the characters attend to.)
The back half of the book takes Mullan’s game up a notch when he brings his focus to bear on Jane Austen’s writerly techniques, especially in the chapters “Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders?” and “How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen?” (“What Makes Characters Blush?” is also surprisingly illuminating.) He has a gift for discovering a telling keyword or concept and following its thread throughout a novel, showing us how it reveals Austen’s thought processes.
Many of us have had the experience of seeing something new each time we reread a Jane Austen novel. After decades of that experience, I thought I was reaching a point of diminishing returns—till John Mullan showed me how much I was unable to see without his help.
My favorite chapter was probably the one about card games. I'll confess that when Austen talks about the games her characters play during parties or afternoon gatherings, my eyes glaze over those sections. The examination of pairings and numbers for those games, as well as expectations regarding gambling, was both historically interesting and enlightening for certain portions of the books.
Despite the potential for academic murkiness, Mullan keeps the text moving quickly. It was quite fun to read and I also appreciated the brief, relevant mentions of the film adaptations.
[note: I received an ARC from Netgalley.]
First, you really do have to know your Austen, but I assume anyone considering this book falls into that category. The author talks about all of Austen's novels, plus an unfinished one that I've never read. You might not follow all of what he discusses if, for example, you aren't clear on all the plots and characters (I don't remember who anyone was in Northanger Abbey, for instance, as I've only read it once a long time ago).
Second, yes, he gets a bit detailed on things like who blushes. But the whole point is that these things meant something in Austen's day, and that we're unlikely to pick up on lots of these little details now. I especially appreciated the chapter on money, as I've always wondered about the relative importance of many of the characters' comments on finances.
Third, the book ends very abruptly. That may seem like a picky detail, but I was reading along on my e-reader and it just suddenly ended. No conclusion, no wrapping up, nothing. It was a somewhat disappointing way to finish it up.
If I could give a rating between four and five starts, I would. It wasn't quite 5-star-worthy, but I did find it very interesting and informative.