What Matters in Jane Austen?

While I consider myself a Jane Austen fan, I know I’m not a real Janeite. There are several of her books I’ve read only once, I don’t belong to any Austen societies or attend conferences, I don’t participate in online forums, and (perhaps this betrays me most of all) I would be hopeless at the popular literary quizzes that happen at most Austen-related gatherings. How old is Mr. Collins? Who is the only woman in the novels to call her husband by his Christian name? What is the weather like when Mr. Darcy proposes? Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? I have no idea.

But John Mullan does. In his book, What Matters in Jane Austen? he proposes that these kinds of questions may be minutia, but minutia is of real significance to Austen. She herself said that her writing was a “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” Mullan argues that this, along with her groundbreaking narrative techniques, means that every word counts, and re-reading rewards the reader by allowing her to solve crucial puzzles that may elude a first, less detailed inspection.

He addresses twenty different issues in the book. Each has its own chapter, and Mullan is thorough and entertaining, finding examples in all of Austen’s novels (often including Sanditon and Lady Susan) of issues like blushing, illness, sex, the importance of characters’ ages, the reliance of plots on blundering, and the right and wrong ways to propose.

Perhaps my favorite chapter was about which important characters never speak in the novels. Persuasion is my favorite of Austen’s novels, and I’ve read it at least three times, but I actually never realized that Captain Benwick has no quoted speech in the entire novel. He’s present for many scenes, and the reader has the impression that he talks a great deal — he has several lengthy conversations with Anne, and there are some occasions on which others report speech of his — but as far as quoted dialogue goes, Austen has silenced him. Mullan points out that this redirection of his speech makes him less reliable, and sets us up for his easy change of heart later in the novel. Austen uses this same trick of silencing, or nearly silencing, characters in several other books as well: Robert Martin and Mr. Perry the apothecary in Emma are both often spoken of but wholly silent themselves, and the dedicated talker Mrs. Philips in Pride and Prejudice apparently speaks often and loudly but actually has nothing to say. Reading this chapter, I felt completely taken aback. Jane Austen had pulled one entirely over on me. What a pleasure to see a master hand revealed!

This book was tremendous fun to read. Mullan is dealing with small details — games, books, why it’s risky to go to the seaside — and showing why, in experimental hands like Austen’s, nothing is really small. It made me want to go back and read all the novels all over again, and see for myself.

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29 Responses to What Matters in Jane Austen?

  1. I would definitely fail all of those literary type quizzes too! In fact, I probably shouldn’t even be allowed to call myself a fan as I’ve only read three of her novels so far – but I’ve loved them.
    I’ll save this book for when I’ve read the other three :)

    • Jenny says:

      Actually, usually I don’t think it matters, but in this case I might well save the book until you’ve read all Austen’s novels. There might be spoilers! But after that, I do think this would contribute to your enjoyment of them.

  2. I think this sounds so fun! Since I first heard about it, the seaside chapter is the one I have been most excited to read but I am sure I will find the entire book entertaining, though I could easily see it leading to a time-consuming reread of all the novels…

    • Jenny says:

      That’s just it! I think I want to read all of them again now, but especially the ones I have only read once: Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park. I think I was missing something!

  3. Lisa says:

    I consider myself a Janeite, but these days I read more about Jane Austen than by Jane Austen – and this is exactly the kind of book I like, one that makes me see the novels in new & unexpected lights.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s exactly what it did for me. I think of myself as someone who’s fairly good at seeing themes and motifs and techniques, but this book was great at pointing out small details that added up to something important. I was afraid it really would be annoying minutia, but it wasn’t at all.

  4. vanbraman says:

    I will have to add this to my reading list.

  5. I don’t know much about the world of Jane Austen, though I’ve read most of her novels. This sounds like the perfect book to learn more about her characters and the society they inhabited – I must find a copy!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I didn’t mention much about that in the review, but Mullan does bring in a lot of the history to show what readers at the time might have noticed that we miss, such as clues about income and money, sex, etc. It was really well done.

  6. Blue Skies says:

    Great timing on this post! Shared it with our book group appropriately titled the “Becoming Jane Austen Book Club”. We are just starting our 2nd read through of Jane’s novels. Our meeting tomorrow–Sense and Sensibility. When we formed our group back in 2007–most of us had only seen the films, but never read the books. I had brought a Jane Austen quiz to that initial group meeting…and even with teams we could not answer hardly questions! (And it was multiple choice!). Now we are “Becoming Jane Austen Experts”……LOL! Well, not really….but our group meetings with our dress up antics and tea parties…..I’m sure Jane and Cassandra would have fit right in! :)

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

  8. Jenny says:

    Interesting! I’m a Jane Austen dilettante — Emma and P&P are the only ones of her books that I’ve read more than once — but I do think she’s a wonderful writer. I love the paragraph about silencing characters; I’d never noticed that either, but I’ll be on the lookout for it next time I read one of her books.

    • Jenny says:

      I wouldn’t call you a dilettante! I’ve only read P&P, Persuasion, and S&S more than once. But now I’ve got the urge, I might re-tackle some of the others. That silencing thing was not the only bit that was cool.

  9. What a dirty trick – this fellow seems to have slipped actual criticism into a pop Jane Austen book. A kind of synonym for “minutia” is “close reading.”

    • Jenny says:

      Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, and some of it depends on the author. The importance of the specific items of furniture in a room, say, depends, some, on whether you’re Zola or Heyer. But I will agree that I was pleasantly surprised (that was the “taken aback” part) to find the actual criticism.

  10. Jeanne says:

    Yeah, what Tom says–except that the New Critics concentrated mainly on poems, and this seems an excellent use of their lens.

    • Jenny says:

      I thought so. He writes in an unassuming style, fit for the kind of pop book he’s writing, but there’s an awful lot of substance to it. Very enjoyable.

  11. Alex says:

    This sounds like something I’d really enjoy. Also, it seems full of good arguments for people I meet who tend to put Austen in the “fluffy romance” corner and shun her without actually reading anything by her.

    • Jenny says:

      I would be shocked that anyone would think Austen — a legitimate classic author taught in university curricula — was a fluffy romance author, except that my own husband read two of her novels and dismissed her as “not having universal concerns.” He thought she only wrote about rich women trying to get married and didn’t think that was important or worth reading. Ack! He will try again, I hope!

    • But isn’t your husband’s standard of universality the Mahabharata and Homer and stuff like that – culture heroes, founders of religions? By that standard, Austen may not be universal. Although it would be interesting to check back in a couple hundred years – the cult of Austen has been growing at a steady rate.

  12. Pingback: Review: Lady Susan « Jennifer Adventures

  13. habiba says:

    I am an Austen fan, but would really fail those small specific literary quizzes at Austen gatherings. I agree with one of the commenters above that Jane Austen was concerned about the high society but then again that was her environment and speaks to classism in the English society at the time. habibasbookshelf.com

  14. rebeccareid says:

    I am currently reading this book too! I love it! I too am not a “Janeite” but I love how his discussion shows us that the minutae really does matter. Fascinating stuff.

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