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.