Author: John Mullan
Which important Austen characters never speak? Is there any sex in Austen? What do the characters call one another, and why? What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage? In What Matters in Jane Austen?, John Mullan shows that we can best appreciate Austen’s brilliance by looking at the intriguing quirks and intricacies of her fiction. Asking and answering some very specific questions about what goes on in her novels, he reveals the inner workings of their greatness. In twenty short chapters, each of which explores a question prompted by Austens novels, Mullan illuminates the themes that matter most in her beloved fiction. Readers will discover when Austen’s characters had their meals and what shops they went to; how vicars got good livings; and how wealth was inherited. What Matters in Jane Austen? illuminates the rituals and conventions of her fictional world in order to reveal her technical virtuosity and daring as a novelist. It uses telling passages from Austen’s letters and details from her own life to explain episodes in her novels: readers will find out, for example, what novels she read, how much money she had to live on, and what she saw at the theater.
Written with flair and based on a lifetime’s study, What Matters in Jane Austen? will allow readers to appreciate Jane Austen’s work in greater depth than ever before. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: As Virginia Woolf famously said, it is harder to spot Jane Austen in a ‘moment of greatness,’ in a moment that defines her and her work as part of the Great Books, then all other of the Great Writers. In this book, Mullan strives to identify these ‘moments of greatness’ through looking at aspects of her work that have not been fully studied; such as the uses of games and blushing employed in her novel.
Unfortunately for me this book did not deliver on its premise. While the topics he discusses are interesting- I particularly liked the chapters on the use of weather in Austen’s work and the section on characters who don’t actually speak in her books- none of them, in my opinion, really showed Austen in a ‘moment of greatness.’ When the author comes closest to proving how great a writer Austen is in the introduction and in the last chapter of the book- “How Experimental was Austen as a Novelist?”- in my mind the book is, shall I say, a failure?
So while I learned a lot, and there are some interesting facts to be found, I would not recommend this book if you are wanting to know the extent of Austen’s genius and the lasting impact of her work. If, however, you have read her work and want a new way looking at, and maybe even appreciating, them, this book might be worth looking into.