Just Finished Reading: What Matters in Jane Austen? – Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan (FP: 2012)
Yes, yet another book I picked up in the 3 for 2 (actually buy 1 get one half price) deal in my local Waterstone’s book shop. But honestly, how could I not buy this? After all I am a huge Austen fan and have red four out of her six novels so far. I still wonder what she could have produced as she matured rather than being cut down at a ridiculous age. But anyway, I digress as always.
Here, renowned book critic and expert on all things Austen looks at her works and asks 20 apparently simple questions about her work. Each question teases out various aspects of her work and the author uses all six books plus her unpublished last novel and personal letters to friends and family, as well as reflections on the age which brought her works to prominence, to both deepen and widen the discussion and to discover exactly what Austen meant in her work. Some of his speculation and analysis came as a surprise – often of delight – as he teased out hidden meanings, in jokes, hidden critique of social convention and the subversion of form most of which had initially (on my first reading of her books to date) gone completely over my head. Not surprisingly I have been tempted to re-read P&P, Persuasion and Emma again so I can ‘see’ for myself his loving analysis of the text. Funnily I couldn’t help thinking that my avoiding of much Lit Crit to date and my historic avoidance of English Lit at school (I just wanted to read books rather than have them ruined by too much explanation) was misguided at least. The author brought out themes and ideas that had not crossed my mind – until now that is! I think that my reading of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park will be quite a different process than her previous 4. I fully expect that, after reading this book, I shall be reading Austen with enhanced pleasure rather than reduced please through over-analysis – at least I do hope so!
But the questions, what are they? How much does age matter? [Lots], Do Sisters Sleep Together? [a cheeky one, this one with some interesting asides on the lesbian question…..], What Do Characters Call Each Other? [an interesting discussion on protocol and the importance of names in showing relationships – both existing and would-be], How Do Jane Austen’s Characters Look? [Starting with the fact that both Gwyneth Paltrow and Keira Knightley where seriously miscast as the heroines of two recent film adaptations the author discusses just how little we know about Austen’s characters looks], Who Dies in the Course of Her Novels? [just two people apparently…. This was one of my favourite chapters in this book – despite its rather morbid subject – with a fascinating discussion of mortality in Jane Austen’s real world and how it translated into her works], Why Is It Risky to Go to the Seaside? [deeply humorous here as the debate rages between the health giving aspects and potential moral degeneration associated with the sea], Why Is the Weather Important? [one word – randomness], So We Ever See the Lower Classes? [apparently much more than I thought: though I’m not totally convinced by his argument], Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels? [several, all for interesting reasons], What Games Do Characters Play? [my second favourite chapter as it explains why certain games are played in her books and what they signified. Seemingly a game of cards is not just a game of cards], Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? [surprisingly – yes.], What Do Chracters Say When the Heroine Is Not There? [a fascinating chapter which gets to the heart of Austen’s sometimes deeply subversive style], How Much Money Is Enough? [a central theme in Austen most especially to women], Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders? [let me count the ways…. A gem of a chapter this one], What Do Characters Read? [funny this – especially when fictional characters read fiction in books including some that Austen herself had read], Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses? [illness, both real and imagined, pervades much of Austen’s work which is understandable when you consider just how dangerous being ill really was then], What Makes Characters Blush? [a delightful chapter drawing on Austen revealing her characters inner emotions – often open to misinterpretation by others], What Are the Right and Wrong Ways to Propose Marriage? [another surprising chapter with answers I certainly did not expect], When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader? [well, this came as a bit of a shock as I hadn’t realised she did so much – and so well so as not to disturb the narrative] and finally How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen? [very, it would seem!]
If you’re an Austen fan or are someone who wonders what all the fuss is about then this is most definitely the book for you. I for one will be looking at her work in a different light from now on and even might break my unofficial rule of never re-reading a book (through lack of time). Maybe P&P could do with a revisit armed with my new insights? It’s a thought…..