Back from my Diamond Jubilee jaunts, some to be shared with you later,  I thought you might appreciate a review of a book published only last week by Bloomsbury, written by Professor John Mullan of University College London.

The cover of John Mullan’s new book, “What Matters in Jane Austen”

This is a splendid book. I enjoyed it from cover to cover and  devoured it, in yes, a very greedy fashion. I think you might do so too.

Professor Mullan is an expert on 18th century fiction, and some of you may have been lucky enough to hear him talk about Jane Austen at JASNA conferences. He has clearly  written this book for us. By “us’ I mean  those who  read and re-read Jane Austen, “All Six Every Year”, that old mantra. For yes, it may sound like a truism, but it is the case that something new is to be found on every reading of her works. This book acknowledges that fact and relishes in it. So, if you are new to Jane Austen or have only  a passing knowledge of the plots of only one or two of her works, then this book is not for you. Well, not yet.  It is for the reader who  loves The Six (and the fragments –The Watsons and Sanditon) with a passion, and loves to re-read them, closely.

As Professor Mullan states in his introduction:

This book was written on the firm belief that Austen rewards minute attention, that hardly anything in her novels is casual or accidental. Discussing “Pride and Prejudice” in a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen adapted a couple of lines from Scott’s narrative poem, “Marmion”:”I do not write for such dull Elves/As have not a great del of ingenuity themselves”  That ingenuity is the subject of this book, and worth examining because Austen hoped ( or is it expected?) that her reader would share it.The self-indulgent purpose of the book has been to convey my own pleasure in reading Jane Austen. Its less selfish aim is simply to sharpen the pleasure of other readers of her novels.

The book is organised into twenty chapters, all based around questions inspired by the texts and the social history points in her books, which if ignored , leave the reader with a diminished experience of Austen’s technique. Professor Mullan helps the dedicated reader “de-code” Jane Austen’s subtle style, for example by concentrating on questions that most readers must have considered while reading her: for example, he examines the games Austen’s characters play, and what it reveals about them, why it is “risky” to go to the seaside in her novels, and what the characters call each other and , more importantly, why.

John Mullan

My favourite chapter was “How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?”, the last chapter in the book. I loved the manner in which Professor Mullan forensically examined Austen’s use of particular words and acknowledged her genius, which he is convinced she acknowledged to herself too. As he writes:

She did things with characterisation, with dialogue, with English sentences, that had never been done before. Is it possible that she had no particular idea of how singular her novels were? Or did she have some hunch that her fiction was unlike that of any of her contemporaries, and would duly outlive her rivals?

John Mullan shares our view that Jane Austen was extraordinary. Virtually self-educated, she was a genius. Unparallelled. Her brilliance has been, for some time, hidden behind a Victorian veil of respectability and a desire by her immediate descendants  ” not to frighten the horses”. But, importantly, he points out that her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she worked alone, without the criticism, support  and company of fellow authors:

…the widespread resistance to the image of a modest lady has been allowed to obscure an important truth: she as in some ways the most surprising genius of English Literature. She lived in an age distinguished by its literary intimacies and exchanges…Jane Austen knew not a single notable author, even distantly. Her most renowned female predecessor, Fanny Burney, had conversed with men and women of lettres and had been befriended by Samuel Johnson, no less. Her best-known female contemporary, Maria Edgeworth, may have lived in seclusion in Ireland, but when she did come to London she consorted with Jeremy Bentham and Walter Scott….Not Austen.

There are some nitpicking, teeny-tiny errors- for example,  Jane Austen did indeed visit Brighton in 1805 when en route to Worthing with her family and some of her works were known, but admittedly not universally liked, by Maria Edgeworth-but they are negligible and do not detract in any way from the great amount of enjoyment to be gained by reading every chapter. I admired the way Professor Mullan manages to explain her technical genius in a non-threatening non-academic way.(Can you tell that I’ve been reading too many dry, academic books recently?*sigh*).

I loved his approach to her works, for I too have always believed that a close examination of her texts replays the reader in many ways, and is essential for trying to understand her intent. I say “trying” for in many respects, she is still elusive. But I still suspect she may have liked not being able to be caught in the act of greatness. This book confirms that it is, as ever, fun to try…

To conclude, this is thoroughly a readable, enjoyable book, written by a noted academic( though not in an academic style!). Buy it. Do.