The Paperback Edition of "What Matters in Jane Austen" by John Mullan

The Paperback Edition of “What Matters in Jane Austen” by John Mullen

You may recall that this was one of my favourite books published last year. I gave it what was for me, a rather gushing review, but on reflection, and having re-read it over the past few days, I find my original thoughts still hold.  Reading it is akin to having a wonderful, thought-provoking conversation with a knowledgeable, Janeite friend.

It is not meant for those of you with a passing interest in Jane Austen and her novels, but, for once, this book panders to the obsessive Austen reader and our desire to examine, in minute detail, every aspect of her great books. My favourite chapter is still the last, How Experimental A Novelist is Jane Austen? Let me quote Professor Mullen to give you a taste of just  how wonderfully he explains how great and innovative a writer Jane Austen was, and yet how difficult it is, without constantly being on the watch, to “catch her in the act of greatness”. For example, we are now used to her presenting us with sprightly, opinionated, stubborn and sometimes shy heroines. But we forget just how innovative she was in rejecting “pictures of perfection”. John Mullan describes how she deliberately spurned the conventional literary device of a providing her readers with a heroine who was practically perfect in every way, and instead, of the first time, gave us realistic, fault-ridden heroines who are almost heroines in spite of themselves:

Austen’s interest in her heroines’ faults and errors was in itself something extraordinary in fiction. Yet the novelty went beyond this. She also developed techniques for showing the contradictoriness or even obscurity of her protagonist’s motivations…Austen gave her readers an entirely new sense of a person’s inner life, but throughout new kinds of narrative rather than new insights into human nature..The manning of the attraction between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy for instance is a triumph of technique as much as of psychological subtlety. Elizabeth Bennet is an unprecedented creation not just because of her wit and “archness” but because Austen is able to give us a sense of her self-ignorance...

If only all books of literary criticism were written like this. A vain hope…

But we are the lucky ones for we can enjoy this book, and can do it now by the expenditure of only a few of our hard-gotten gains. I really do urge you to buy this book. You will not regret it for one moment.