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A treat I just have to share…(and yes, it has been a long time, I do apologise!)..this morning Melvyn Bragg’s long running radio series, In Our Time, devoted the whole of a programme to talking about Emma, Jane Austen’s most brilliant novel ( in my humble opinion) and, of course, it entirely appropriate to do so as it is 200 years since the novel was first published.
The quests were distinguished Jane Austen scholars all: Professor John Mullan, Professor Janet Todd and Professor Emma Clery. The discussion was lively and I think you will all enjoy it even if you don’t necessarily agree with some of the statements made!
I have loved this series for years. The guests are always well informed on the given topicand Lord Bragg always plays a slightly curmudgeonly “Everyman” role: he dismissed talk of Jane Austen’s brothers pretty swiftly today ( bravo!).
Here is the link to the programme…..I think it can be heard outside the UK ( at least I hope so.) And here is a link to the accompanying quiz on Emma again on the BBC Radio 4 page. (Yes, 10/10 was my score but it is my favourite of all her novels!) I hope you enjoy it!
This week’s edition of BBC2’s The Culture Show, presented by the delicious Andrew Graham-Dixon, has a wonderful, small section( just over 5 minutes long) presented by Professor John. Filmed on location at Chawton House on a very snowy day, he talks about Pride and Prejudice and the different adaptations that have been made of the novel – all nine of them- and it is a thoughtful, sensible essay, pointing out that the adaptations, in the main, reflect the times in which they were made.
The whole episode of The Culture Show is available to watch via the BBC iPlayer for the next seven days (and sadly this will only be available to this of you in the UK) here, but… hurrah and huzzah… the BBC has provided a clip of the entire essay on Pride and Prejudice from the programme which can be accessed by everyone ( or so I assume) via this link on their website here , Our Love Affair with Pride and Prejudice. I do hope you will watch it and enjoy it.
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.
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.
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.
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.