Book review: What matters in Jane Austen?

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LITERARY critics no longer stay decently out of sight on campus, harmlessly supervising theses and checking the footnotes to a scholarly article; they go abroad in shirtsleeves, chatting.

Some, like Professor John Mullan, do it more successfully than others: Mullan is buoyantly enthusiastic about his discipline, articulate and personable. Don’t worry, he reassures us: I can tell you a lot of very interesting things about English literature and yet never be stuffy.

Jane Austen is the perfect subject for his brand of informed informality, the best-loved, most easily referenced author in the canon. Her millions of fans love her so much that they feel little urgency to read her books, and the ones who do know the books well (the audience for Mullan’s friendly musings) are guaranteed to go all warm and fuzzy just hearing the words Mrs Elton, Darcy, Gowlands or Bath. Chatting about Austen is pleasurable and easy – she is the prize gobstopper of English literature, to be sucked on dreamily and passed around.

So this is a lovely book for Janeites, covering all sorts of questions about the novels that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to a reader before but, once asked, prove intriguing and instructive. Such as Which Important Characters Never Speak? What Games do Characters play? and How Much Money is Enough?

Of course these aren’t “crucial puzzles” as the subtitle claims, and Mullan is not primarily concerned with finding “solutions”. Benign and intelligent speculation is the order of the day, and the result somewhere between attending a lecture and doing a sudoku. What are the servants thinking about Mrs Bennet or Sir Walter Elliot? What sort of sexual history do men like Colonel Brandon and Darcy and Captain Wentworth have? (Unlike the heroines and their creator, they are clearly not virgins.) What is it about coastal resorts, and the sea itself, that affects Austen’s characters so profoundly?

Mullan has trawled through the works, noting glances and blushes, counting recurrent words, quantifying vocatives. It’s what he calls “text-searching”, a technique for which he makes large claims in the only tedious chapter, What do the Characters Call Each Other?: “Few readers will be conscious that the two women [Eleanor and Catherine in Northanger Abbey] are now naming each other in a new way. The novels employ nuances like this that shape any sensitive reader’s understanding but that only text-searching can reveal.”

Such misplaced confidence aside, there is plenty to enjoy in his parade of Austen micro-knowledge. The chapters on servants, on looks and on Austen’s novelty are all splendid, and I’ll never be able to not notice the weather in the novels again – Mullan has convinced me that it’s everywhere, and highly significant.

From a butler’s half-smile to an ambiguous sigh, he shows how important and coherent detail is in Jane Austen, not just in novels such as Emma, with a “detective” element, but in all of them, building up a sense of exactly where the characters stand in relation to each other and in the flow of the story. It makes one appreciate Austen’s artfulness all the more, for what seems like naturalness and simplicity in her works was the result of ferocious control and endless revising.

What Mullan doesn’t point out is that Austen was writing for 20 years before she was published – she was used to an ideal audience, not a real one, which is perhaps why we tend to feel flattered by her. She makes the reader feel privy to her jokes, and equal to her intelligence. Did Austen herself know how good she was? asks Mullan. I should say so.

• John Mullan will be at the Edinburgh book festival on 16 August.

What Matters in Jane Austen?

by John Mullan

Bloomsbury, 352pp, £14.99