What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 320 pages
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What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullan is a detailed look at 12 stylistic techniques and concerns in Jane Austen’s numerous works, including the unfinished The Watsons and Sanditon.  The twelve puzzles Mullan explores range from the importance of age in her books, what characters call one another, and what games characters play to why her plots rely on blunders, what her characters read, and how experimental a novelist she was.  There are moments in the book where Mullan’s examinations become bogged down and overly verbose, but he clearly enjoys picking apart the most innocuous moments in Austen’s novels to support his theories.  Most of the theories he offers and backs up with source material from Austen’s books and letters to family members also are discussed by other scholars, whom he cites.  For aspiring writers, Mullan’s book can be used as a guide for creating those unique moments and nuances in a novel, emulating Austen but adapting it for modern sensibilities.  Although it is not a how-to guide for writers, it does offer some insight into elements of the craft.

“Admission to a bedroom is a rare privilege, for the reader as well as for a character.” (page 29)

“Names are used by Austen, as well as by her characters, as though they are precious material, so we sometimes hear only once, glancingly, what someone’s name is.  Thus the label on the trunk seen by Harriet Smith, directed to Mr. Elton at his hotel in Bath, which names him as Philip (II. v).” (page 46)

“But Austen wants us to think not so much about how characters look, but how they look to each other.  Her sparing use of specification when it comes to looks is striking when looks can be so important.”  (Page 57)

“Meteorology clues us in to the passing of the year.  But it is more than this.  Austen likes to make her plots turn on the weather.  Having arranged her characters and defined their situations, having planned her love stories and hatched the misunderstandings that might impede them, she lets the weather shape events.  It is her way of admitting chance into her narratives.” (page 101)

“The rather few critics who have written on speech in Austen’s fiction have discovered how each of her speakers seems to have their own idiolect — a way of speaking that is individually distinctive.”  (page 132)

Austen is an often underestimated author, especially in light of the writers who dismissed her early on.  Mullan pinpoints the genius of Austen beyond the morays of the time period in which she wrote and the social commentary.  Readers who have read all of Austen’s major works but once are likely to want to read them anew after reading Mullan’s examination.  Even those have read certain Austen books multiple times could find new theories in this book.  It is interesting to see what it means when characters blush, why weather is important, and what seaside resorts mean in Austen’s work.  Mullan also asks whether there is sex in her books.

What Matters in Jane Austen by John Mullan is less about the puzzles of Austen than about her techniques as a writer and creator of fiction.  It was an interesting look at how she stacked up to her contemporaries and offered something more.

About the Author:

John Mullan is a Professor of English at University College London. He specialises in 18th century fiction. He is currently working on the 18th-century section of the new Oxford English Literary History. He also writes a weekly column on contemporary fiction for The Guardian and reviews books for the London Review of Books and New Statesman. He occasionally appears as an 18th-century and contemporary literature expert for BBC Two’s Newsnight Review and BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. Mullan was a judge for The Best of the Booker in 2008 and for the Man Booker Prize in 2009. He was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge and a Lecturer at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, before coming to UCL in 1994.

This is my 47th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.


  1. I thought this was a fascinating book. He really did dig down deep into Austen.

  2. Like Kathy I don’t think I’ve read enough of Austen’s works to fully appreciate the book but it does sound interesting

    • I think it is interesting. I haven’t read all of her works. I’ve only read 3. However, I think it would make a great starter for those who haven’t read her before, allowing them to better appreciate her writing and techniques, which are very nuanced.

  3. I’m not sure I’ve read enough of Austen’s work to fully appreciate this book.

    • It depends on how many you have read; much of the time is spent on Emma, Pride & Prejudice, and Persuasion, with some on Sense & Sensibility. There are others mentioned…but not in overly great detail and there are references provided.