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.

Summer Reading, Feeds, and Books

Lucky for me this week, I didn’t have any review books come in the mail. 

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

So, I’ll share with you a few of the books I snagged from the library this week instead:

1.  A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson, which I just started this past week and it’s good so far.

1941. Klaus Felsen, forced out of his Berlin factory into the SS, arrives in a luminous Lisbon, where Nazis and Allies, refugees and entrepreneurs, dance to the strains of opportunism and despair. Felsen’s assignment takes him to the bleak mountains of the north where a devious and brutal battle is being fought for an element vital to Hitler’s bliztkrieg. There he meets the man who plants the first seed of greed and revenge that will grow into a thick vine in the landscape of post-war Portugal. Late 1990s. Investigating the murder of a young girl with a disturbing sexual past, Inspector Ze Coelho overturns the dark soil of history and unearths old bones from Portugal’s fascist past. This small death in Lisbon is horrific compensation for an even older crime, and Coelho’s stubborn pursuit of its truth reveals a tragedy that unites past and present. Robert Wilson’s combination of intelligence, suspense, vivid characters, and mesmerizing storytelling richly deserves the international acclaim his novel has received.

2.  What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen, which I saw reviewed at Anna’s blog, Diary of an Eccentric and wanted to check out.

In twenty short chapters, each of which explores a question prompted by Austens novels, Mullan illuminates the themes that matter most in her beloved fiction. Readers will discover when Austen’s characters had their meals and what shops they went to; how vicars got good livings; and how wealth was inherited. What Matters in Jane Austen? illuminates the rituals and conventions of her fictional world in order to reveal her technical virtuosity and daring as a novelist. It uses telling passages from Austen’s letters and details from her own life to explain episodes in her novels: readers will find out, for example, what novels she read, how much money she had to live on, and what she saw at the theater.

3. His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, which is our book club’s July pick.

When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

***My current read is Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart***

As many of you already know, Google Reader ends today. I’ve started using Netvibes, but I exported by existing feeds from Google Reader that overwhelmed me to the point that I quit using it altogether.  But this past week I ended up going through it all and paring it down to the 55 Book Blogs I want to read, the 14 authors’ blogs I want to read, 12 writing advice blogs, and a few other miscellaneous blogs for photography, local events, and more.  I’ve since moved it to Feedly because I liked how I could organize the blogs into different categories all at once, etc.  It made it much easier.

My reading has slowed some with the other activities going on this summer and of course, the work schedule that seems to have heated up.  I seem to be barely keeping my head from exploding at work these days.

But I’m hoping for a nice long holiday weekend for the 4th where I can get some reading done, and just chill out a bit — maybe even get into D.C. for some photography or just some good time at home and fireworks.

How’s your summer reading and activities going?