While I was reading What Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan earlier this year, I was consumed by one thought: I have read too many books about Jane Austen. I have become one of those people who has too many tiny details memorized and who, in a book that is consumed with pointing out the details that most readers forget, spent half my time wondering how the author could have omitted X,Y, and Z, examples that would have better illustrated his point if included. Oh dear. I am far too young to already be this neurotic.
It is a fun book, especially if you’re able to quiet your inner debater and just enjoy Mullan’s points. He addresses “twenty crucial puzzles” (hint: not remotely crucial and, for readers already familiar with the books, not particularly puzzling either) in essays such as “Why Is It Risky to Go to the Seaside?”, “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”, “What Do the Characters Call Each Other?”, “How Much Money Is Enough?” and, “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” These five chapters I’ve just named were among my least favourite, largely because they did little more than pull examples from the books and leave it at that. If you’ve read the novels, you know why it is risky to go to the seaside, you know what servants are seen (and you know their names) and what lower class characters appear, and you certainly know who is calling each other “Miss” and “Mr” as opposed to by their first names. I did like that Mullan rightly put the more salacious interpretations of Austen’s books in their proper place in “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?” but it still managed to be a pretty dull chapter. If you’re a veteran of tricky Austen trivia quizzes there won’t be a lot of new information or analysis here, just a catalogue of events and people who fulfil the chapter’s criteria.
In contrast, my favourite chapters were “How Much Does Age Matter?”, “Who Dies in the Course of the Novels?”, and “Which Important Characters Never Speak?”. “How Much Does Age Matter?” won me over in the easiest way possible: by talking about Emma. Mullan argues that the difference in age between Emma and Mr Knightley matters primarily because it seems large enough to both of them to rule out a romantic relationship:
The sixteen years between them allowed them not to notice what they felt towards each other. They have behaved as if the gap between their ages precluded romance, but we know that they should have known better. Age does shape their relationship, but not at all as they expected.
“Who Dies in the Course of the Novels?” is just plain fun, probably the most fun that this book has to offer. There are obvious deaths that shape the fate of characters (the death of Frank Churchill’s aunt allowing him and Jane Fairfax to finally go public with their engagement is the first example that comes to mind) but it is the little details that don’t necessarily matter to the plot that interested me most:
No one dies during the course of Persuasion but the novel is full of the deaths that have mattered to its characters. As Linda Bree rightly says, ‘most of the characters would have been wearing black, in some form, throughout the novel.’
Does the wearing of black change our fundamental understanding of Persuasion or its characters in any way? No, of course not. But it is still an intriguing point to consider the next time you’re reading the book.
“What Do Characters Say?” looks at the speeches of characters who were granted a voice (since this is Austen, that means the vast majority). It is a bit of a muddled chapter but it does contain one very odd snippet: when discussing Mary and Henry Crawford’s relationship, specifically Mary’s teasing about her brother’s libertine ways, Mullan states that:
There is something chilling in the jesting of brother and sister. Mary Crawford’s mock-condemnation (“horrible”, “detestable”) measures her distance from any real disapproval of his habitual behaviour.
Chilling? That does not sit right with me, nor does the implication that Mary ought to disapprove of her brother’s behaviour.
(Query: most books about Austen touch on the relationships between sisters across her novels but do any look in depth at the relationships between brothers and sisters? I would love to read essays on that topic.)
The flip side of what characters say is what they do not say, a subject Mullan addresses in “Which Important Characters Never Speak?” Now, this is a topic so many Austen-lovers have touched on in the past that I am afraid Mullan was never going to be able to do justice to it in my eyes. It is that old problem of too many examples and not enough analysis. Why does Austen silence Susan Price, Fanny’s younger sister, who had once had so much to say? And, fascinating as it is that Benwick does not speak in Persuasion, why are so many other characters in that book rendered almost mute? Lady Russell, whose voice was of particular importance to Anne years before, is remarkably silent, denied speech for much of the novel. Why? It is a book that is notable for its overall lack of dialogue and yet Mullan never points that out or stops to consider why. I found this wildly frustrating since speech (or the lack thereof) in Austen’s novels is one of my favourite topics to discuss and I cannot understand why anyone would want to touch on it so lightly and superficially.
Though the chapters I had been most excited to read (“How Much Money Is Enough?” in particular) ended up disappointing me, this was still an interesting book. I just wanted a little more from it. It absolutely suffered from my having read Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern only a few months before, which is much more fun and addresses the same questions (and many more) in greater depth.