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What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved

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Which important Austen characters never speak? Is there any sex in Austen? What do the characters call one another, and why? What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage? In What Matters in Jane Austen?, John Mullan shows that we can best appreciate Austen's brilliance by looking at the intriguing quirks and intricacies of her fiction. Asking and answering some very specific questions about what goes on in her novels, he reveals the inner workings of their greatness.

In twenty short chapters, each of which explores a question prompted by Austen's 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.

Written with flair and based on a lifetime's study, What Matters in Jane Austen? will allow readers to appreciate Jane Austen's work in greater depth than ever before.

342 pages, Hardcover

First published June 7, 2012

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About the author

John Mullan

68 books62 followers
John Mullan is a Professor of English at University College London. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto series Lives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A regular radio broadcaster and literary journalist, he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. John is a specialist in eighteenth-century literature.

Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 415 reviews
Profile Image for Katie Lumsden.
Author 1 book2,812 followers
July 15, 2018
This is genuinely the most enjoyable literary criticism book I have read - full of brilliant insights, fantastic and spotting and analysing patterns and details in Jane Austen's work. It just made me want to go back and reread all of Jane Austen.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
February 22, 2016
This is a very accessible little book, which is both purposeful for those who just want to have a more in depth knowledge of their favourite Austen novel and those that are looking at her work from a more academic perspective. Yes, academic, I managed to quote the author’s section on Austen’s personal voice being present in parts of the wonderful Northanger Abbey in my theory essay on Narratology. This book is a real all-rounder.


This book is chaptered by a series of simple questions. These include “do we ever see lower classes” and “how do Austen’s characters look. These, amongst many of the other chapter questions, are questions that many a reader has pondered whilst reading Austen’s work. This insightful book provides a concise discussion for each, and every, one of these.

The author is a professor of English and has been lecturing on Austen for over twenty-five years, so is knowledge base and academic credibility, is profound. Suffice to say, he knows what he is talking about. He has provided strong arguments and possible answers to the popular questions he has posed. The book does what is says on the cover, “twenty crucial puzzles solved.”

In spite of his wealth of Austen knowledge, his book is very approachable and relatively free of ostentatious academic jargon. So it can be appreciated by both students of literature and general Austen enthusiasts. I consider myself to belong to both of these parties; thus, I found this book to be helpful in understanding Austen’s work, and a contribution towards my essay ideas.

Profile Image for Alex.
1,418 reviews4,382 followers
August 4, 2015
I know at first glance it seems like a book with an entire chapter on "Why Is The Weather Important?" might be a touch inessential, but this turns out to be really fun, and very insightful. If, I mean, if you're nuts enough about Jane Austen to read an entire book about her books.

But Mullan will lay out how Austen uses weather to force her characters into the situations she wants them in. Similarly, in the "What Games Do Characters Play?" chapter, Mullan analyzes how Austen uses cards to divide her characters into groups. It gives you a new sense for just how slick Austen is - how carefully and smoothly she's orchestrating her plots from behind the scenes. Some of the most boring-looking chapters here turn out to be some of the most interesting.

Of course, you might come mainly for "What Do Characters Read?" and "Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?", because reading and sex might happen to be two subjects of interest to you, and that's fine too. Although if you didn't already know that the answer to that second question is "Not really," you're in for a sad surprise.

Mullan's knowledge of Austen - her six novels, the unfinished Sanditon, her letters, and any book written in the same general period or influencing Austen - is exhaustive to the point where, when in the acknowledgements he thanks his family for "surviving what must have seemed my obsession with her writing," you nod and grimace. And be warned, he is not shy about spoilers. He assumes you've already read everything. I haven't, and I breezed over some Northanger Abbey sections because I plan to get to that later this year; I didn't worry too much about other spoilers because I can't keep the names straight and I already know someone's getting married, so I'm unlikely to retain much of interest.

Read the introduction. If the first sentence, "Did Jane Austen know how good she was?" doesn't suck you right in, maybe you have better things to do with your time than read this book. I do not.
Profile Image for Jon.
1,303 reviews
March 21, 2018
Fascinating analysis by a man who has taught Jane Austen for over 25 years. Not for the casual Janeite: he assumes that you already know the difference between Wickham, Wentworth, and Willoughby; that you already know in which book to find Jane Fairfax or Catherine Morland. If you don't, this book isn't for you. If you do, then there are insights on every page. Who knew that Mr. Collins is explicitly only 25 or 26 years old, and that his sounding middle-aged is part of the satirical characterization? Casting directors have missed it: in most movie versions he's played by an actor in his 40's. Who knew that Mary Musgrove in Persuasion is the only married woman in all of Austen to call her husband by his first name? Mullan asks whether Austen knew how good she was (yes, she did), and marvels that she produced her novels without any correspondence with any other writers. Ever. Good Lord, even Emily Dickinson corresponded with other writers; Jane Austen hoped to meet Sir Walter Scott, but it never happened. Mullan suggests that she invented free indirect discourse, now used in practically every modern novel, and I don't have the knowledge to dispute it. In all, a perfect bedside book for people like the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who when asked if he ever read novels, replied, "Yes, I read all six every year."
Profile Image for Gary  the Bookworm.
130 reviews127 followers
July 29, 2013
I spent a rainy day last week with Lady Susan, Austen's vivacious vixen. I was able to righteously condemn her for her licentiousness, but in so doing, I fell under the spell of her creator. If you've never worshipped at the Cult of Jane, this may sound peculiar. It sounds peculiar to me and I've been a rabid fan since I was a sophomore in college. Peculiar or not, I was losing perspective and saw myself losing all sense, if I couldn't have a side of sensibility. Pride - and prejudice aside, I needed little persuasion to embark on a journey to Mansfield Park, with a quick side trip to Northanger Abbey - for absolution. These troubling thoughts were emmanating from me, when I happened upon What Matters in Jane Austen?, which has been lurking on my Kindle since last year. My salvation, I thought! I am about to climb that magic mountain, and the last thing I need is to indulge my insatiable cravings for Jane, Jane and more Jane.

I'm pleased to report that the fever has passed, thanks to this likable, but ultimately lightweight, literary endeavor. To be sure, Mr. Mullan knows his Austen. He reverentially shares his insights in a manner which was alternately compelling and repelling. While he admirably places her in the parthenon of greatness, quoting everyone who counts, from Virginia Woolf to Vladimir Nabokov, he sometimes sounds disturbingly like Miss Bates, the loquacious spinster, whose ramblings, he alleges, are key to unraveling the many mysteries of Emma. This fits well with PD James' assertion that Emma is essentially a detective story. Of course, for those of us who suffered through, Death Comes to Pemberley, the less heard from her the better.

That's only one of the many exciting tidbits he offers up, but in so doing, he sometimes mimics Miss Bates by resorting to repetition. The introduction and the two concluding chapters are masterful, but trying to fill the other 18 chapters seems to be too much of a challenge. He persuasively argues that Jane Austen was a literary innovator for perfecting the narrated monologue, more commonly known as free indirect style, but he is less successful in chapters titled, Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? or Do Sisters Sleep Together? To me they sound like tactics that desperate English teachers might employ to hook their horny high schoolers. So should you read this? Yes if you're a groupie like me, or if you are going to be a contestant on a game show and you know the Jane Austen will be one of the categories. Everyone else can probably skip it.

Profile Image for Kirk.
455 reviews37 followers
February 27, 2023
Here's my review in Austen in Boston:

"What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved" by John Mullan......5 very very full Regency Teacups full out of 5!!!

What a delight!! Well worth the wait! I hate to return it to the PL to wait for it to come back! Nearly all the reviews I have read are positive and I strongly agree. Lol, there was one reviewer who couldn't recommend this book to general Austen fans. Huh? Dear Miss Sour Cherries, have you actually read Austen?? So many gem comments in the book!

"Catch the dramatic and narrative subtlety of what Austen is doing as Fanny turns away from us and we indeed catch her in what Virginia Woolf called 'the act of greatness.' Characteristically, this moment of audacious fictional experiment is also an instance of the most perfect reticence". p320 -John Mullan "What Matters in Jane Austen"
Profile Image for Hannah.
796 reviews
March 18, 2013
Rating Clarification: 4.5 Stars

Informative, interesting, thought provoking, easily readable and most definitely not stodgily academic. Professor John Mullan provokes the Austen fan to delve deeper into her classic novels with 20 chapters featuring 20 less conventional questions to consider while reading Dear Jane. Questions like:
Why is the Weather Important?, What Makes Characters Blush?, What do Characters Say When the Heroine is not There?, Why is it Risky to Go to the Seaside? and the question all purient Austen fans want to know: Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen? (come on, you know you wondered...)

Mullan weaves a very well thought out, short yet entertaining dissertation on each of these questions and more. And he has the creds to do it - he's been a professor teaching Austen for over 25 years.

Recommended for fans of Austen who would like to discover additional hidden depths to her works. I know I can't wait to re-read my personal favorite, Persuasion, with these observations in mind.
Profile Image for Bloodorange.
673 reviews191 followers
February 13, 2018
I only read and rate sections on Pride and Prejudice, which I'm now teaching. This is a very useful reference book on Austen - for private use, and advanced high school/ college level. Not all of the things I read were new to me (and shouldn't be), but some observations felt quite new (Mr Collins was only 25?) and when I shared them with my students, they loved them. Some, as his reading of Darcy's thoughts, are a tiny bit of a stretch. And the first sentence is a killer.

Note on contents: not all novels are equally represented. You will find much interesting material on Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Jane Austen herself. There's less on Northanger Abbey, but the list of entries is still quite long.
Profile Image for Emily.
873 reviews145 followers
March 9, 2019
I really enjoyed this. No bit of minutia in Jane Austen's novels is too inconsequential for Mullan to examine, but he manages to make a convincing case that such things as what characters say about the weather and the glancing references to their servants, can, when examined closely, reveal her artistry. This is a worthy volume to sit on the shelf next to my beloved Speaking of Jane Austen and its sequel More About Jane Austen, which also revel in seemingly trivial details that can speak volumes. What Matters in Jane Austen? lacks the cozy sense of gently clinking tea cups that I enjoyed so much in Stern's and Kaye-Smith's books, but this is understandable given that Mullan was not writing in collaboration with a life-long friend, and also is not a novelist turning to Austen for pure amusement, but rather is a professor of literature. One might expect his book to be dry and full of jargon as a consequence, but I found it quite readable, and very often illuminating. I was most struck by the observation that Austen's greatest innovation as a novelist was to filter the narrative through the consciousness of her characters, something which seems obvious when you think about it, but which I never had before.
Profile Image for Abigail Bok.
Author 4 books191 followers
December 16, 2016
More than any author, Jane Austen inspires popular criticism—lit crit without the flummery, analysis that remains free of the jargon adopted by professional academics. I read on both sides of that fence but infinitely prefer the popular criticism side, which has the power to draw anyone who enjoys attentive reading into its circle. And John Mullan’s book is among the best I have read in that arena.

He approaches the business episodically, through a series of inquiries that range from trivial matters such as “Do Sisters Sleep Together?” to subtler points of style such as “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?” Each of his leading questions opens a little window on her work, examining issues of her cultural context or her literary technique. The essays embrace all the published novels, with (sadly) only glancing mentions of the juvenilia and unfinished works. (I wish people paid more attention to The Watsons!)

Along the way, he illuminates aspects of her world of manners such as the fine points of naming—why it’s rude for Mrs. Elton to call Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to be sure, but also what Elizabeth Bennet is telling us about herself when she stops saying “Mr. Darcy” and starts referring to him as “Darcy.” (Speaking of the mega-couple, Mullan showed me a lot about their mutual attraction that I had overlooked during a gazillion rereadings of Pride and Prejudice.) What other critic would have considered an examination of how Jane Austen uses weather? Or what cues we should pick up from mentions of visits to the seaside?

Mullan has a keen eye for the telling detail, and a clear voice for explaining just how and what it’s telling. His analysis of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s meeting at Worthing is especially illuminating; and the conclusions he draws from the characters who are not given direct dialogue in the novels goes far beyond the usual platitudes. (Emma shows particular skill in the way it uses people speaking and not speaking: Mr. Perry drives the plot without ever saying a word, and Miss Bates reveals the truth without saying anything that we or the characters attend to.)

The back half of the book takes Mullan’s game up a notch when he brings his focus to bear on Jane Austen’s writerly techniques, especially in the chapters “Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders?” and “How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen?” (“What Makes Characters Blush?” is also surprisingly illuminating.) He has a gift for discovering a telling keyword or concept and following its thread throughout a novel, showing us how it reveals Austen’s thought processes.

Many of us have had the experience of seeing something new each time we reread a Jane Austen novel. After decades of that experience, I thought I was reaching a point of diminishing returns—till John Mullan showed me how much I was unable to see without his help.
Profile Image for Bry.
631 reviews93 followers
February 10, 2017
Read April 2015

Rereading because it's like reading all of Austen's works at once!!

Read Oct 3-9, 2013

This book is awesome. It's like being in a book club and having the most amazing indepth conversations with the only other person who can be as obsessed and in love with Austen's works as me - MYSELF.

I bought this book because I heard the author, John Mullen, speak at the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America this year in Minneapolis. His talk was hilarious, engaging, and funny and I took an immediate liking to his style and assumed his book MUST reflect his personality. And it did. The writing was never the boring scholarly approach you would expect an english professor to take with a literary criticism book. Instead it was light, amusing, humorous, and fascination.

Seriously, I never wanted to put this down. I read it on the subway, at work, at home, while walking down crazy, crowded Manhattan streets (much to the displeasure of some people I unfortunately bumped into).

This book is organized into 20 chapters and each one focuses on a single question revolving around really central themes - age, money, distance, names, etc. I LOVED IT. Each chapter provided ample examples and extrapolations from each of Jane Austen's works which meant that even me (who has read each work about 5-7 times...okay okay maybe 15 for Pride and Prejudice) still learned a LOT of new things. Just random details that had never caught my attention and imagination before.

This also lead me to do something I haven't done in YEARS....WRITE IN MY BOOK! I don't do this. I hate it actually because books are so gorgeous and I don't want to ruin them. But in this case there were so many interesting and lovable passages that I HAD to underline, highlight, and annotate them because I KNOW I WILL RE-READ THIS BOOK.

Seriously, if you love Austen at all, or are just merely curious about why some things play out the way they do, were described they way they were, or what they meant in their original time frame read this book! You will enjoy it.
Profile Image for Claudia .
108 reviews501 followers
July 10, 2020
This was as good as my favourite booktubers were telling me all along! Easy to read, short chapters about some really fun details in the Austen novels you might have missed. Really enjoyable.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,792 reviews1,308 followers
January 5, 2022
Ignore the subtitle, which is clearly the invention of publishers who knew that "Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved" has a sexier ring to it than "Twenty short, pleasantly essays about various aspects of Jane Austen's writings which help you better understand their social contexts and literary innovation but aren't truly essential to understanding the narrative."

Here, John Mullan writes accessibly, if sometimes a little repetitively, about a variety of topics, from the social signifiers of income in Regency England, to why the weather looms so large in Austen's writings, to the significance of the blush, and how knowledge of these things provides the reader with new layers of appreciation for Austen as a meticulous author. (I noted with amusement, however, that he didn't quote Tony Tanner's infamous (to my mind) Freudian analysis of Elizabeth Bennet's blushing as signifying a "mild erection of the head.")

The sweet spot for this in terms of audience is probably people who have read at least the majority of Austen's completed novels, but who aren't fans enough of Austen, or of Regency literature/history more generally, to have already imbibed what Mullan says here via osmosis.
Profile Image for Iza Brekilien.
1,123 reviews106 followers
July 24, 2020
Reviewed for Books and livres

This is written on the cover of my edition : "An Austen lover's greatest wish is for more of her novels. This intimate guide to the world of her books is the next best thing" (The Atlantic). The Atlantic is right ! And of course, before you read this book, you have to have read all of her novels to avoid spoilers...

This book includes short essays on those subjects :
- How much does age matter ?
- Do sisters sleep together ?
- What do the characters call each other ?
- How do Jane Austen's characters look ?
- Who dies in the course of her novels ?
- Why is it risky to go to the seaside ?
- Why is the weather important ?
- Do we ever see the lower classes ?
- Which important characters never speak in the novels ?
- What games do character play ?
- What do characters say when the heroin is not there ?
- How much money is enough ?
- Why do her plots rely on blunders ?
- What do characters read ?
- Are ill people really to blame for their illnesses ?
- What makes a character blush ?
- What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage ?
- When does Jane Austen speak directly to the reader ?
- How experimental a novelist is Jane Austen ?
(plus notes, bibliography, index).

It's a really, truly enjoyable book because, finally, I have read of all Austen's works and nothing will ever be new to me again... Sad, yes, but I hope reading further literary criticism will allow me to re-read her with a different look on some points in the years to come.
Just like with short stories, some chapters are more interesting than others. I don't care much if sisters sleep together, for instance - why they would do so is still relevant nowadays - but the vast majority of them are really interesting and told in an easy, fun, yet insightful way. An example ? In the chapter about marriage proposals, I thought Mr Darcy's disastrous offer (the worst in literature ?) would be mentioned, but it wasn't what I expected : it was more about how marriage was proposed in those days. I learned that it could be done by letter !

I'm so glad I read this and finished my #JaneAustenJuly this way. Well, not entirely finished, but as soon as I have read Frankenstein, it will be. There will be another review afterwards, but not part of the official challenge. Any way, very good book, highly recommended !

Profile Image for fatma.
899 reviews562 followers
August 3, 2019
Second read: July 28-August 2, 2019

With his excellent, keen-eyed observations, Mullan manages to create an intricate, expansive sort of network out of Austen's brilliant works. The effect is not that Austen's works are made more brilliant, but rather that they have their brilliance illuminated, clarified, and brought into significance by this book. And it is precisely that which is, for me, the mark of a truly worthwhile piece of literary criticism.
First read: September 28-October 3, 2017

A SOLID 4 stars

This was SO GOOD. Admittedly, I haven't read a lot of Austen literary criticism (ok, I've barely read any), but this was by far the best one that I've read so far. This book just delivered on everything that I wanted from it: accessible to read, interesting in the ideas it brought up, well-written, insightful in the questions it raises and answers it provides, well-rounded in its approach to Austen's works (& letters!)—I honestly couldn't have asked for more.

Highly, highly recommend this if you're looking for a more in-depth view of Austen's books that combines the technical, historical, personal, and narrative aspects of her books.
Profile Image for Amanda .
701 reviews13 followers
July 6, 2022
This book has been the best piece of Austen-centric literary criticism I have read to date. It has even topped my most recent favorite, So Odd a Mixture: Along the Autistic Spectrum in 'Pride and Prejudice'.

Mullan focuses on several themes in Austen's work in an easy to read manner. You don't have to have a Masters or PhD in literature to understand him. He brought up several themes and points I hadn't considered or read about before and, for that, I am extremely grateful. I would recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan.

I would, however, suggest reading all of her major works before undertaking this book, unless you want to be spoiled.
Profile Image for Eloise.
101 reviews45 followers
February 6, 2022
What Matters in Jane Austen is an engrossing close reading of Austen's literature that urges us to read more deeply in order to see and comprehend more. I can't help but hope Mullan would expand on his argument: little things matter not only because they show us Austen’s “extraordinary narrative sophistication,” as he concludes, but also because they reveal the subtleties of her insight into the moral lives of her characters. Ethics matters in Jane Austen, as well as craft.
Profile Image for Plateresca.
338 reviews70 followers
February 2, 2021
'... interconnectedness is the reason why, when you re-read her novels, you have the experience of suddenly noticing some crucial detail that you have never noticed before, and realising how demanding she is of your attention. One of the special delights of reading Jane Austen is becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself, at least for as long as one is reading...'

(I hope that those who've seen me quote this in another review will forgive me; but this is such a nice quote, isn't it?).

I've really enjoyed John Mullan's insights. He's very respectful of the author, very attentive to her writing. I mean, you know how some critics make vaguely impolite suppositions, like that Jane Austen never described how men interacted without women, just because she didn't know how? Which John Mullan has bothered to prove wrong, by the way. But more importantly, his premise is that the author, Jane Austen, wrote exactly what she wanted to write. That she knew what she was doing, and that what she tells or not tells us is what she actually chose to reveal or conceal, and that everything in her novels is meaningful. I truly believe that this is the best, the most beneficial approach to reading.

Recommended to Austen fans, of course :)
Profile Image for Aimee.
461 reviews47 followers
November 12, 2012
If you have read and loved all of Austen's books, this is a must read. Mullan takes several different topics and uses historical facts from Austen's time and excerpts from all of the books to give the reader a more in depth appreciation for Austen's work.

What really impressed me was how Mullan brought things to my attention that I never noticed while reading Austen's work. For example, Mullan discusses how Austen has most characters speak, but a few we never hear anything from their own words at all and Mullan talks of the significance of keeping some characters quiet. I found it fascinating. I also really enjoyed the chapter about the importance of money, how much it took to be considered the gentility, the importance of having a carriage and a certain number of servants, etc. It really helped me to have a better understanding of the small details in Austen's books.

I would only recommend this one to the serious Austen fan who has read most of her work. The author uses lots of excerpts from all of her books, including the one she was working on when she died. Anyone reading this who has not read most of the books might become bored with all of the references to each book. For those who have read everything Austen, this book will be a delight and will add a greater appreciation for what Austen accomplished in her novels. I know I am eager to read some of the books again now that I have a better understanding of themes Austen used in her writing.
Profile Image for Caroline Niziol.
162 reviews29 followers
October 30, 2012
What Matters in Jane Austen is simultaneously both the most scholarly and most enjoyable book I have read in a very long time. I have read my share of Austen scholarship that veers into mind-boggling dullness and/or extreme readings of the Big Six. In What Matters in Jane Austen, Mullan manages to explore the minutia with style, wit, and insight.

My favorite chapter was probably the one about card games. I'll confess that when Austen talks about the games her characters play during parties or afternoon gatherings, my eyes glaze over those sections. The examination of pairings and numbers for those games, as well as expectations regarding gambling, was both historically interesting and enlightening for certain portions of the books.

Despite the potential for academic murkiness, Mullan keep the text moving quickly. It was quite fun to read and I also appreciated the brief, relevant mentions of the film adaptations.
Profile Image for Cyndi.
2,338 reviews97 followers
October 3, 2020
This is the kind of book that would make an excellent Jane Austen Trivia Game. It also explains some of the rules of writing Jane used. How she used blushes to further character development. Why weather seemed to be a character on its own. Even where she might have found inspiration for some of her characters. An excellent book and a must for those of us who are 'Janeites'.
Profile Image for Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all).
1,969 reviews178 followers
June 1, 2018
Strictly for hardline Austen fans, of which I am not really one, but I am an oddball who tutors Eng Lit for enjoyment. And it's a good thing, as reading this book reminded me of sitting in on some of my literature courses in college; the author writes as if Austen really sat down and devised all those symbols, emphases, motifs etc. etc. before she set pen to paper, instead of composing spontaneously and creatively as I'm sure she did.

I disliked Mullan's repeated assertion that Austen employed this or that "trick", as if she were a conjuror at a children's party trying to amaze the little ones (her readers). He is also not above riding his personal hobbyhorses round and round Austen's front garden as if it were his own personal paddock, while slyly belittling his contemporaries in criticism for doing much the same thing. For example, that whole bit about how odd it is that sisters share a bed. I grew up in a large family with a small house and my sister and I shared a bed because there was no choice. There was no weird emotional or sexual stuff going on, either--it was a question of space.

Mullan also is not above spoiling whole books for anyone who gets to his before any one of Jane's, which is a rather nasty but increasingly prevalent trend in books of this type. Also--and this is an entirely personal quibble--the author seems to feel he has to draw his quotations from the old three-volume novel format in which Austen was originally published, as if ignoring the modern one-volume editions somehow gave him more nous. It doesn't.

A decent enough read, but I found him annoying in large doses, so it has taken me several days to finish this book.
Profile Image for Nadja.
1,565 reviews62 followers
August 31, 2019
Full disclaimer:
The 1 star rating is solely based on my reading enjoyment and NOT because of false information.

Not recommended for people who haven't read all of Jane Austen works!

I liked the first chapter but the longer the more I was forcing myself to finish this book. The concept is interesting but the execution was not for me and my reading taste. Within a chapter John Mullan wrote two sentences about the theme in one of JA novels, then another and another and then returning again to already mentioned novels. There wasn't enough trivia but more detailed summaries of the novels and its characters. And some themes weren't interesting enough for a whole chapter. I'd say the Age, Name, Servant and Money chapters are mostly interesting.

Jane Austen July 2019: Read a non-fiction work about Jane Austen or her time.
Profile Image for Sarah.
256 reviews3 followers
January 19, 2014
I'm not equal to reviewing this book; please just picture my head exploding over and over and over.
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
416 reviews37 followers
June 29, 2018
This is not for anyone who does not have a very thorough knowledge of all six of Jane's novels. (Reading them once doesn't count, nor does seeing the film and television adaptations.) It is probably helpful to have at least an adequate working knowledge of late 18th-early 19th century British history and social conventions as well as of the British novel. Familiarity with the basics of Jane's biography is useful.

Okay, now that the audience is considerably narrowed, I found this a complete delight. I confess to having become addicted to Jane in my early teens, and I've never stopped. John Mullan's book is not only serious, scholarly literary criticism, but it's great fun. His style is lively and eminently readable; even his chapter headings are intriguing and somewhat whimsical. I appreciated his attention to the irony and humor so prevalent in Austen and often completely missed by the casual reader. He writes persuasively as well of the complexity and sophistication of her plotting and characterization and does a wonderful job of interpreting Jane's narrative technique as innovative and experimental in the context of the history of the novel and certainly unique in her own century. There is an excellent bibliography and very good notes.

Having slogged through countless volumes of literary criticism in the course of my studies, this example of the genre is a rare blend of pleasure and scholarship. I'd love to read Mullan's other books if I can find them.
Profile Image for Veronika.
Author 1 book68 followers
November 5, 2021
Gut recherchiert und zu Beginn auch sehr unterhaltsam, aber in der zweiten Hälfte dann ein wenig ermüdend und mit endlosen Zitaten, um recht banale Behauptungen zu untermauern. Trotzdem informativ und für den Austen-Fan, der nie genug Austen bekommt, sowie Geschichts-Nerds, die die Regency-Zeit lieben, ein tolles Werk.
Profile Image for  ~Geektastic~.
233 reviews150 followers
January 13, 2016
(Review from re-read Feb. 2014)

This year celebrates the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, arguably Jane Austen’s most contentious work, and the one likeliest to provoke questions from even the most complacent reader. Who could possibly like Fanny Price? How could the creator of Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse create such a creature? What kind of masochistic reader would choose Mansfield as their favorite of The Six (major novels)? These are, in fact, not the questions posed by What Matters in Jane Austen. However, Mullan’s game of literary twenty questions does help us-perhaps obliquely- examine the very foundations of such mysteries.

At first glance, the questions posed seem simultaneously specific and tangential, but of course these are the very questions that critics and readers should consider most valuable. “Why is the weather important?” “What makes characters blush?” and “How much money is enough?” are all very important considerations, though by the reader who is looking solely for the marriage plot and the happy ending, they may receive very little attention. But these are matters that get to the very heart of Austen’s work, not to mention her personal worldview as reflected by the novels.

For example, the question of money; anyone who has read any of the novels knows that money is important, but with figures like “ten thousand a year” and “100 per annum” thrown around with 19th century abandon, it can be challenging to adjust our modern perspective. Mullen focuses on the textual evidence, but also provides some helpful historical data for comparison, minus the tedium of an attempt at direct conversion. When Tom Bertram offhandedly says the amateur theatricals at Mansfield will cost about twenty pounds, he’s throwing around annual salary of a laborer, which says a lot about his extravagance in very few words. Not only do we get useful internal perspective from something like this, but we are also given a glimpse at the impeccable structure of Austen’s fictional framework.

Some questions seem downright strange at first: “Why is it risky to go to the seaside?” It’s a deceptive question, which makes it ideal for analysis. At first glance, it doesn’t seem that the characters spend much time by the sea, with brief visits to Bath in Northanger Abbey and Lyme Regis in Persuasion being the first instances that come to mind, and yet seaside resorts play an important role in both the plots and moral framework of many of the novels. Lydia Bennett throws away her future in Brighton, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill likewise determine their fates at Weymouth, and Emma and Mr. Knightley honeymoon by the sea. The shore is a place of romance and danger; it’s there that Catharine Moreland becomes entangled in the poisonous friendship with Isabella Thorpe, as well as where Louisa Musgrove suffers her near-fatal head injury. In her world, morals are looser by the sea, and Austen used this to her narrative advantage.

This sort of analysis has the potential to be tedious, but Mullen saves it by striking the perfect balance between academic rigor and readable prose. There are as many different ways to approach a book about Austen’s work as there are readers to read them, but I find they tend to fall somewhere along a spectrum whose extremes are defined on one end by pop culture handbooks (likely with a pink cover and a Regency woman holding a cell phone) and on the other by indecipherable academic studies (whose covers are so dull I can’t recall them). This one falls nicely in the middle, readable but smart, and even the cover is less obnoxious than most.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
November 15, 2014
I'm not a big fan of Jane -- through I've come round somewhat on the subject since I couldn't resist the urge to fling Pride and Prejudice out of a window -- so you might think I was the wrong audience for this book anyway. But I am a big fan of close reading, and I find value in digging into what's important in an author's works in a way that I think the author of this would agree with, and I enjoy history, literary history, and all kinds of random facts. So I was hoping that though I'm no obsessive Austen fan, I'd still find this book of interest.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be quite sure where it's aimed at. As a non-fan, I don't know the books well enough for all the little details he references without fully contextualising to be exactly revelatory to me; as an MA in literature, I thought it was still a pretty simplistic level of analysis -- is anyone really surprised that yes, Austen was saying that Lydia Bennet had sex outside of marriage? -- and as a general reader, I didn't find the stuff that interesting on its own merits either. It startles me more that apparently there was a fuss kicked up about ~Was Jane Austen Gay?~ because of her intimacy with her sister than that sisterly conversation or the lack thereof is centrally important in her work.

Overall, whatever the target audience was meant to be, I'm not it.
Profile Image for Tintaglia.
737 reviews148 followers
February 22, 2015
"Che cosa è importante in Jane Austen?" si chiede John Mullan. E la risposta è "Tutto, sopratutto le minuzie". Perchè niente è lasciato al caso nel mondo letterario della Austen, e sono proprio i dettagli che costruiscono o confermano caratteri, situazioni, intuizioni del lettore, e fanno da contrappunto e insieme contrafforte alla raffinata, complessa architettura dei suoi romanzi.

Metto subito le mani avanti: questo non è un libro adatto a introdurre Jane Austen a chi non l'abbia mai letta.
E' però una vera chicca per l'appassionato: l'autore infatti disseziona con abbondanza di esempi venti questioni apparentemente irrilevanti, dimostrando che, appunto, niente in Jane Austen lo è davvero, irrilevante, e insieme l'intelligenza profonda che domina i mondi creati scrittrice.
Profile Image for Rose A.
204 reviews3 followers
March 4, 2016
I approached this book with some prejudice and snobbery regarding so-called popular criticism of Austen but am delighted to have discovered my mistake. This is an extremely readable book which nevertheless illuminates Austen's techniques and reveals aspects of plot, characterisation and context, much of which I hadn't thought of before. Both as a reader of Austen and as someone who attempts to imitate her, this book is very thought-provoking and interesting. Definitely worth a read both for the casual reader of Austen and someone who has studied her already in depth.
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