What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

If you’re not an Austen fan, this post probably isn’t for you. Fortunately, I am a big Austen fan and I LOVED this book. I wish I’d had it when I was studying the 19th-century novel in university. There are so many significant details to notice in Austen and of course while we noticed some, this book is crammed with many we totally missed.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London who also appears on the BBC, and writes a book column for the Guardian, and judges the Booker Prize, so while he is a credited academic he also has a flair for writing for Everyone, which includes me. If you have read at least a few of Austen’s books, you will find this book very entertaining and fun to read. For me, it was revelation after revelation and feeling simultaneously exhilarated by Mullan’s insights and also very foolish for not having noticed these details before, myself. After all, I have read and re-read Austen’s novels for well over 20 years. But I was reading for enjoyment and not necessarily for literary criticism, so that’s my excuse.

What does Mullan investigate? Well, age, for one. He points out that the film adaptations of Austen’s books often miscast actors by age. For instance, Mrs. Bennett is usually portrayed by an actress in her 60s, but as her eldest daughter is only 21, and she was likely married by 18, she is closer to 40. Mr. Collins was played by Tom Hollander, 38, in the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but he is introduced by the author as being 25. Similarly, Emma Thompson in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is 36, but the character, Elinor Dashwood, is 19. And on and on.

The notion of the seaside being a place of instability is actually something we touched on in English class, along with the idea of indoors being somehow more safer and regulated than the outdoors. Brighton is where Lydia Bennett meets up with and elopes with Wickham. In Lyme, Julia Musgrove acts like an idiot and becomes injured. However, Lyme is also the place where Anne Elliot, her complexion revived by the sea air, attracts the admiration of Mr. Elliot (the younger and heir of her father) and also regains the attentions of Captain Wentworth, so there is an element of liberation and freedom along with the danger.

Other issues such as names – what do characters call each other? – are also exposed and examined in great details. How much Money is Enough? and Why is the Weather Important? are chapter titles. I also loved Chapter 16: Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses?

Mullan also looks at sex in Jane Austen. Before I read this chapter, I would have said, essentially, that there isn’t any. Well, ok, off the top of my head: Lydia Bennett and Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford and Julia Bertram and John Yates. That’s it, along with the awareness of illegitimacy here and there. However, guided by Mullan’s keen take on Jane Austen and the 19th-century novel, I realized that her books are actually seething with sex or at least the understanding of it, and the impact of sex on the lives of her characters. One of Austen’s themes is that of the marriage made on the basis of sexual attraction which then dissipates, leaving a mismatched and unhappy couple. Mr. Bennett is saddled with the foolish Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Palmer (S & S) with his equally silly wife.  Sir Thomas Bertram and the indolent Lady Bertram and Mr. John Knightley and his wife are more examples. Lucy Steele too, is credited with “considerable beauty” and we must assume that she must be pretty sexy because there is no other reason to marry her, yet she manages to ensnare both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert. The very famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice gives away a man’s “need” for a wife. Not because he wants to enter into domesticity per se, but because of a need for a sexual relationship – gasp! I never even considered that before, and I was blown away by this chapter. Armed with a new understanding of Austen code, I now find the novels almost embarrassingly racy: the “great happiness” of Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars’ honeymoon, the month of sex enjoyed by Lydia Bennett with Wickham before marriage – yikes! Not only that, but Austen indicates which couples enjoy an active sex life via evidence of fertility. Catherine Morland has something like 13 siblings! Yow. Mr. Palmer, though he clearly has contempt for his wife, still also clearly sleeps with her, because she is pregnant in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who are married at the beginning of Emma, are pregnant within a month. Hot stuff.

I was also very taken by the chapter on blushing: What Makes Characters Blush? Again Mullan refers to film adaptations: though actors can usually weep on demand, it is impossible to fake a blush, yet blushes are very key to understanding Austen’s characters. Blushing can indicate a social awareness, embarrassment for someone else’s insensitivity. Elizabeth Bennett blushes for her mother’s silly remarks, because her mother lacks the awareness to blush for herself. Elinor Dashwood blushes for the dishonesty of Lucy Steele. Charlotte Lucas blushes when her husband, Mr. Collins, blathers on pompously. Blushing is also connected to innocence, virtue and simplicity. Fanny Price is a champion blusher, always colouring in angry response to others’ indiscreet or disparaging talk, blushing when teased about the unwanted affection of Henry Crawford. Because Fanny is one of Austen’s most silent heroines, her blushes serve as statements of opinion and feeling in lieu of dialogue. She blushes when she’s treated rudely, she blushes when she’s complimented, but she rarely is bold enough to make open remarks. Harriet Smith and Catherine Morland are also blushing left and right, mostly because of their innocence. Blushing also indicates truth and awareness, as Anne Elliot blushes when Mrs. Smith guesses her secret desire for Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood also blush with self-consciousness of their secrets, Elizabeth because although she knows that she and Darcy are falling in love, other people are still acting on the assumption that she dislikes him. Marianne blushes because people begin to assume, wrongly, that she and Willoughby are engaged. She knows darn well they aren’t and that they have been behaving in a way that leads to that assumption. Mutual blushing is also given as evidence of mutual love, such as Elizabeth and Darcy’s blushing together. Awwwww.

That’s more detail than I usually give in a book review, and it’s only brief snippets. But it’s pretty interesting, no?


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2 responses to “What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

  1. That sounds fascinating. I must admit to having never read an Austin, something I will rectify forthwith! 🙂