Tag Archives: Jane Austen

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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Milestone Books in My Life

A shot of the fiction bookcase

My mother taught me to read when I was very young, about 2 1/2. I remember her reading to me books like The Wind in the Willows and she filled the house with books of all kinds and just let me loose. She gave me the gift of reading for which I thank her still. I can still recall important discoveries in my reading life:

Age 7: Discovered The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in my parents’ bookshelf and after that it was open season on their books.

Age 8: Read Anne of Green Gables whilst on vacation in Hawaii. Did not understand most of the biblical and classical quotes, but added new words like “perquisites”to my vocabulary.

Age 8: Started reading my mother’s cookbooks, most notably the Time/Life series that focused on food of different regions, like Italy, China, France, etc. and also Creative Cooking, published by Reader’s Digest, that had recipes, organized by month, but also contained, enthrallingly, pages and pages of ingredients with illustrations.

This was my bible from when I was about 8 years old until I was in my teens.

Two pages on cheese, with pictures and a legend so you could get a description of each cheese. A page on fruit, with a drawing of forced rhubarb next to regular rhubarb. My mother was a foodie before the term “foodie” existed; she’s also a dietician. She started teaching me how to cook when I was 8 and I’ve been a full-on cook ever since.

Age 10: Read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings and to this day I re-read TLOTR about once every two years. When the movie came out I was one of those critical people pointing out the differences between book and movie. In my head, only, of course.

Age 12: Read a friend’s older sibling’s copy of The Exorcist in one afternoon. Was frightened for more than a year.

Age 12: Found Emil and the Piggy Beast by Astrid Lindgren in the school library, brought it home, read it to my little sister and we howled. I still read her stuff I find funny so that we can laugh together. She wants me to read Fifty Shades of Grey so we can mock it, shrieking with laughter, but I just don’t have that kind of time any more. Well, maybe I will. I’m just so morally opposed to this kind of thing: badly-written books getting so much attention? Sequels? Feh. (Plus, I went through all the porn stuff with Anne Rice about 20 years ago. Been there, read that.) (tangent alert) It’s like all the reality shows where people willingly expose their shallowness and vulgarity. These people are damaging our culture and should not be encouraged. I refuse to watch, even though a friend of mine knows someone on Real Housewives of Vancouver and wants me to watch it. Nope. Can’t.

Age 13: Read Stephen King’s Christine in one sitting, have been a fan ever since. My tastes have changed a bit since then but I still like his writing, particularly the Dark Tower series, some of his Richard Bachman stories like The Shawshank Redemption, It, The Tommyknockers, Rose Madder, Duma Key…The Stand and the Talisman also.

Age 14: Discovered in my parents’ bookshelf: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, James Herriott’s Vet books, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman. That was a happy reading summer even if I was a bit mystified by Margaret Atwood. Edible Woman was ok but then I read Surfacing and was like, What? But I adore The Robber Bride and Lady Oracle.

Age 16: Gone with the Wind – read it in one afternoon, had stunning headache afterwards. Rented the movie (Betamax!); my mom taught me the word “schmaltz.”

Age 16: Read my mother’s copy of Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux. Have been a fan of his writing, travel writing in general, and also books about China, ever since. I discovered Jonathan Raban and Dervla Murphy at about this time too.

Age 17: Read Robertson Davies for the first time. Magic.

Age 17: Discovered Anaïs Nin in mother’s bookshelf. Yikes.

Age 17: An ex-boyfriend gave me a copy of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road because he knew I’d love it and he was right. I still love him a bit just for that. He’s also the one who introduced me to movies like This is Spinal Tap. I still adore Helene Hanff. And the Spinal Tap guys.

Age 18: Read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, swiftly moved on to Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai. I was setting the stage for my discovery of Han Suyin later in my twenties.

Age 18: Picked up Pride and Prejudice in the library and found out that Jane Austen is hilarious! Who knew. She’s still one of my favourite writers. She opened the door to classics for me.

Age 18: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany was the first book that made me cry. And I love his turn of phrase: “Grandmother possessed those essential qualities that made the inappropriate gesture work: those being facetiousness and sarcasm.” (that’s off the top of my head, I don’t have it in front of me so mistakes are because it’s from memory)

Age 19: Mom gave me a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and I realized I’d have to wait for the movie to find out what the hell happened. I’m a very fast reader so when prose gets, say, lyrical, I don’t usually pause to parse it. I enjoy poetic prose when it enhances my understanding of the novel as a whole – Margaret Atwood excels at this – but I’m not good when the whole thing is all poetic. This is my failing and maybe one day I’ll self-improve and get into Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marques and other authors my mother’s always going on about. Our tastes in literature overlap but do not completely jive.

Age 20: Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth – consumed on a red-eye flight from Toronto where I was visiting my boyfriend. Red-eyed, indeed. This book sparked an interest in English history that I indulge to this day. I went on to more historical fiction, with Sharon Kay Penman, Philippa Gregory, and then into non-fiction writers like Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser. I still love all these authors. And I am a total know-it-all when it comes to English history, which is something worse than totally useless in the restaurant business and the side effect is that historical TV shows like The Tudors drive me insane. Justin’s banned it because of all the ranting afterwards.

Age 22: Discovered M.F.K. Fisher’s food writing. I still love How to Cook a Wolf. I adore this type of cookbook; lots of writing with some recipes in there too. Laurie Colwin, Colman Andrews, Mark Kurlansky, Ruth Reichl, A.A. Gill, and Robert L. Wolke. My heroes.

Age 24: A friend recommended Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There and I discovered that you can’t read anything really funny before you go to sleep because it’s too stimulating. I was up all night, giggling. I lent it to my dad for a flight to Hong Kong, but had to confiscate it because he put in earplugs, then started reading and was laughing so loud he was disturbing everybody else in business class. I absolutely love all of Bryson’s writing and his memoir of growing up in the ’50s, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, is one of my all-time favourites.

Age 25: Michael Crichton’s Travels has been an important book for me. Here was a Harvard-medical-school-educated, science-oriented, extremely critical and analytical thinker – and the last third of this book details his explorations of the paranormal world. I know! Right? He learns to read auras, dispel entities….it’s incredible and really opened my mind. A bit, anyway. One day I’ll post about the ghost in the Washington Athletic Club.

Age 26: Han Suyin’s memoirs about her life and her relationship with China as a half-Asian, half-Belgian intellectual who fled her marriage to a Kuomintang general to become a doctor in the UK. And then had the sense not to return to live in Communist China. A Mortal Flower, Birdless Summer and My House Has Two Doors. Amazing. She is a genius and totally my guru and also half-Asian like me so we’re practically sisters. See, I’m gushing. I have to admit, nowadays her writing seems a bit turgid and pedantic, but she’s still my hero.

Age 30: Stuart MacLean’s Vinyl Cafe stories – amazing, wonderful, hilarious.

Age 30: Jared Diamond. I read Guns, Germs and Steel on vacation on the east coast of Oahu. Wow. Need I say more? Collapse is even better.

Age 31: Christopher Moore. When I run out of reading material I go get Bloodsucking Fiends or Fluke and have a giggle for myself.

Age 31: Augusten Burroughs, David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell….worship the wit, the honesty, the courage, the funniness.

Age 36: Charles Clover, The End of the Line, Taras Grescoe, Bottomfeeder. And similar books on sustainability. After this series of reading, sustainability became a big goal at Hapa; we joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Oceanwise program in 2010, which, as a Japanese restaurant, was tough to do and we’re definitely alone in our genre.

Age 37+: Discovered more fabulous fun authors: Laurie Notaro, Jen Lancaster, Diablo Cody….the memoirists, they rock my world. I like people who have a small streak of nastiness as opposed to those who are perfectly happy and positive all the time. Where do those people come from? I think they’re hiding something.

I’m stopping there….that’s the short list because I’m worried about this post getting too long. Also we’re getting close to my present age. One more! Last year I discovered Malcolm Gladwell. OK, I’m stopping there.

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