What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved answers 20 questions relating to the novels of Jane Austen. John Mullan, an English professor at University College London, explores such topics as the importance of age in Austen’s novels, whether she wrote about sex, why blunders play a major role in her plots, what makes her characters blush, and what are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage.
Mullan answers these questions in great detail, providing plenty of examples from each of Austen’s six novels (Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility) and even two she didn’t finish (Sanditon and The Watsons). He also touches on the works of other authors from the period, Regency social mores, and Austen’s life to put her work into context. I certainly noticed many of these things when I read the novels, but clearly I have only scratched the surface of Austen’s work!
I learned many things from What Matters in Jane Austen?, including:
- Mary Musgrove, Anne Elliot’s sister in Persuasion, is the only wife in Austen’s novels to call her husband by his first name. The subsequent discussion of the meaning behind what characters call each other was fascinating and informative.
- Jane Austen didn’t describe what her heroines looked like, though some characters are described through the eyes of other characters. In Emma, Mrs. Weston says Emma has “the true hazle eye,” “pretty height and size,” and a “firm and upright figure,” but Austen merely describes her as “handsome” in the novel’s first sentence.
- Austen was the first novelist to describe small changes in the weather. The weather showed the novels’ chronology and even shaped events, like in Persuasion, when the rain forces Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth to seek shelter in a shop, and he must watch Anne whisked away by his competition, Mr. Elliot.
- There are several important characters in her novels who do not actually speak a word of dialogue, such as Mr. Perry, the apothecary in Emma, and Georgiana Darcy, Mr. Darcy’s sister in Pride and Prejudice.
- Austen sometimes spoke directly to the reader, even going as far as calling Fanny Price “My Fanny” in Mansfield Park. She is the only heroine Austen refers to in such a familiar and affectionate way.
I loved taking a closer look at Austen’s novels, and I am continually amazed by how many layers there are to her characters, plots, and writing style. I know that when I re-read her books, I will do so more slowly and with my eyes wide open. What Matters in Jane Austen? is the perfect book for Austen fans who want even more reasons to appreciate her brilliance, as well as those who think Austen’s novels lack depth.
Disclosure: I borrowed What Matters in Jane Austen? from my local library.
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