Book Review: What Matters In Jane Austen?

What Matters In Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullen

One of the aspects of Jane Austen as a reader is that you feel smarter as a result of reading what Jane Austen has written. Not only are Jane Austen’s novels full of intellectual puzzles and creativity that show her as a daring writer, but she manages to do so in a way that the reader is brought in on the joke, and where re-reading novels allows the reader to become increasingly aware of what is going on. This has affected my own enjoyment of some Jane Austen novels, where I was not particularly keen on Emma the first time I read it but much more fond of it the second when I realized that Emma was written intentionally to be blind and unaware and deceived, which made her more appealing as a consequence, though still not as appealing as most of Austen’s other novels which had more relatable heroines. Be that as it may, the author has done a great job in looking at some of the most notable puzzles of Jane Austen’s novels, with the explicit goal of demonstrating how this improves one’s reading and increases one’s respect of Jane Austen as a reader. Moreover, some of these puzzles can also inspire other readers to simply take them forward to areas that the author does not cover, just as I found out about this book by watching a video from someone who used this book’s puzzle about characters who never talk to cover a character from Persuasion (Colonel Wallis) who is never heard directly in the novel itself.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages long and is divided into twenty chapters that examine various important questions in reading Jane Austen intelligently as a contemporary reader. The author asks such questions as the importance of age, whether sisters sleep in the same room or bed and why this matters, what characters call each other (itself frequently a sign of social power), the appearance of Austen’s characters, and who dies in the course of her novels. The author asks about the risks and benefits of going to the seaside, why weather is important in her novels, how we see the lower classes, which of her important characters never speak in dialogue, even if their speech is reported, what games her characters play, whether there is any sex in the novels (hint: there is). He asks what characters say when the heroine is not there (in at least two cases, it points to the attractiveness of the heroines), how much money is enough, how much of Austen’s plots depend on blunders, what her characters read, whether illness is the fault of people or not, what makes characters blush. Finally, the author asks about the right and wrong ways to propose marriage, when Austen directly speaks to the reader, and how experimental of a novel Austen is, after which the book ends with notes, a bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.

What ultimately matters in Jane Austen’s fiction? A great deal of the puzzles of Jane Austen’s novels have a lot of similarities, and that is the fact that Austen herself wrote very compact novels in which no details are wasted. Whatever is included and omitted in her novels is included or omitted for reasons that are worth pondering about and worth seeking out. There are games for smart people in Austen’s novels, and games for people who are not smart, and it is important to recognize the difference. There are reasons why characters blush, and these reasons are frequently misunderstood. Indeed characters do not blush for their own embarrassment all of the time, but often also because of the lack of moral sensitivity of others. Some characters are nearly always wrong (Emma), some characters are never wrong and yet are characters that other people continually underestimate (like Fanny Price and Miss Bates). The way that Austen handles her characters and plots is masterful, and at times she can be caught in her genius by the restraint that she shows in certain circumstances. These circumstances are well worth considering. Some characters, like Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Anne Eliot, are so noted for their restraint that characters (and readers) sometimes fail to understand the character strength these people show in mastering themselves and how their restraint hides the deep passion that these characters have underneath the surface. And a wise reader of Austen always needs to dig below the surface.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: What Matters In Jane Austen?

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Right. And I sympathized with Emma from the beginning, even with all of her faults. I love Jane Austen for making her so human.

    • I must admit that I didn’t, but I did give the novel a second read and that made her much more relatable. While I found the naive innocence of Catherine Moreland endearing, I found Emma’s naivete more personally annoying, which probably says something about me.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    At least you gave her a second read. THAT says something about you.

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