Any fan of Jane Austen’s novels has become accustomed to seeing new books about her, her novels and her writing skills almost on a daily basis. I recently purchased and read WHAT MATTERS IN JANE AUSTEN? Twenty Crucial Problems Solved by John Mullan (Bloomsbury Press, 2013). I found this to be an enjoyable read, and a useful work. Mr. Mullan has presented a collection of essays dealing with certain concepts that appear in Jane Austen’s novel, and explaining their significance. Questions of age, the importance of the weather, who speaks or (just as importantly) who never speaks, illness, blushing and other topics all are examined. In each of these chapters, Mr. Mullan’s insights gave me additional perspective on each novel. These new perspectives have made me more aware of points of view, mores of the time, Austen’s subtlety, and other things that have deepened my appreciation and enjoyment of Austen’s writing.
For example, in the chapter about weather, Mr. Mullan indicates that Jane Austen is the first novelist to point out weather shifts that might occur during any normal day, and to use them to highlight and to move her plots. While I cannot address his contention that Austen is the first to use weather in this way, I can say that, after reading this chapter, I have a much keener awareness of and appreciation for the significance of the weather throughout her novels. It isn’t that the reader is unaware of the impact of the weather on the various stories; Mr. Mullan’s discussion has a way of highlighting the significance of the weather and its changes in context. Many modern readers live in a climate-controlled situation. Going to visit a friend on a rainy day means going from one’s door to one’s car, barely dampened by the rain. The real effect of walking three miles on a rainy day in a muddy lane doesn’t have the immediacy for us that it would have had for Jane Austen’s contemporaries. After reading Mr. Mullan’s essay, I am much more aware of the significance of the mentions of the weather in the novels, and have found that this increased awareness has brought even more life to the stories. Sometimes he addressed things that I felt, but had not consciously thought about in reading the novels. The other chapters have had a similar effect for me. It was interesting to find that some topics that seemed obvious had depths I had not previously considered sufficiently.
Mr. Mullan’s writing style is very easy to read, with a conversational tone. It is rather like reading letters from a friend who explains why he liked something or found an idea important. He is obviously well versed, citing Austen’s letters and the novels in support of his ideas very convincingly. The chapters are titled, and each reads well. He provides notes and a bibliography, so the reader can study further. I enjoyed reading it, and especially enjoy the fact that my appreciation for Austen’s writing has only increased.
Here is a link to this book on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/What-Matters-Jane-Austen-Crucial/dp/1620400413/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1369686970&sr=1-1&keywords=what+matters+in+jane+austen