One of my goals for this year is to mix some more nonfiction into my reading selections, and I figured my mild obsession with Jane Austen was as good a place as any to start.
What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan delves into the subtext of Jane Austen’s six published novels (and her drafts of unpublished ones). It’s very well researched, discussing many Regency cultural elements her original readers would have been familiar with, such as mourning practices, salaries, pastimes, and (gasp!) sex. Even more fascinating, it discusses Austen’s brilliant narrative style, including use of dialogue and character POV.
Each of the twenty titular questions has its own chapter, which makes it very convenient reading because I could easily pick up the book and read a chapter on its own, then put it down for a month, etc., all while reading a fiction novel concurrently. (I think it will be a bit long-winded to be used as a reference book in the future, though.)
The book uses multiple textual examples from each of Austen’s published works, so it really helps if you are already familiar with at least the majority of them. I personally have read all six; I’ve not read Sanditon, The Watsons, or Lady Susan, but these are only discussed briefly. If you’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, I would recommend a good annotated copy of that instead, as you might be overwhelmed by the amount of information here.
Mullan also uses Jane Austen’s own letters to support his points, which is a very interesting and helpful source of information that I’m not as familiar with.
I found the chapters on Austen’s writing techniques to be the most interesting. It was more novel to me than the cultural aspects, and while I had some small differences of opinion with some of his points, it really made me think about why I enjoy Austen’s writing so much, and how I can apply that to my own writing as well.
I wouldn’t claim that this is essential reading for Janeites, but I certainly enjoyed it, and I think it enhanced my enjoyment of Austen’s works as well. I think I really need to give Emma another chance now. Or maybe I could just re-read all of them…