Sunday, November 24, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? - John Mullan

John Sutherland's literary puzzle books (specifically 'Is Heathcliff a Murderer?' 'Can Jane Eyre be Happy?' and 'Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?') did two things for me - improved my bus journeys back in the day and ruined 'Jane Eyre' forever. Sutherland doesn't believe Jane can be happy, re-reading the book as an adult woman who prefers that would be love interests don't dress as mad old gypsy women (I find I could probably overlook the mad wife in the attic, though I would prefer that she didn't keep trying to burn the house down) I can't help but agree. It's just not the same if you can't believe in a happy ending. 

Jane Austen is rather better at providing romantic hero's who are basically decent human beings so her appeal is undiminished. Despite that I'm always a little bit surprised by just how popular she is and what an industry she has become. For the most part I find Jane's own novels more than enough to be going on with but then a book like this comes along. This however is the sort of book that I'm almost bound to pick up in some sort of multi buy offer as the second choice (that's exactly what happened), it attracted me because of the essay format. If I'm going to read literary criticism I like it in digestible and independent chunks.

I picked up 'What Matters In Jane Austen?' in January and have been dipping in and out of it ever since, it's lived in my bathroom, under my bed, and today I retrieved it from behind the sofa - this sort of migratory existence is a good sign - as is my compulsion to sit and re read chapters instead of writing this blog post. It's easy to forget about books I've had for a while amongst all the new books I bring into the place - I suppose it would be a good idea to cut down on the amount of books I acquire but that feels unrealistic - and there's something nice about unearthing those half forgotten treasures.

Anyway, for the few people who might read this who aren't already familiar with 'What Matters In Jane Austen?' it's excellent. Reading it won't ruin any of her novels but it might give a deeper appreciation of some of the details and for when I don't quite feel like reading Jane again it sometimes fills a gap to read about her.   


  1. I enjoyed and learned from the pieces of this book that I read. Of course it is a trick - Mullan is not solving "puzzles" but engaging in close reading, just doing good literary criticism.

  2. Puzzles sort of implies that they are things I might have thought about at some point (generally not the case) and I wouldn't say crucial either but this is the way I like my literary criticism and he raises some excellent points.

  3. I like the idea of it filling in a gap or appreciating details by dipping into this book.