Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What Matters in Jane Austen? By John Mullan

This year is the bicentennial of the publication of Pride and Prejudice so we may expect to see several new books about Austen and her characters. Mullen's exploration is subtitled “Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved,” but rather than puzzles, most of his chapters highlight the subtle ways Austen shows us characters that are not perfect and presents us with plots where happy endings are not foreordained. The operation of chance on believably flawed people is among the gifts Jane Austen brought to fiction.

Somehow Mullen manages to make this as entertaining as if we were attending an assembly ball with all of Austen's characters and gossiping about them as they dance. The twenty topics include how sisters get along, the effect of sexual attraction on her characters, the role weather plays in precipitating events, how Austen builds character with dialogue and why some characters are never quoted, the general knowledge of everyone's financial status, the role of blushing, and of illness. All this is illustrated with quotations from the novels that juxtapose characters from different books. The author notes that Austen's characters are younger than they are generally portrayed in film. For example, Mrs, Bennet is a still sexy forty and the pompous Reverend Collins a callow twenty-four in the novel.

Among the latest additions to the Austen shelf is The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne who uses significant artifacts to organize stories about Austen's life. What Matters in Jane Austen? will delight Austen fans, but for those who have not yet read her, begin with Pride and Prejudice, the most popular of her six completed novels. This is the year to discover the writer who created the prototype Regency Romance and Comedy of Manners and inspired uncountable “sequels,” parodies, films, adaptations, and imitations.

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