Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullen

Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 9781408820117, November 2012

Mullen gives us a wonderful trip through Jane Austen's novels, including the unfinished Sanditon, looking at obvious, non-obvious, and "I never thought to ask that!" questions about Austen's world, daily life, the behavior and relations of the characters.

What people call each other seems a simple and obvious detail, but it reveals a wealth of information about status in a class-conscious society, relationships between characters, and the formality that governed relations even between husband and wife. When characters violate the rules, it's not a throwaway detail. It reveals important information about the characters and their relationships. In Persuasion, Anne Eliot's sister Mary and Mary's husband are a rare case of husband and wife addressing each other by their given names. This isn't the norm as it is for us, or the sign of marital intimacy it is later in the 19th century. Instead, it's a symptom of the disrespect and frustration the couple feel towards each other.

Another aspect of daily life in Austen's world that's mostly alien to us now, where we don't have the same assumptions that Austen and her original readers did is in both the formality and the ubiquity of mourning. Strict rules governed what people could do and what they could wear when recently bereaved of their near and not-so-near relations and connections. Death was all too frequent, could come as the result of what started off as apparently a minor cold, and failure to observe mourning for family, connections, friends, etc., could cause offense and long-lasting ruptures between different branches of a family or formerly close friends.

This is a clearly written, engaging exploration of Austen's world, her fiction, and of what a daring and even experimental writer she was, creating major innovations in story-telling that are with us today.

If you enjoy Austen and enjoy going "behind the scenes" to see what makes a novel work, this is a fascinating, rewarding read.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.