The literary tide flowing around the shores of Jane Austen’s work depends on fascination with the achievements of this discreetly dutiful daughter whose fame and fellowship grew to the dimensions of an industry after her death. Just as well; she would have found much of the adulation too silly for words, especially any of her own. Professor John Mullan, however, is a noted literary archaeologist. He excavates facts from fiction, without ruining the structure, content or significance of the literature itself. It can be a bit tiresome, to tell the truth: in a recent newspaper series for example his questioning of Marilyn Robinson on the sources of her novel Gilead could not enhance the experience of actually reading the book. Usually a book has to stand by itself, we have to make of it what we can.
Here the temptation is to suggest that John Mullan should have dropped the question mark from his title. We would then be left with ‘What Matters in Jane Austen’ as a declaration of intent, and one justified by Mullan’s well-researched conclusions.
What does matter in Jane Austen is how she is read, and Mullan offers us a deeper understanding of the social, moral and emotional priorities of her time and therefore of her novels. Does this improve the experience? Surely some of the implications of her dialogues, the expositions of her characters as their history comes to a fictional end, do the job for us? She is not an author of mysteries, a composer of intricate conspiracies. What mysteries there are to the modern mind are those of tone, inference or assumption. These naturally afflict the work of any writer of a particular era or of a different milieu; they are often part of its attraction, and also part of the instructive quality of writing from another age than our own. But yes, Mullan does add to the accessibility of the books, providing a context which gives substance as well as charm to Austen’s creativity.
At first glance, this is a writer whose prose has clarity and is famously non-descriptive. Its attractions include an apparent simplicity of approach, Austen purposely refusing to indulge in the hysteria of popular women writers of her day. But this very austerity gives Mullan his excuse: his latest book is a guide to the interpretation of her hints, to the nods and winks of the polite society in which she moved and to which, wisely, she restricted herself . The sub-title proposes rather more: ‘Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved’ suggests that we have been troubled by these problems and waiting for their solution since we first turned an Austen page.
I don’t think this is the case. We understand the ghastliness of Mrs Elton in Emma without having to guess at the social impertinence of her use of Mr Knightley’s name. No new lexicon is required to grasp the self-deluding nastiness of Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park nor the desperation with which poor Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice schemes to arrange marriages for her five daughters. Idiotic and embarrassing she may be, but she is only too aware that her scholarly husband has not bothered to make any provision for them and that they will be homeless in the event of his death. Unless they are successfully married. The plot disguises the context, making a clown of Mrs Bennet so that she, as much as the philandering Wickham, is a villain of the piece, though the thrust of the piece depends on her manoeuvrings.
This is the area in which John Mullan is most useful: he enlarges the context of the novels, widening their informative scope on, for example, the rates of infant mortality in late 18th century Britain. He explains the snobbery, the misunderstandings implied by a casual aside, the differences between what is thought and what is spoken, and presents a delightful précis of the importance of Miss Bates in Emma who, as she acknowledges herself, betrays everything in her rambling flow of speech. But the clues to the plot of this wonderful book are all within her broken sentences; she ties everything up without in the least knowing what she is doing. The reader has to be watchful, for if Miss Bate’s hearers don’t catch the hints, neither will most of the readers. Austen could be mischievous and Mullan shows how she did it.
Why do names, the use of surnames, the significance of titles, the familiar or affectionate manners of address, matter so much as indicators of rank within an Austen family or group? In these days when Christian names must be called ‘first’ names and surnames are rarely offered at all it can be hard to remember the distinction between, for example, Miss Bennet and Miss Elizabeth Bennet: Jane is the elder sister and carries the dignity of the family name, all the other sisters are inferior to her. When Willoughby addresses Marianne in Sense and Sensibility by her Christian name it indicates to her sister Elinor ‘a perfect agreement between them’. Therefore not only Marianne but her family and her friends have been betrayed; for a young woman to be jilted at all, not to mind so publicly, was a grievous social embarrassment and often irreparable.
Austen, as Mullan makes us realise anew, did not avoid sin, or sex. Adultery, elopement, broken vows, deception, neglect and seduction of minors pace through her novels as they do through life. It was her preference to use them as plot devices or as resolutions without too much elaboration. Among Austen’s most famous sentences are these from Mansfield Park — ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly at fault in themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’. Those readers grateful for the restoration of tolerable comfort will find, with John Mullan, that ‘all the rest’ merit some attention too.