Books and Arts; Book Review;Jane Austen
A puzzle inside an enigma
Cults, cultures and one-upmanship
What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved. By John Mullan.Bloomsbury;
Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures. By Claudia Johnson.
JANE AUSTEN wrote six novels, lived quietly in Hampshire and died at the age of 41, having enjoyed moderate success. Since then, a cult of “Janeism” has ensured her legacy, and she has become one of the most widely read and revered 19th- century novelists. Two new books explore the passion and proliferation of Janeism in different ways. John Mullan (an unapologetic Janeite) takes delight in a close reading of her works, and Claudia Johnson (a Janeite with objectivity) traces the development of Janeism from the late 19th century to the present day.
Mr Mullan, an English professor at University College London, manages to make literary criticism fun. In “What Matters in Jane Austen?” he solves 20 crucial puzzles by asking such questions as “Is there any sex in Jane Austen?” and “Why is it risky to go to the seaside?”, scouring her oeuvre for clues and providing answers within the social context of Georgian England. This book provides entertaining trivia for Austen fans, who will be entranced by Mr Mullan's encyclopedic knowledge of the texts and the times in which she lived. He takes pleasure in “becoming as clever and discerning as the author herself”.
The best chapters are those in which Mr Mullan relates a theme in the novels to social history—moments that modern readers might otherwise miss. Thus, Austen never features or gives voice to the lower classes and servants. Readers might not see them, but by observing the dialogue and other characters' manners it is clear that they are there. Contemporary readers, though, would be familiar with servants being present, and would sympathise, for example, with Elizabeth Bennet's frustration at her mother gossiping in front of them in “Pride and Prejudice”. Playing games is also significant. Modern-day readers may not intuit the set-up of card tables, but they are a useful trick for Austen to push characters together and manoeuvre others away (all in the name of courtship). She also passes subtle judgments on the common practice of gambling. The chapter on money is revealing, since wealth and inheritance were inextricably tied to social standing and the all-engrossing business of getting married.
Like Mr Mullan's, Ms Johnson's book, “Jane Austen's Cults and Cultures”, shows that the novels demand rereading and can be interpreted in many ways. Also an English professor, at Princeton University, she writes in a more academic style, taking in research by fellow critics and Austen-related literature covering the broad periods of the late 19th century, the first and second world wars and the present day. At times the reader may feel that the library stacks are closing in, but there are some revealing passages that show how changing culture invites reinterpretation of Jane Austen and her works.
The opening chapter on Austen's body and her image is the most memorable. Few pictures of Austen survive, and over the decades she has been re-imagined in paintings, books, plays and films. Her place and meaning in culture have also shifted as society has changed. The Victorians saw magic in her stories; disenchanted with modernism, they aligned her novels with fairy tales and an idealised England. In the first world war soldiers carried her books to the front line as companions in a terrifying conflict, perceiving peril in the pages and toughness in her words. During the second world war Austen was considered the epitome of Englishness, part of the restful home front that needed protecting.
Both books are important. Ms Johnson's essays offer the reader a fuller appreciation of Austen and her admirers, but it is Mr Mullan's you should read for an unforgettable lesson in one-upmanship over your fellow Janeites.