What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

jane austen novels

There are many books out there about Jane Austen, some more successful than others. There are the novelty type, which give us Jane’s advice on dating, domesticity, social etiquette and so on, which seem to be largely designed to fill the shelves of charity shops, and there are the very serious literary criticism type, destined to live lonely lives gathering dust in university libraries, as not even die hard fans can be bothered to plough through impenetrably dry paragraphs on the finer details of how Jane uses adjectives or some such similar pedantry. In the middle sit a rare breed of Jane books; those that manage to explore Austen’s writing with critical depth and intelligence, while remaining humorous, engaging and accessible to the common reader. They don’t require a university degree, a dictionary or superhuman levels of patience to decipher; instead, the only prerequisite for their enjoyment is a jolly good knowledge of the texts and an enthusiasm to find out more. John Mullan’s collection of essays is a perfect example of this; it’s wonderfully insightful, brilliantly witty, impressively broad in its scope and full of ‘oh I never even thought of that before but now it all makes sense!’ moments. I have loved every second of reading it, and now I want to read my way through Austen all over again with the insights I have gained. Plus, I want to finally get around to reading the unfinished works…something I have been meaning to do for years!

There are a huge range of essays in this volume, dealing with the meaty topics of sex and money as well as seemingly more trivial issues, such as weather and the seaside. I have preferred exploring these lighter topics, as these are the ones I never gave much thought to before, and which have surprised me with their significance. The seaside, for example, features throughout Austen’s novels; for some it is a more prominent plot device than others, and in the ones where it is only vaguely mentioned, it can be easy to miss its importance. For example, in Emma, Weymouth is the scene of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s fateful meeting; by the sea, away from their usual environment and, perhaps, buoyed up by the good spirits one often has when on holiday, they have turned their backs on the usual restraints of society to undertake a very risky secret engagement. In Pride and Prejudice, not only does Georgiana Darcy get whisked away to the seaside to be taken advantage of by the dastardly Mr Wickham, but Lydia Bennett does too; in Brighton, away from her family and influenced by the heady atmosphere of a holiday resort, she is induced to run off with Wickham, who has absolutely no intention of marrying her.  In Persuasion, Lyme is an entirely respectable place to visit, but Louisa Musgrove’s foolish behaviour, perhaps induced by her high holiday spirits, turns her seaside holiday into a disaster. However, this episode is the event on which the whole novel turns; after all, as Wentworth says, ‘no one is so capable as Anne’ when it comes to dealing with a crisis. It allows Anne to demonstrate her best qualities, and Wentworth to be reminded of them once more. The seaside is often not seen but frequently heard in Austen’s novels; as a location, it serves a vital purpose, and the astute reader should prick their ears up when they see it mentioned, as it usually imports a plot twist ahead.

What of the weightier topics? Well, money fascinated me; I had never thought of it in these terms before, but Mullan spells it all out so clearly – isn’t it intriguing how everyone in Austen’s world knows exactly how much everyone else is worth? In today’s society, the discussion of personal wealth is a bit of a taboo, and certainly in Britain, it’s considered crass to discuss your earnings. In Austen’s day, people’s fortunes were public knowledge. Emma knows that Mr Elton has only proposed to her because she has £30,000. In Pride and Prejudice, everyone knows Wickham has dumped Elizabeth for a Miss King because she has come into £10,000, and Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy’s fortunes are accurately calculated and delighted over by Mrs Bennett. In Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood knows just how much his stepmother’s income is, and can calculate down to the penny how ‘comfortable’ she and his half sisters will be without him having to cough up any cash. Austen is incredibly precise about amounts; in doing so we can well understand that Austen’s contemporary readers would have known just how much these amounts signified, and that they would have been able to make judgements about characters based on these. For example, when Tom Bertram says that the cost of the theatre production in Mansfield Park is ‘only £20’, the contemporary reader would know that this would be a yearly wage for the average working class man. This kind of thoughtless extravagance reveals much about Tom’s personality and fecklessness that today’s reader would perhaps miss. Purchases are also important; the crucial carriage Mr Perry is thinking of buying in Emma would have cost around £1,500 and marked him out as a very well to do gentleman. Mr Perry’s ability to buy a carriage demonstrates just how well he does out of his wealthy clients, and leads us to wonder how much of his attentiveness is down to true compassion.

There are so many fascinating insights throughout the twenty essays in the book that I could go on picking out examples and discussing them for weeks. It’s just the sort of literary criticism that I love; illuminating, intelligent and thought provoking with exactly the right hint of humorous gossipiness to allow it to be a book I can still quite comfortably read at bedtime. I have been reading a chapter a night for the last couple of weeks and I am sorely sorry to have finished. However, I know this will be a book I shall dip in and out of frequently, as it is an invaluable companion to reading Austen, which, as every discerning reader will, I am sure, agree – should be done as often as possible. Forget all of the novelty Jane essay compendiums; this is the only one you need. If you’ve still got time to put this on your Christmas list, please do – it really will be your most treasured present! Talking about presents, this was a present to me from the lovely Jane Brocket; thanks very much Jane! 🙂


  1. This sounds fascinating. I recently reread Emma and plan on rereading more Austen after Christmas. Maybe I should purchase the John Mullan book before doing so.
    I have also been fascinated with the hierarchy of wealth in Austen’s books. It is interesting too that often how that wealth is acquired has social significance.
    Thank you for reviewing this, I will look for the book.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Glad you enjoyed the review, Janet – you should definitely get this as your companion while you re-read Austen!

  2. cbjames says:

    It makes sense that money would figure so promently in Jane Austen since her novels, at least those that I’ve read, all center around a marriage plot. In her day, the one way most women of her class had to advance themselves was through marriage. The struggle of marrying for love vs. marrying for financial and social advancement features so heavily in Jand Austen’s novles.

    I have been thinking about going back to lit crit which I’ve not read in several years. This book may be just the ticket.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh absolutely, CB – it is key to all of her plots and it’s interesting how much people have to think about money when they start to consider marriage – things don’t change!

      Oh yes – this will be a perfect starting point!

  3. Samantha says:

    What a great find! Thanks for recommending it! I’m determined to have a Jane Austen reading spree soon – I’ve only finished two of the novels – and then “A Truth Universally Acknowledged,” and this one too if I can get my hands on a copy. Reading an essay each night before sleep sounds like the perfect way to end a day. Especially because essays, with their careful unfolding and satisfying conclusions, can help your mind wind down after a full and busy day.

    1. bookssnob says:

      You’re welcome, Samantha – it’s a pleasure to sing its praises! Yes absolutely – it was such a pleasure going to bed with these to look forward to!

  4. Penny says:

    Rachel, John Mullan was interviewed on ‘Mariella’s Book Show’, on Sky. We record all the episodes and intend to watch this one soon. I’m looking forward to it even more now!

    I was interested to read your review (of course! 🙂 ), partly because I was a wee bit wary of this book. I’m in an on-line group for lovers of JA’s writings, but there’s one member in particular, who was constantly finding sexual innuendo in the most innocuous of phrases. Now, I’m VERY far from being a prude ;), but it annoyed me so much that I never read any of the posts there now… So, as I say, I was wary… But now I think I’ll pop yet another book onto my Christmas wish-list! 🙂

    BTW, the lovely picture in your header features on the cover of one of my Open University Children’s Literature textbooks. I know you can’t judge a book, etc., but a beautiful cover like that is always encouraging, I think, and it makes the perfect heading for your lovely blog.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Penny, you lucky thing – I bet he will make a brilliant interviewee!

      I know what you mean – I sometimes have to raise an eyebrow at the findings of some Austen ‘experts’, but this is definitely a cut above the rest and a real piece of criticism.

      I love that picture so much – glad you like it too. I love the sound of a textbook with it on the cover – I bet it’s brilliant!

  5. Jenny says:

    Oo, the stuff about money is interesting! I would never have known that twenty pounds was a whole year’s salary, even though of course that makes total sense. That Tom Bertram!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I know, me either! I always knew Tom was a dastardly rake but that makes it even more obvious!

  6. Susan E says:

    Rachel, Another must read book from you! Good thing I’m almost done with Illyrian Spring, which is everything you said/wrote. Thanks for your reviews and recommendations….they have really added to my reading enjoyment this year. Susan E.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Susan, you’ve made my day! I’m so delighted that you’ve loved Illyrian Spring – as if you couldn’t!! What a lovely thing to say – I’m honoured to have been able to add something to your reading life! 🙂

  7. I cannot wait to read this! The money stuff sounds particularly interesting to me, since I have always been fascinated by Austen’s frequent reference to incomes and expenses (details few other authors address so openly). I am hoping to reread some Austen over Christmas this year, which would be the perfect preparation for when this book arrives in the New Year!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Claire, I know you’d adore this! I never really thought about how often Austen mentions money before – but reading the essay on it has really opened my eyes. Have fun reading Austen over Christmas!

  8. Karen K. says:

    This hasn’t been published yet in the U.S. but I couldn’t help myself, I ordered the UK edition from Book Depository a couple of months ago, though I haven’t started it yet — I’ll definitely get to it soon after your rave review! And I’m quite excited because Mullan is one of the plenary speakers for the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, which meets next fall in Minnesota. The theme for the meeting is 200 years of P&P so I’m sure it will be wonderful.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Wel done you, Karen! Get stuck in now – don’t wait any longer! How wonderful – he’ll be amazing, I’m sure. That meeting sounds brilliant – I wish I could go!

  9. Sounds like an interesting book. I’ve never thought of Austen’s discussion of money in that way before. If that was a reflection of the attitudes of her time, it makes me curious about when the shift happened that caused money to become the taboo topic that it is today.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes absolutely – I am wondering the same thing. Austen’s society seems much more pragmatic and straight forward than ours in many ways, surprisingly enough!

  10. Donna says:

    This sounds like such a clever, thoughtful present, and one you can come back and dip in to again. I’m always fascinated by this sort of social history/ literary criticism and am constantly fascinated by how much money would by in different places and at different times. I’ll have to buy this one!

    Have wonderful and restful (!) Christmas Hols and hope to see you again before too long 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      It would be just that sort of present, Donna! Maybe you’ll get it in your stocking?!

      Thank you – and the same to you. I hope you have some lovely plans, and can’t wait to see you again very soon! 🙂

  11. A lovely present, Rachel, for a lovely person who just put so much into her review of it. I think it might be too late for my wish list, but, one never knows, so I think I’ll just give it a chance.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Penny! You sweet thing! 🙂 Oh I think Father Christmas can still take requests!!

  12. Catie says:

    I have been seeing this in the shops and wondering whether it was any good, it’s nice to know that it is! I’m reading Northanger Abbey at the moment, and wondering how much, like the significance of amounts of money, I’m missing that the original reader would have picked up on. It sounds like those essays would make for interesting (and enlightening) reading.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh you must go and get it, Catie! I hope you’re enjoying Northanger Abbey – it’s the one Austen I’ve never re-read and I do need to get to it myself!

  13. kheenand says:

    I had put this into my letter to Santa so now I am even more hoping that it bears fruit.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I hope Santa gets the letter in time!! 🙂

      1. Karen says:

        He did and now a shiny new book is sitting by my side

  14. Nicola says:

    Great review Rachel, love the way Brighton is a hotbed of sin in P&P!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Nicola! I know – nothing changes! 😉

  15. mary says:

    I’ve been dipping in and out of this over Christmas and it was perfect for reading with interruptions!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Glad you’ve been enjoying it, Mary!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s