More than any author, Jane Austen inspires popular criticism—lit crit without the flummery, analysis that remains free of the jargon adopted by professional academics. I read on both sides of that fence but infinitely prefer the popular criticism side, which has the power to draw anyone who enjoys attentive reading into its circle. And John Mullan’s book is among the best I have read in that arena.
He approaches the business episodically, through a series of inquiries that range from trivial matters such as “Do Sisters Sleep Together?” to subtler points of style such as “When Does Jane Austen Speak Directly to the Reader?” Each of his leading questions opens a little window on her work, examining issues of her cultural context or her literary technique. The essays embrace all the published novels, with (sadly) only glancing mentions of the juvenilia and unfinished works. (I wish people paid more attention to *The Watsons*!)
Along the way, he illuminates aspects of her world of manners such as the fine points of naming—why it’s rude for Mrs. Elton to call Mr. Knightley “Knightley,” to be sure, but also what Elizabeth Bennet is telling us about herself when she stops saying “Mr. Darcy” and starts referring to him as “Darcy.” (Speaking of the mega-couple, Mullan showed me a lot about their mutual attraction that I had overlooked during a gazillion rereadings of *Pride and Prejudice.*) What other critic would have considered an examination of how Jane Austen uses weather? Or what cues we should pick up from mentions of visits to the seaside?
Mullan has a keen eye for the telling detail, and a clear voice for explaining just how and what it’s telling. His analysis of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s meeting at Worthing is especially illuminating; and the conclusions he draws from the characters who are not given direct dialogue in the novels goes far beyond the usual platitudes. (*Emma* shows particular skill in the way it uses people speaking and not speaking: Mr. Perry drives the plot without ever saying a word, and Miss Bates reveals the truth without saying anything that we or the characters attend to.)
The back half of the book takes Mullan’s game up a notch when he brings his focus to bear on Jane Austen’s writerly techniques, especially in the chapters “Why Do Her Plots Rely on Blunders?” and “How Experimental a Novelist Is Jane Austen?” (“What Makes Characters Blush?” is also surprisingly illuminating.) He has a gift for discovering a telling keyword or concept and following its thread throughout a novel, showing us how it reveals Austen’s thought processes.
Many of us have had the experience of seeing something new each time we reread a Jane Austen novel. After decades of that experience, I thought I was reaching a point of diminishing returns—till John Mullan showed me how much I was unable to see without his help.