I spent a rainy day last week with Lady Susan, Austen's vivacious vixen. I was able to righteously condemn her for her licentiousness, but in so doing, I fell under the spell of her creator. If you've never worshipped at the Cult of Jane, this may sound peculiar. It sounds peculiar to me and I've been a rabid fan since I was a sophomore in college. Peculiar or not, I was losing perspective and saw myself losing all Sense, if I couldn't have a side of Sensibility. Pride - and Prejudice - aside, I needed no Persuasion to embark on a journey to Mansfield Park, with a quick side trip to Northanger Abbey - for absolution. These troubling thoughts were Emmanating from me, when I happened upon What Matters in Jane Austen?, which has been lurking on my Kindle since last year. My salvation, I thought! I am about to climb The Magic Mountain, and the last thing I need is to indulge my insatiable cravings for Jane, Jane and more Jane.
I'm pleased to report that the fever has passed, thanks to this likable, but ultimately lightweight, literary endeavor. To be sure, Mr. Mullan knows his Austen. He reverentially shares his insights in a manner which was alternately compelling and repelling. While he admirably places her in the parthenon of greatness, quoting everyone who counts, from Virginia Woolf to Vladimir Nabokov, he sometimes sounds disturbingly like Miss Bates, the loquacious spinster, whose ramblings, he alleges, are key to unraveling the many mysteries of Emma. This fits well with PD James' assertion that Emma is essentially a detective story. Of course, for those of us who suffered through, Death Comes to Pemberley, the less heard from her the better.
That's only one of the many exciting tidbits he offers up, but in so doing, he sometimes mimics Miss Bates by resorting to repetition. The introduction and the two concluding chapters are masterful, but trying to fill the other 18 chapters seems to be too much of a challenge. He persuasively argues that Jane Austen was a literary innovator for perfecting the narrated monologue, more commonly known as free indirect style, but he is less successful in chapters titled, Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?or Do Sisters Sleep Together? To me they sound like tactics that desperate English teachers might employ to hook their horny high schoolers. So should you read this? Yes if you're a groupie like me, or if you are going to be a contestant on a game show and you know the Jane Austen will be one of the categories. Everyone else can probably skip it.