Sunday, 22 July 2012

Wonderful Jane Austen

The other good thing about libraries - usually a good thing, although it can be inconvenient - is that they waylay you with enticing-looking books to read when you should be doing something else.

I couldn't resist What matters in Jane Austen? (subtitle: twenty crucial puzzles solved) when I spotted it among the new books.

The chapter on "What games do characters play?" made me aware for the first time that that whenever I come across a description of any of the characters settling down to a game of whist, loo, speculation, vingt-et-un or anything else, I tend to block out the name and mentally replace it with "random card game". But actually, readers of Jane Austen's time would have known exactly how each game differed and what the subtext was. For example, some games demand a certain number of players, so each card game is a way of grouping the characters, separating some, throwing others together. It's almost like choreography in the limited space of  a drawing room.

And blushing! Such a simple act but again, how much subtext it carries. Which novel has the most blushing? Which heroine blushes the most? Do men blush? What do they do instead? Who is the one male character who does blush, and when?

You can also find out which characters die in the course of the novels (surprisingly few of them), and how much money you need to live on, and what the characters call each other - particularly the married ones, and the hidden meaning behind words like "blunder' and "the seaside".

John Mullan is an English professor, and if his lectures are like his book, they must be highly entertaining. In fact, one of the best things about this book is that it makes you want to go back and read all the novels again, looking for hidden signs amongst the blushes and blunders. I enjoyed the way he drops in little snippets of information, like the fact that most of Jane Austen's novels take place over a year (but there is never any mention of the heroine's birthday) as well as the attention he gives to Jane Austen's beautifully written sentences, so perfectly turned that they can hinge on one well-placed word such as "wisely" in Mr Darcy's self-deluded musings: "He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should escape him."

There are many more fascinating aspects of the novels to mull over: how often do plots rely on the weather? how does the age of her heroines relate to the average age for women to marry in Jane Austen's time? how do sisters get on together, and which sisters seem to be the best suited?

And here are a few more tantalising questions::

  • What is Mr Collins' first name, and how do we know?

  • Who is the only woman to marry a man younger than herself?

  • Who is the only married woman to call her husband by his Christian name?

  • Who is the only married man to call his wife by an affectionate shortening of her name?

  • Which characters are never heard to speak directly?

  • And lastly, not from the books but from real life: how many other contemporary writers (novelists or poets) did Jane Austen meet in her lifetime?

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