Jane Austen “did things with characerisation, with dialogue, with English sentences, that had never been done before,” writes John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen? (p. 2). That she wrote novels is not surprising. That she wrote in such utter isolation is more so.
That she wrote with such audacity is, Mullan argues, “miraculous”: “There was something miraculous about the fact that she wrote novels whose narrative sophistication and brilliance of dialogue were unprecedented in English fiction. She introduced free indirect style to English fiction, filtering her plots through the consciousness of her characters. She perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters that rendered them utterly singular. She managed all this with extraordinary self-confidence and apparently without the advice or expert engagement of any other accomplished writer” (4-5).
Mullan’s book pays attention to the minutiae of the novels, not only because Mullan is a fan but because “a small detail of working or motivation in one place will flare with the recollection of something that went much earlier. . . . Every quirk you notice leads you to a design. The boon of Austen’s confidence is that the reader can take confidence too, knowing that is he or she follows some previously neglected thread it will produce a satisfying pattern (6). Mullan examines the ages of characters, asks what the whether was like at various moments in the stories, pays attention to the games her characters play and the books they read. Every detail is part of an intricate fabric of meaning.
One chapter examines the role of silent characters in the novels. One of these is Captain Benwick, a poetry lover in Persuasion who is grieving the death of his fiance, Fanny Harville. We learn from the narrator that Benwick talks and talks, quotes poetry at length, and yet is never quoted. Mullan writes, “He keeps being talked about as talking, but his own words are kept from us. Charles [Musgrove] vaguely remembers something he might have said about Anne . . . but not any actual state,ent. He will never actually speak to us. The ‘poor fellow’ is sad, no doubt of it, but by declining, among all his effusions, to give us his own words, Austen animates our doubts about all his feelings. . . . the absence in the novel of Benwick’s own speech [indicates] that there has been something self-pleasing in his discussion of the poetry of feeling. . . . His conversation is like a private flow of discourse” (134-5). His speech is not his own – he quotes others’ grief; his second-hand grief isn’t worth recording. Cruel little trick on a grief-stricken minor character; a sign that Austen was every bit the “beast” she said she was.
The silence of Miss de Bourgh, Lady Catherine’s daughter, plays a different role: “During her stay in Kent, whenever Elizabeth [Bennett] meets Lady Catherine, Miss de Bourg is always of the company, yet she is incapable of contributing anything to the dialogue. Lady Catherine’s daughter ‘spoke very little,’ we are told, but in fact she speaks to us not at all: she is made entirely silent by the novel. Austen contrives a deliberate impression of her nothingness that is comic because the young woman is otherwise so privileged, and because her mother is so persuaded of her accomplishments” (135-6). One pities the lady: Could anyone get a word in growing up in the home of the imperious Lady C?
Virginia Woolf claimed that of all the great English novelists, Austen was the one most difficult to catch in the act of greatness. Mullan wants to do just that, and his meticulous book uncovers many small greatnesses.