The short answer is, “even the smallest detail matters.” But the bigger question is, “why does it matter?” In my review of John Mullan’s new book What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) for Austenprose, you can read more about what matters, and why:
“The closer you look, the more you see,” writes John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen? Elizabeth Bennet learns this lesson in Pride and Prejudice when she reads and rereads Mr. Darcy’s letter “with the closest attention” to understand why he separated Bingley from Jane and why he doesn’t trust Wickham. Mullan’s compelling analysis of detail in Jane Austen’s novels persuades us that “Little things matter.” In a series of chapters on what he calls “puzzles,” he asks questions about details and discusses how and why they matter. In the process, he demonstrates that the popular pastime of answering quizzes about the novels is not necessarily trivial, but can lead us to a deeper understanding of Jane Austen’s careful craftsmanship and her innovative contributions to the history of fiction.
You can read the full review at Austenprose.com.
You provide a comprehensive and insightful critical profile of John Mullan’s book What Matters in Jane Austen. Part of Mullan’s title could mislead. Why only 20 crucial puzzles solved? Mullan has commented publically that his publisher liked the presumed marketability of a reference to 20 items but there is nothing sacred about this number. In fact, readers who respond to Mullan’s style of analysis quickly realize there are many other seemingly small details in Austen which are worth exploring. A budget of 20 is only a beginning.
You suggest that “at times Mullan overstates his case or doesn’t fully develop his argument”. You do give examples intended to establish your point. However, is it possible that if he overstates his case, he is doing this in order to further capture the reader’s interest and spark further reflection on the reader’s part? In the case of an underdeveloped argument, is he simply encouraging the reader to undertake further analysis where he leaves off. The catalytic flavour of the mode of analysis he encourages is, I think, one of the original features of the book and one of the reasons for its value.
Sarah Emsley said:
Thanks! Good point — there’s nothing sacred about the number 20 in the title of the book. There are many more puzzles, both big and small, in Austen’s novels, and the puzzles Mullan explores here are also different in kind, as he talks about everything from “What Games Do Characters Play?” to “How Experimental a Novelist is Jane Austen?” It’s easier to see why the former qualifies as a “puzzle.” The second question raises larger issues about judging Austen’s achievement and reputation as a novelist, and might have been called the book’s conclusion, rather than the 20th puzzle.
Overstating the case or not developing the argument fully can certainly have the effect of prompting readers to reflect further and contribute to the debate, but they don’t help to make the author’s own thesis more persuasive.
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