Freya Johnston

Two Inches of Ivory

What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved


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Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures


University of Chicago Press 224pp £22.50 order from our bookshop

‘The whole pleasure of marriage’, according to G K Chesterton, ‘is that it is a perpetual crisis.’ He had no time for David Copperfield’s second wife, Agnes – an embodiment of lifeless perfection to be rated far below David’s charming, domestically incompetent first love:

 David Copperfield and Dora quarrelled over the cold mutton; and if they had gone on quarrelling to the end of their lives, they would have gone on loving each other to the end of their lives; it would have been a human marriage. But David Copperfield and Agnes would agree about the cold mutton. And that cold mutton would be very cold.

Jane Austen, no fan of novelistic paragons either, wrote to her niece that ‘pictures of perfection … make me sick & wicked’. One of the many pleasures of John Mullan’s absorbing new book on Austen is how it handles the affectionate contempt of ordinary married life. Take Charles and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion: they bicker endlessly in public, but their quarrels also serve to unite them. From an initial query about how characters address one another, Mullan develops an energetic appreciation of how formality yields to familiarity, and vice versa, throughout the novels. To call someone by their first name might be endearing or slyly impertinent, but formality – where once there was intimacy – can be even more painful. Captain Wentworth’s ‘madam’, in his earliest direct address to Anne Elliot (also in Persuasion), is as chilly as the Copperfields’ mutton. It is only in the agony of Louisa Musgrove’s fall from the Cobb at Lyme Regis that he is finally provoked to cry ‘Anne!’ (even then, he says it to someone else).

What Matters in Jane Austen? is not really an exercise in problem-solving, and it therefore stands in a slightly tangential relationship to its full title. Rather, it pursues Austen’s own celebrated method of working on a ‘little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory … with so fine a Brush’. Starting from an apparently minor detail in the novels, Mullan proceeds to show the long-term influence of that detail on the evolution of character, dialogue and plot. Whether the topic is age, sex, death, money, illness, holidays, accidents, the weather or marriage proposals, Austen’s reticence has seldom been handled with such delicate precision.

In twenty short chapters, Mullan attends to the ‘intricate machinery’ of the novels, and it is astonishing how many new insights into Austen, on whom dozens of studies are published every year, are sparked by his approach. Each chapter creates an immediate appetite to return to the fiction. His work is essayistic and briskly compendious, but as a whole the book also builds up to a satisfying conclusion – one that acknowledges Austen’s capacity to bestow on her characters lives all of their own, ‘as if she were observing … rather than creating’ them. Thus in Mansfield Park we find her conjecturing, of Fanny Price’s mother, that ‘she probably thought change of air might agree with many of her children’. That ‘probably’ shows Austen paying her own creation the discreet compliment of seeming to guess at, rather than wholly to know, her thoughts.

Such is the quality and incisiveness of Mullan’s critical engagement with Austen that the only thing to regret about his book is that there isn’t more of it. Although he reveals many links between Austen’s letters and her novels, he doesn’t talk about her brilliant, explosive juvenilia. Yet some of his best appraisals of minor, especially villainous, characters in Austen point directly back to her earlier experiments in fiction. For instance, on the toxic Steele sisters in Sense and Sensibility, Mullan notes that ‘theirs is a relationship of mutual espionage’ and that they conceal things as well as steal from one another. That ingenious dishonesty is common in Austen’s teenage skits, such as Love and Freindship, a parody of sentimental effusion in which the two young anti-heroines pilfer cash and wreak havoc in the name of fine feeling. But to complain about such omissions is only to carp: What Matters in Jane Austen? is a model of clarity, verve, and perception.

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures shares with Mullan’s book an interest in Austen’s playful indeterminacy and self-effacement. Mullan ends by considering a description of Fanny Price turning away from the reader, and at the heart of Claudia Johnson’s warmly appreciative study is the sole authenticated image of the novelist: a portrait, by her sister, of Jane Austen with her back to the viewer. Johnson, like Mullan, traces out the silences and losses surrounding Austen. Her aim is not so much to shine a light on the fiction as on its admirers.

Most of the material under discussion has already been astutely handled in Kathryn Sutherland’s Jane Austen’s Textual Lives: From Aeschylus to Bollywood (2005), a work that is sporadically mentioned in the course of Johnson’s own. But the apparently central differences between the two are relegated to the endnotes, perhaps in the hope that we won’t pursue them. ‘I disagree’, says Johnson in one such note on Austen’s style, ‘with most of [Sutherland’s] conclusions’, but she does not elaborate.

Johnson’s reluctance to explain such disagreements makes it trickier to pin down the distinguishing characteristics of her work. She may have eschewed further comment in part because of the breadth of Austen’s fan base. Like Mullan, she writes with a sympathetic awareness of the non-academic reader who loves Austen, and for whom critical disputes and editorial ambiguities may seem mere piffle. But she also wants to make a serious contribution to the field of reception studies, and to defend her own editorial decisions. Trying to do all this, and therefore to address very different kinds of reader, is laudable, but it can result in a loss of focus. It also means that the book’s charges about all over the place: sometimes Johnson feels a ‘bit loony’ and Elizabeth Bennet ‘turns Darcy on’; at other times, we are squarely in academic territory, with Austen offering ‘possibilities for ideological resistance’, and so on.

Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures might fruitfully have considered how other authors were transformed into cult figures after their deaths: how does Austen compare with (say) Felicia Hemans? Or John Keats? Or Lord Byron? The strongest parts of the work are those where Johnson attends, as Mullan does, to Austen’s language: there is a penetrative commentary on the meaning of ‘bewilderment’ in Mansfield Park (both Johnson and Mullan are brilliant interpreters of the morally bankrupt Henry Crawford). Johnson’s argument about how bodies and things govern our reading of Austen is funny and illuminating, too.

As an editor of Austen, Johnson writes that she based at least one decision about punctuation on the experience of seeming to hear Austen breathe. But in a book that rightly stresses, as Mullan’s does, Austen’s fidelity to minutiae, it doesn’t inspire confidence that Johnson then misquotes what Austen says about her ‘little bit … of Ivory’. The book contains many other minor errors, including a slip in the text on Austen’s gravestone at Winchester (a text reproduced in its correct version in a photograph on the facing page). None of this would matter so much in a work of criticism that didn’t underline how crucial the details are.

The rules Johnson proposes about Austen’s novels tend instantly to generate, as she herself admits, a host of exceptions. She declares that ‘Far from lingering over tea sets … Austen never mentions them’. But hang on a minute. ‘Tea-things’ appear in Austen’s unfinished, unpublished ‘The Watsons’: don’t such ‘things’ imply a tea set? Mansfield Park includes a ‘solemn procession … of tea-board, urn, and cake-bearers’. A ‘tea-board’ must be a ‘tea-tray’. What does it support, if not a tea set? Perhaps Johnson’s point is that Austen sketches these scenes; she doesn’t fill in the gaps. And yet, whether she is writing impressionistically or precisely, Austen gives the sense of a mind perpetually on the watch. She asks her readers to be vigilant, too.

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