Turning Jane Austen's Fiction into Literary Sudoku

Article excerpt

Byline: CLAIRE HARMAN

WHAT HAPPENS IN JANE AUSTEN?: TWENTY CRUCIAL PUZZLES SOLVED by John Mullan (Bloomsbury, [pounds sterling]14.99) LITERARY critics no longer stay decently out of sight on campus, harmlessly supervising theses and checking the footnotes to a scholarly article; they go abroad in shirtsleeves, chatting. Some, like Professor John Mullan, do it more successfully than others: Mullan is buoyantly enthusiastic about his discipline, articulate and personable. Don't worry, he reassures us: I can tell you a lot of very interesting things about English literature and yet never be stuffy.

Jane Austen is the perfect subject for his brand of informed informality, the best-loved, most easily referenced author in the canon. Her millions of fans love her so much that they feel little urgency to read her books, and the ones that do know the books well (the audience for Mullan's friendly musings) are guaranteed to go all warm and fuzzy just hearing the words Mrs Elton, Darcy, Gowlands or Bath.

Chatting about Austen is pleasurable and easy --she is the prize gobstopper of English literature, to be sucked on dreamily and passed around.

So this is a lovely book for Janeites, covering all sorts of questions about the novels that wouldn't necessarily have occurred to a reader before but that once asked, prove intriguing and instructive, such as Which Important Characters Never Speak? What Games do Characters play? and How Much Money is Enough? Of course these aren't "crucial puzzles" as the subtitle claims, and Mullan is not primarily concerned with finding "solutions". Benign and intelligent speculation is the order of the day, and the result somewhere between attending a lecture and doing a sudoku. What are the servants thinking about Mrs Bennet or Sir Walter Elliot? What sort of sexual history do men like Colonel Brandon and Darcy and Captain Wentworth have? (Unlike the heroines and their creator, they are clearly not virgins. …