John Mullan is an amazing man. He's the head of the English Department at UCL (which I studied at) and personally got me reassigned with a tutor when my tutor was ignoring me. I'm a very big fan of his. Thus, when I saw that he'd written a book on Jane Austen that looked super interesting, I couldn't help but pick it up.
What Matters in Jane Austen is super fun in that it explores little aspects of Austen's books and expands that question so as to make points and observations about the world Austen inhabited and the hidden genius in a lot of her work. Instead of doing something like the main themes in Mansfield Park, he instead asks why does it matter how much someone gets a year? What's up with the weather? Why do bad things always seem to happen at the seaside?
By asking these seemingly simple questions, Mullan has a jumping off point into exploring both England in the regency period and Austen's own life. He uses her letters as another source, showing where things her works mirror her real life. Some of my favorite chapters explore omissions rather than express points: which characters never speak? what happens when the main character isn't in the scene?
What Matters in Jane Austen is the kind of academic writing that I absolutely love. It is just instantly digestible, to the point where I say I'll just read one chapter and then find myself a hundred pages in. It's interesting, it's fun and it's different from what's already out there. Mullan's style is completely engaging, as he finds humor in everything and manages to poke fun while also clearly respecting Austen.
This is definitely a book for fans of Austen but I think it's also a book for people who want to know what all the fuss is about. It shows things that are normally hidden and sheds light on things that seem (but definitely are not) obvious. It does require pretty extensive knowledge of Austen's books, at least the complete six, as Mullan just laces paragraphs with references assuming you're following. However, all in all, it makes for an immersive experience that is definitely a great read. Super recommended.