in: Living, Podcast, Reading

• Last updated: February 20, 2023

Podcast #871: Jane Austen for Dudes

Years ago, I was flipping through TV channels and came across Hugh Laurie, of Dr. House fame, decked out in 19th-century English gentleman garb. Because I was a House fan, I was curious about what Hugh Laurie sounded like with his native British accent, so I paused my channel surfing to find out.

Then I brought up the title and saw that I was watching Sense and Sensibility. “Ugh. Jane Austen. No way I would enjoy that,” I thought. I associated Jane Austen with foo-fooey lady stuff. So my plan was to flip the channel as soon as I heard Dr. House talk British.

Two hours later, the end credits for Sense and Sensibility scrolled down the screen. I had watched the entire thing. Didn’t even get up to go the bathroom.

Not only did I watch the whole movie, I remember thinking, “Man, that was really good.”

Thanks to Dr. House, my resistance to Austen was broken, and I found myself genuinely curious about her books. So I got the free version of her collected works and slowly started working my way through what are arguably her three best: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t truly enjoy them all.

If you’re a dude who’s written off Jane Austen’s work as I once did, perhaps today’s podcast will convince you that there’s something in it for women and men alike and encourage you to give her novels a try. My guest is John Mullan, a professor of English and the author of What Matters in Jane Austen? John and I discuss the literary innovation Austen pioneered that influenced the likes of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and will give your social agility a healthy workout. John then explains why soldiers and Winston Churchill turned to Austen during the world wars. We also discuss the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that Austen’s work was “the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues,” Austen’s idea of manliness, and how a man’s choice of a wife will shape his character. And John shares his recommendation for which Austen novel men should read first.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Years ago, I was flipping through TV channels and came across Hugh Laurie of Dr. House fame decked out in 19th century English gentleman garb. Because I was a House fan, I was curious about what Hugh Laurie sounded like with his native British accent, so I paused my channel surfing to find out. Then I brought up the title, saw that I was watching Sense and Sensibility. “Ugh, Jane Austen, no way am I gonna like this,” I thought. I associated Jane Austen with froufrou lady stuff. So my plan was to flip the channel as soon as I heard Dr. House talk British. Two hours later, the end credits for Sense and Sensibility scrolled down the screen. I had watched the entire thing, didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom. Not only did I watch the whole movie, I remember thinking, “Man, that was really good.”

Thanks to Dr. House, my resistance to Austen was broken and I found myself genuinely curious about her books. So I got the free version of her collected works and slowly started working my way through what are arguably her three best, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. And I’ll be darned if I didn’t truly enjoy them all. If you’re a dude who’s written off Jane Austen’s work as I once did, perhaps today’s podcast will convince you there’s something in it for women and men alike, and encourage you to give her novels a try. My guest is John Mullan, professor of English and the author of What Matters in Jane Austen? John and I discussed the literary innovation Austen pioneered that influenced the likes of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and will give your social agility a healthy workout. John then explains why soldiers in Winston Churchill turned to Austen during the World Wars. We also discussed the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that Austen’s work was the last great representative of the classic tradition of virtues, Austen’s idea of manliness and how a man’s choice of wife will shape his character. And John shares his recommendation for which Austen novel men should read first. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

John Mullan, welcome to the show.

John Mullan: Ah, it’s good to be with you.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of English and you specialize in one of my favorite writers, Jane Austen. You’ve written a lot about her, researched a lot about her. But I read an interview as I was prepping for this, our conversation that when you were a young man, you blew her off as an author.

So when did you discover Austen and change your view of her?

John Mullan: I think I remember I first read her because I had to read her in school and I was probably in my… I was probably 16 or 17 and I had to do a Jane Austen novel for A Levels which are exams you do at the end of high school and [chuckle] I realize now I was very fortunate, I had a very good teacher who actually used to get us to read books which weren’t on the syllabus. And so I read Persuasion because I had to and Emma as a backup. And I think I thought two things. I thought, “Well, these are rather substance-less stories. They’re just stories about genteel young women trying to find a husband. How important is that?” The implied answer being not very important ’cause I was 16 or 17 and I liked stories about people, I don’t know, hunting whales or going up the Congo River or committing suicide at the end of the play or real stuff.

Brett McKay: Right.

John Mullan: Hamlet, Heart Of Darkness, Moby-Dick, that stuff. But I would say in my defense, [laughter] that I had some literary sensibility I think, and I did even then recognize that they were really well written. [laughter] So I didn’t blow her off really. And I didn’t think this is valueless. I just thought what she wrote about didn’t matter very much. And to put it very succinctly, I changed my mind because as the years went by, mostly it was because I had to teach it. And what I noticed was a kind of simple thing, but it’s a really extraordinary thing. And it happens with other really wonderful, complex, rich literature. And that was, I got it from my students, that each time you went back to it, the students on my behalf [chuckle] noticed stuff I hadn’t noticed before. So it just kept rewarding more and more, the more often you read it, the more you saw. And that’s never disappeared for me, even though there were Jane Austen novels I’ve read a dozen, 15 times, I still see things that I hadn’t seen before.

Brett McKay: So before we get into Austen’s work, let’s talk about a little bit about her background.

John Mullan: Sure.

Brett McKay: When did she live? What was her life like and how did that influence her writing?

John Mullan: Okay, so she’s born in 1775. She was a vicar’s daughter from Hampshire, which is kind of rural area, but I mean it’s not the back of beyond it’s… Even in her day in the late 18th, early 19th century, it was perfectly feasible to go and travel to London if you had a little bit of money to pay for the carriage. And she came from… It’s difficult not to use rather anachronistic words, but you would say in those days they would’ve said a genteel middling folk, we might say middle class. And she was one of eight siblings. So she had six brothers, five of whom were older than her, one younger, and she had one sister to whom she was… With whom she was very, very close, Cassandra, who was a couple of years older than her. And she grew up in this family.

And her brothers became things like vicars, two of them became vicars, and two of them became admirals in the navy and the church and the navy both figure in her novels. And I guess I’d say two things about her growing up, which I think are important, first of all, the more I just get into her family life, I mean the more admirable I think they are. I think they were open-minded, educated, tolerant, lively, optimistic people, so they weren’t rich enough so that they didn’t have to do jobs… One of Austen’s brothers, we might come to, inherited… Came upon an inheritance which was very important for her later on, but the rest of them, they had to get jobs, which in the late 18th century wasn’t what all gentlemen have to do. Mr. Darcy doesn’t need a job, Mr. Knightley doesn’t need a job, but they needed jobs. And I think that they were a good family for her to grow up in. And it… She loved her brother, she loved her father, she loved her mother, although her mother was a very irritating hypochondriac, but still it was a happy and enlightened family.

But it’s very important that… She had hardly any formal schooling. She went to school for a year and a half, didn’t learn much there. She learned it all from her brothers and especially from her father who’d… He was a university-educated man, he had a good book collection, she was very close with him. And just the second thing I will just say about her life is that I think it’s really important that although her novels were quite successful in her own lifetime, they were all published anonymously, the ones… Two of them were only published after she died, but four of them were published in her lifetime and her name wasn’t on them. So even though they were relatively successful actually, and she earned a bit of money, most people didn’t know who she was, she wasn’t a name. And she published all her novels right near the end of her life.

And she died very sadly when she was only 41 in 1817. She wrote some novels in the 1790s when she was in her 20s, tried to get them published without success. And then she was discouraged by that. And then her father died when she was 29. And for the next few years, she and her mother and her sister had this… A really difficult existence because they depended on her father’s pension basically and it disappeared when he died. And they traveled around, staying with various relations and various brothers and luckily… Don’t worry, I’ll bring this story to a halt quite soon. But luckily one of her brothers, Edward, had been… You might find this weird, Brett, but it not uncommon at the time, he’d been given to childless rich relations. And Edward was brought up by a very rich family in Kent called the Knights and he took their name and he became their heir. And after they died, he inherited all sorts of land and property and that included a manor house in a place called Chawton in Hampshire, which anybody who visits England, you can go and visit it. And even better, you can visit the house that he gave rent free to Jane, Cassandra and her mother to live in, which was in the village where the manor house was and it was part of the estate. And she moved there in 1809, so she’s 34 years old, 33, 34 years old.

And in the next eight years, she produced her six novels, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Because suddenly she had somewhere secure and her brothers clubbed together to give them enough to live on and she could go back to some of the drafts she’d made in her early 20s and she could write these novels. And so, extraordinary in the… She basically wrote a novel a year until she died in 1817. And [chuckle] the family had a special agreement that… Because they did have some servants who came in to help, but a lot of the domestic economy was done by the women themselves, and the deal was that Jane Austen had to do breakfast, okay. So she had to get the breakfast ready and clear it and make the coffee, make the tea, do all that stuff, and clear it up afterwards, and after that she was done for the day. [chuckle] And whilst her sister was making butter, or bread, or whatever, Jane Austen could write her novels because her family did realize that they got somebody quite talented on their hands or in their house, so that’s a sort of sketch, I hope that tells you something about her.

Brett McKay: So Austen, we talk about her today ’cause her stories, they’re good, they’re just really good stories, lots of characters. But one of the reasons why people are still talking about her is that she made a lot of literary innovations that contributed to the novel. And you still see novelists use the things that she came up with when she’s writing her stuff.

John Mullan: Yes.

Brett McKay: You still see them using today. One of those innovations you talk about is free indirect speech. What is that? Can you give us an example of that?

John Mullan: Okay. So yeah, I’ll give you a little example. What it is in general, it’s a technique whereby… You probably know… Novels can be… Stories can be told in all sorts of ways, but a lot of novels, and majority of them actually can be divided up into either told in the third person, he did this, she did that, he thought this, she thought that, or the first person, where the whole novel is… The protagonist owner can. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, what have you, Catcher in the Rye. And what Jane Austen I think more or less invented, although rarely got the credit for it, ’cause in the English novel it didn’t exist before her, was this technique, which as you rightly say Brett, is called free indirect speech or free indirect style. And the actual name for it wasn’t coined until the 1920s, but it existed before the name. And what it is, is narrating in the third person, as all her novels are, but with the narration, the storytelling percolated through the consciousness of one of the characters, or a better metaphor maybe, bent through the lens of a character’s way of seeing the world, so sharing their prejudices, their fears, their pre-occupations, their delusions sometimes.

And in some novels like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen will do that mostly through the consciousness of the heroine Elizabeth Bennet, but not entirely. So you get bits through where the narrative is affected by one of the other characters. And in one of her novels, Emma, almost the whole novel, bar two chapters, very carefully placed chapters, is through the eyes, through the consciousness of Emma. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s about a young woman who is handsome, clever, and rich, we’re told in the very first sentence of the novel, and she meddles in other people’s lives with sort of good intentions.

She wants to make matches for them, marry them off. And almost the whole novel is seen through her eyes, although it’s narrated in the third person. And she has lots and lots of views about what other people are thinking and they’re mostly wrong, but nobody ever tells you she’s wrong, you have to work it out. So there were lots of great novelists like Dickens or George Eliot who are there in their novels talking to you, telling you, guiding you, ruminating, philosophizing, and that’s often if a novelist is good enough, a wonderful experience. But Virginia Woolf once said, who was a huge Austin fan, said the brilliant thing about Jane Austin is she’s not there at all. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that because of this technique, she can leave you following the story through the track of the character, and see what you make of it.

Brett McKay: So I was gonna give you a little example. So Emma, near the beginning of the novel, she’s got this little protege called Harriet Smith, who’s three years younger than her. And Harriet Smith is a nobody who’s being dumped at the local little school for ladies in the village because her father is some well-to-do businessman and she’s his illegitimate child, and he’s paying for her to be looked after, but Harriet doesn’t even know who he is. And so she’s called Smith, the most common English name, and she is very sweet natured, very pretty, and really quite stupid. [laughter] And Emma takes her on as a sort of Pygmalion thing. She’s going to mold her, she’s going to be… Harriet’s going to be her project if you like. So it’s this very, very unequal friendship between the two. Emma persuades Harriet to turn down a proposal of marriage from a reasonably well-off gentleman farmer who she thinks is not good enough for Harriet, but who the reader can see is in love with her.

John Mullan: And what’s more, the reader can intuit that Harriet loves him back, but Emma thinks he’s not good enough and persuades Harriet to turn him down and instead encourages Harriet to think that the really smooth, good looking genteel local vicar, Mr. Elton, is keen on her and a likely prospect, okay. So one day, they’re out in the lane and Emma is thinking how can we get into Mr. Elton’s house? How can we get into the vicarage so that they can have a little tête-à-tête? And she sees Mr. Elton coming down the lane, she pretends to break her lace in her boot. “Oh, my lace is broken,” and Mr. Elton invites them in the house. And Emma leaves Mr. Elton and Harriet alone together in the sitting room, very difficult in the Jane Austin world in these novels for a man and a woman to be alone together. And Emma’s off with the housekeeper talking very loudly so that Mr. Elton can hear, she’s down, not in the room, she’s not coming, about the lace. And…

Sorry, I have such a long description, but in Jane Austin novels, there’s always so much going on. [chuckle] And she comes back into the room, and I’ll just read you a couple of sentences, okay. She says, “It could be protracted, no longer, this business with the lace. She was then obliged to be finished and make her appearance. The lovers were standing together at one of the windows. It had a most favorable aspect. And for half a minute, Emma felt the glory of having schemed successfully, but it would not do. He had not come to the point. He had been most agreeable, most delightful. He told Harriet that he’d seen them go by and had purposely followed them. Other little gallantries and illusions had been dropped, but nothing serious.” So what Emma is actually hoping is that by leaving them alone, Mr. Elton was actually gonna propose marriage, this is his chance. But if you think about that very first sentence in that little bit that I’ve read out, is terribly simple. The words in it are terribly simple, anybody could have written it. “The lovers were standing together at one of the windows,” but they’re not lovers. They’re not lovers at all. And in fact, the reader already has been given plenty of evidence to allow him or her to work out but of course, Mr. Elton’s interested in Emma, not in Harriet.

And actually, it turns out that not only are they not lovers, but you’ll find out, spoiler alert, a few chapters later, from Mr. Elton’s own lips, that he despises Harriet. He absolutely despises her as beneath him. And he only pretends to be nice to her because he’s trying to get Emma. But it’s all keyed on that little sentence, “The lovers were standing together at one of the windows.” And the funny thing is, it’s such a simple sentence, and yet, until Jane Austin came along, nobody could have written it.

Brett McKay: So yeah, it’s still third person, but it’s third person with Emma’s filter.

John Mullan: Yes.

Brett McKay: Right. And what’s interesting when I…

John Mullan:: It totally adopts her delusion.

Brett McKay: Right, yeah.

John Mullan: It doesn’t say, “Those whom Emma thought were lovers,” or it doesn’t say what another novelist might say, “Emma came in and thought, “Ah, the lovers are standing together at one of the windows.”” That says it were direct speech or direct thought. Just the lovers were standing together at one of the windows.

Brett McKay: And what it does is it makes you feel more connected to the characters. And when I… It’s interesting, you see this free indirect style, once you learn about it, you see it everywhere.

John Mullan: Yes.

Brett McKay: My favorite novel of all time is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

John Mullan: Oh, I’ve never read it. I’ve never read it, I’m afraid.

Brett McKay: Okay. I’m gonna send you a copy.

John Mullan: Okay, do.

Brett McKay: It’s about a bunch of cowboys who take a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana.

John Mullan: Yes. No, I’ve heard it, I’ve often heard of it. Yes.

Brett McKay: And I love it. And I did an interview with American literary scholar, Stephen Fry about Lonesome Dove, and one thing he said that really blew me away, and I find… When he said it’s like, “That’s why… ” Of course this is why I like Jane Austen too, and I like Lonesome Dove. He said Larry McMurtry was heavily influenced by the social novel of the 19th century, so like the… Particularly Jane Austen, and when you… If you read Lonesome Dove, he does the free indirect style, he’ll… And he switches. It’s like you hear the… You’re looking at the character and then you’re doing this third person thing, but it’s like the person is thinking, it’s almost first person but not. And that’s Jane Austen, she invented that.

John Mullan: Yes, she did, she did. I mean, it’s obviously… What’s he called? Larry McMurty?

Brett McKay: Larry McMurtry.

John Mullan: McMurtry. I mean he obviously was… Sounds like he was quite conscious of literary technique. One of the weird things about the history of free indirect style is actually… And I’ve talked to novelists about it, living, practising novelists, it entered the bloodstream of the European novel so completely that novelists do it without even knowing they’re doing it. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Yeah.

John Mullan: I talked to a contemporary novelist called John Lanchester who wrote a great novel called Mr. Phillips. And I was solemnly interviewing him in my academic way and saying, “Oh yeah, this is one of the most interesting exercises in free indirect style.” And he said, “What’s that?” And I told him and he said, “Oh yes, I suppose that’s what I was doing. I’ve never heard of it before.”

Brett McKay: And the other thing about Austen that makes her fun to read, ’cause as you were just doing that setup for Emma, there was a lot of well, he was thinking this and she was thinking that, and he was actually thinking this, it’s a workout for your social mind.

John Mullan: Totally.

Brett McKay: And one thing I’ve read is that reading Austen can help you develop what psychologists call a theory of mind, right, it’s…

John Mullan: Yes, yes, yes.

Brett McKay: Right, it’s understanding… You make guesses of what other people are thinking based on body language or actions, and that’s all Jane Austen’s all theory of mind all the time.

John Mullan: I agree. I think that’s a really good way of seeing it. I mean Jane Austen didn’t say very much about her novel writing. Most of her letters were letters to her sister and they’re all about the weather and getting colds and how difficult it is to travel to Guildford and things. [chuckle] But she does say that the things she expects from her reader is ingenuity, it’s quite an interesting word. So a novel like Emma, you have to be switched on. And the theory of mind you mentioned, I think the fascinating thing with Jane Austen is that it works in a double way, on the one hand, you look at the character saying and doing things and you see their consciousness of each other. So she’s a wonderful, wonderful writer of dialogue. And the thing about Jane Austen novels is that when people say things to other people, everything they say and do is shaped by their assumptions about what the other person is thinking.

Which is the way life is, but it’s not the way that all dialogue and novels is, not many novelists can do it as well as her. But also there’s this second theory of mind aspect, which is the one in a way we’ve just been talking about, that as a reader, you have to be… She’s not gonna do it all for you, you have to work it out. So you have to, in that bit that I’ve just read out, you have to be up to noticing that you’re inhabiting a delusional state here in that simple little sentence, the lovers, and the really clever thing about her novels is some of the time it’s not so hard to pick out what assumptions are shaping the character… The sentences and sometimes you have to be really clever. [chuckle] And that’s one of the reasons… It’s back to where we started, Brett, that’s one of the reasons they so much repay rereading ’cause there are things you’re never clever enough to notice at all.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So I imagine there’s a lot of men listening to this podcast that might have written off Jane Austen as a sentimental writer that’s geared primarily towards a female audience. But what’s interesting is I’ve been surprised to learn if you go back in history, it’s men who often turned to Austen during times of war and adversity. So I know during World War I, a lot of the British soldiers, they read Austen when they were in the trenches. And I know during World War II, Winston Churchill, during the Blitz, he was reading Jane Austen.

So I mean, what is it about Austen’s writing that caused these men to turn to her during times of war?

John Mullan: Okay, well, I mean, that’s a really interesting question, but yeah, there’s a really good… Your listeners might want to chase it down. There’s a really good, Kipling short story called The Janeites, he invented the word Janeites I think, which is exactly about it’s set after the First World War, but it’s about men meeting up again because they were united in the trenches by exactly what you’ve just said, their enthusiasm for Jane Austen. I think it’s two things coming together, one is that it is a… I imagine if you’re at the Somme, I mean mean obviously I’m just imagining, but my grandfather was there, my grandfather was at the Battle of the Somme and was indeed badly injured at it, Jane Austen’s world must seem a blessed relief. It is this elegantly circumscribed world of as she said, three or four families in a village, so nobody’s gonna get shot in a Jane Austen novel. But I think very often people just focus on that and assume that means the pleasure for some of those male readers in difficult situations or dangerous situations was one of escapism. And I just think judging from accounts people give as well as from her novels, that’s not true. Because within these worlds, lots of the people, [laughter] lots of the characters are behaving in the most monstrous and selfish and absurd ways. Her novels… Here’s a pitch for them, they’re terribly, terribly funny.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

John Mullan: And you can enter them and become absorbed and find them really, really funny, evidently, from what people said, as the shells are going overhead. And so, it’s a mixture, you escape into her world, but it’s not an escape really, because the people there are as complicated and ridiculous and their feelings and desires are as ignoble or absurd as in any other, as in life. So I think it’s that doubleness of them. Harold MacMillan, when he was prime minister, he said the same thing as Churchill, I think being Prime Minister was a bit different in those days from what it is now. But in the 1950s, he said at least once a week on a weekday, he would make an hour or two after lunch to go into the garden of Downing Street and read Jane Austen. And then he would come back as it were setup for the rest of the working week.

Brett McKay: So the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, he called Jane Austen one of the last great representatives of the classical tradition of the virtues. I mean MacIntyre thinks that Austen was an Aristotelian virtue ethicist. What do you make of that description?

John Mullan: Oh gosh. Well, I mean, that’s really… I need to… [laughter] The honest answer would be I need to run away and think about it because I wonder… For instance… And it’s probably possible to find the answer to this, whether she ever read any Aristotle in translation, but whether she did, because it’s likely that her father might have had it in his library. But also, the trouble is the question is designed to test my very thin knowledge of Aristotle. But as I understand it, I mean I think there are certain things which are as I understand it, yes, quite Aristotelian about her novels which… One thing I associate with Aristotle is the notion that the ethics are a practical business that you start with life, you don’t start with a theory.

Brett McKay: Right.

John Mullan: And that it’s the choices that human beings make practically in their lives which reveal their capacity for particular virtues. And Jane Austen, people sometimes write about her and try to work out what her beliefs were. Her father was a clergyman, two of her brothers, was she a very keen Anglican? Was she very devout? Was she very religious? How much are her novels Christian? And that’s all a bit of a fool’s errand really because of this thing Woolf mentioned that Jane Austen absents herself and lets the characters takeover. I think MacIntyre… I don’t know about Aristotelian, but I mean I do think he’s got a point in that you can, it’s one way to read them, you can read them as characters constantly being presented, especially the heroines with ethical choices. And it’s no bad schooling in ethical choices and no bad schooling because these are very ordinary choices. And you and I may not live in the Jane Austin world of a Hampshire village in the early 19th century, but most of the choices, they’re not much to do with the society of the times actually, they’re to do with things that we would all recognize about selflessness and selfishness, about envy and magnanimity. I mean magnanimity’s a good one, I think that is an Aristotelian virtue. There’s an amazing moment, could I give you an example?

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’d be great.

John Mullan: Which Aristotle would have recognized. Okay, so again, as I’ve done so much plot summary of Emma, let’s stick with that for a second. Harriet is schooled by Emma to have ideas above her station, and to put it bluntly, this comes back to bite Emma, because Emma gets completely wrong who Harriet has her eyes on as a possible husband. They quite soon find out the truth about Mr. Elton’s feelings. But a lot later on in the novel, there’s a character called Mr. Knightley, who’s the male lead and who has a certain tenderness for Emma and whose judgment is quite important to Emma, but he’s quite a lot older than her, Emma is 20, he’s 36, 37, and she’s used to having him as a friend and advisor. And anyway, there comes a point late in the novel where Emma has encouraged Harriet to think about this man, Frank Churchill as a possible husband, but she hasn’t mentioned his name. And essentially, Harriet has got the wrong end of the stick and has assumed that Emma was encouraging her to think about Mr. Knightley as a potential husband. And there’s a big scene when this is revealed, it’s one of the most brilliant chapters in all fiction I think. And you’re in Emma’s mind really. And Emma has got this wonderful sentence, “Why was it so awful [chuckle] that Harriet was in love with Mr. Knightley rather than Frank Churchill?” And it says something like, “Instantly with the speed of an arrow, it went through Emma’s mind that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.” [chuckle]

And it’s comic, but it’s also potentially catastrophic because then Emma says to Harriet… You’ve got to remember what she’s like, she’s dull witted, but very sweet natured and goodhearted, Harriet. And so she cannot tell a lie. Yes, you can really rely on what she says, however limited, precisely ’cause she is so limited. And Emma says to Harriet, “Have you any idea that Mr. Knightley returns your affection?” And Harriet says to her, “Yes, I’d rather think I do.” And it’s the most awful moment in the whole novel for Emma because she knows that Harriet wouldn’t say that if Harriet didn’t think it was true, and she knows that Harriet in her naivety must have sense something real. And then there’s this great moment of magnanimity when Harriet then immediately says… While Emma’s thinking, “Oh no, my whole life is falling to pieces,” where Harriet says to Emma, “Would you encourage me? Do you think I’m mad?” Sort of thing, but she doesn’t say that, but something like that. And Emma… It’s this great moment ’cause Emma knows that she has a real thought control over Harriet, and she knows that Harriet’s gonna believe what she tells her.

And she doesn’t say, “Oh, I think you are fantasizing.” [laughter] And she doesn’t say, “Oh, Mr. Knightley is a wealthy landowner, he’s never gonna marry a nobody like you.” She says the truth or a truth, she says, “Harriet, Mr. Knightley is the last man in the world who would ever give a woman the idea that he feels more for her than he does.” And A, that’s completely true, Mr. Knightley is like that. B, it tells you something about Emma’s relationship to Mr. Knightley, even though he’s not there because Emma can talk twaddle about anybody, but she can’t talk twaddle, rubbish, bunkum about Mr. Knightley because actually hardly… Only just acknowledged by herself she loves him. And so she has to speak the truth about him. But also finally, thirdly, C, [chuckle] it’s a magnanimous moment. It’s a really magnanimous moment. And Harriet is duly ecstatic at being told this and kisses her hand and says, “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.” Because Emma has given her the green light. And even though it goes against all her interests, all her feelings, and I would say that’s Aristotelian magnanimity, is it not?

Brett McKay: I think so. And yeah, the way I read it, so Aristotle, he was really concerned about people becoming good people, right, and you did that by doing good things, you became virtuous by doing virtuous things. And like how you said, Aristotle was very workaday, money played into that, social status played into that, love played into that, how you spent your free time played into that, and Jane Austen talks about that. You see characters starting to make decisions with those workaday things that would allow them to become a complete virtuous person.

John Mullan: Yes, yes, yes. And it’s certainly the case in Jane Austen, in really… It’s a case in lots of novels, but it’s the case in Jane Austen in very subtle ways that there are plenty of people, characters in her novels, including sometimes the heroines, ’cause they’re not perfect at all, who are good at talking about being good, talking about Christian virtues, and one of the subtleties of her fiction is that what you and I might call the bad people in her novels think they’re good too, they think they’re good. Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, who’s one of the great sadists of world fiction to my mind, who gets her kicks really from tormenting the heroine, Fanny Price, whom she resents for being a poor relation, whom she resents for having been sent to live with the rich Bertrams, her own sister and their family, Lady Bertram and their family, her family. She’s a torturer really. She’s a tormentor of servants who’s always pretending that she’s helping them out, but in fact is making their lives awful but she quotes scripture more frequently than anybody in the novel, and we find out that she thinks of herself as a virtuous person and [laughter], that’s one of the complications of a delightful complication of Austen’s fiction that you don’t get, there’s no cardboard villains.

Brett McKay: No. And what’s interesting too is about that idea of some characters weren’t even aware that they weren’t virtuous. I mean that’s one of the other things you see in her novels, is you see the heroines specifically discover, “I’m not as good as I thought I was,” or “I am… ” Was it… Elizabeth Bennett, “I am prejudiced. I got this… I think this Darcy guy is a prig, but no, actually I just really prejudiced against Marianne,” in Sense and Sensibility where she finally realized, Willoughby, yeah, they had a lot in common with book taste and things like that, or this passion for life, but, “Boy, I was really was dumb. He was a cad.” So all the heroins they had… Or even Emma, there’s a moment of, I guess Aristotle would call peripeteia, self-awareness sort of a, “I am not that great and I need to do better.”

John Mullan: Yeah, absolutely. And I think also, properly Aristotelian is the fact that, say the first example you gave, Brett, of Elizabeth Bennet, it’s not just that she realizes she’s been wrong about Mr. Darcy, but she’s also been wrong about Mr. Wickham, who she took rather a fancy to, who’s actually a bad guy and like a true practical philosopher, she then rehearses in her head the memories of the conversations she’s had with Mr. Wickham, where he’s told her lots of lies basically about Mr. Darcy and about himself. And she realizes that she should have known, just like the reader who read those dialogues should know, because Mr. Wickham, for instance, he tells her loads of stuff that he shouldn’t tell her, he over-confides we might say. And so even if it were true, there’s something wrong about somebody who are a mere acquaintance starts telling you, yes? It’s like the person you meet for the first time and you find you have… Knows somebody in common and this person starts telling you… Slagging that person off, but telling you maybe quite private things that they shouldn’t be telling you about, not on this mere acquaintanceship. And she realizes that if she’d been a proper, as it were, scrutineer of what she was hearing, she would’ve known already without further evidence that there was something wrong about it. I think Aristotle would’ve approved of that.

Brett McKay: I think so too. So you mentioned in an email that the characters, the main characters, they were heroines, they were women, but you make the case that Austen has a lot to say about manliness.

John Mullan: Yes.

Brett McKay: What did manliness mean to her and what was her ideal of a good man?

John Mullan: Well, I think she had several ideals. I mean I could list them as a list of qualities, but that might in a way be quite banal because they’d be unsurprising, one’s kindness, generosity, magnanimity, humor. [laughter] But reading her… I mean if you could… You get ideas of manliness from reading her novels, but I think it’s important to know that you get them in quite indirect ways where they’re exactly the sort of thing you only get on a… Maybe you get more and more on a second or third reading because apart from in Mansfield Park, there are no scenes in Jane Austen’s novels where only men are present. There are couple of short… Two or three short scenes in Mansfield Park where only men are present. There are lots and lots of scenes where only women are present. So you don’t find out what men are like together, what men say to each other, but there’s lots of evidence for it, there’s lots of clues. And what she does most of the time is allow you to find out about the good things about her male leads because they’re the representatives of manliness I suppose, indirectly.

So in Emma, you find out… You hear what Mr. Knightley is like when he speaks and he’s humorous and he’s wise and he’s clever and he’s particularly humorous, wise and clever when it comes to Emma. And he says great things, but also you’re seeing things mostly from Emma’s point of view, so you find out about Mr. Knightley indirectly. And I think that’s the exemplification of manly virtues that you get in Jane Austen’s novels, is all the more enjoyable because you find out about it indirectly so often. So you find out Mr. Knightley is incredibly kind, but he’s secretly kind because he knows that he’s surrounded by people who pretend to be kind. [chuckle] So you find out in the very plot of the novel that he’s done little things which first time round you hardly notice, that he’s arranged for people who can’t… For women, these women who haven’t got enough money to travel anywhere ’cause you have to have a carriage, and he’s arranged for his carriage, which he doesn’t usually use, ’cause he hasn’t got the horses for it.

And he’s hired horses and got a coachman and… You never get told that, you have to work it out from the events in the novel, that he’s doing all these kind things. And each of the men, Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, they’re really different in their aspects of masculinity, but you find out about their virtues indirectly. And I guess one thing they’ve got in common is how they behave, or in Mr. Darcy’s case, how he has to learn to behave [chuckle] ’cause he’s on a learning curve with Elizabeth Bennet towards women. And I would say that, in a way that is not particularly political at all, but is integral to the stories, the men whom are worth admiring or liking or marrying, [chuckle] are ones who treat women as their equals. And I don’t mean that in a sort of rights of woman where… I mean, because… Not because I’ve no idea what Captain Wentworth thought about the rights of women, it’s not part of what the novel’s about, but it’s a really… It’s a rare behavior in the novels and one that these very different men all share. And Mr. Darcy, he’s a tricky customer and he’s partly a tricky customer because he’s handsome and very, very rich and every young woman he meets is having a go at trying to hook him.

And then he meets this woman, Elizabeth Bennet, who is miles below him socially, who has almost no money and who teases him and who doesn’t try to hook him and who amuses him and who sort of fences with him and who brings out the better aspects thereby of his [chuckle] manliness. And that’s a real sort of Jane Austen… I guess it was something she believed, but it was also something she dramatizes in her novels, they’re about love and marriage and it’s true for all men in her novels that if they marry the right women, they become better men. [laughter]

Brett McKay: No, and this is Aristotelian. So another reason I love Jane Austen is even though she never got married, I think she offers some of the best advice out there on romance and marriage and it’s precisely what you were talking about. For Austen, you wanted to find someone that would make you better, make you more virtuous, and that’s an Aristotelian thing. So Aristotle has this idea about the different types of friends you could have, there’s a friend you like to have a good time with, you talk about the things you have in common, there’s a friend that’s useful, there’s a friend who you can go to them ’cause they, I don’t know, they got connections or whatever and help you with a job. But he said that the best ever of friend you wanna look for is those friends of virtue, the friends that make you more virtuous. And for Austen, that’s what you wanna look for in a spouse.

John Mullan: Yes. Yes. I mean, to exemplify what you were saying, Brett, there’s a wonderful moment, a real Jane Austen moment in Persuasion where Anne Elliot, okay, she’s been proposed to when she was 19 by this dashing but impecunious young naval officer, a mere lieutenant called Frederick Wentworth. And although she loves him, disastrously her mum’s dead and it’s not there to advise her, and she’s persuaded by her substitute mother, Lady Russell to turn him down. And he’s got no prospects, you’ll just ruin his career anyway if you encumber him with marriage. And Anne is very young and very unworldly and disastrously, she goes along with Lady Russell and turns him down. And then the beginning of the novel, he’s come back eight years later and he’s now rich, successful, still attractive as hell. [laughter] And she still loves him. And we find out that in the meantime, she did get another proposal, three years later she got a proposal from this local squire or squire’s son called Charles Musgrove.

And Charles Musgrove proposed to her and of course she turned him down because she still loves the absent Captain Wentworth. And Charles Musgrove then goes and says, “Oh, you won’t marry me.” And [laughter] he goes and proposes instead to Anne’s gruesomely selfish hypochondriac sister, Mary and she says yes. And those two become quite big characters in the novel. But anyway, Anne is a really good person. Jane Austen famously said of Anne Elliot, the sixth of her heroines, she’s almost too good for me.

And Anne is endlessly thoughtful and unselfish and to the point sometimes almost of masochism. But you inhabit the novel through her mind, through her consciousness. And there’s one bit where you catch her thinking an extraordinary thing. She thinks something, which she would never say because she’s too generous and kind a person. She’s observing Charles Musgrove, who’s endlessly having slightly petulant little tiffs with his wife Mary and they’re married, they’ve got two kids, they’re gonna be together forever, but they have a slightly low level rancorous relationship. They’re always disagreeing with each other, criticizing each other, when they’re apart, they’re always complaining about each other. And she looks at Charles and she thinks this thing, which a person might think, but a self-respecting person wouldn’t say, she thinks if I’d married him, if I’d said yes five years ago, he would’ve become a much better person than he is now. [laughter]

‘Cause she knows what Mary’s like and she knows that Jane Austen thing, that marriage shapes men. It’s not just they make a choice and that’s that, the choice then ramifies down the years, and she’s right. Charles is not essentially a bad guy, and if he’d married Anne, he would be more thoughtful, he would read more books, which, not a bad thing. [chuckle] He maybe would be a bit more involved with his children. He wouldn’t spend his whole time escaping to do hunting and shooting or shooting and fishing, and he would be a better person because when men make those choices of partners, it shapes their characters.

Brett McKay: Well, we’ve uncovered a lot I feel like in this conversation. For those who are interested in wanting to read Austen, is there a book you’d recommend men starting off with?

John Mullan: Yeah, I would definitely start with Pride and Prejudice. I think… Ah, it’s just a so perfect book. I don’t think it’s the most complicated of her books, but I think it’s the funniest of her books. And I think that also in terms of the… I think it’s got a heroine that… I remember when I first got into Pride of Prejudice, which I think I didn’t read till I was in my 20s, and I sort of thought, “Gosh, I really hope I meet an Elizabeth Bennet.” And then I would pause in my thoughts and think, “But I really hope I could cope with her.” [laughter] And so I think it’s got a heroine who is… I don’t know how to put this except to say, really attractive to a male reader. [chuckle] And I think it’s also got a male lead who is really interesting if you’re thinking what are men like, what should they be like, what are the typical follies of men, even of intelligent, good-hearted, reasonable men. And Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen does this really difficult thing with him, which is to make him worth marrying, he’s worth getting Elizabeth, but also she has to wean him off his self importance really. And usually, self-important characters in novels are really unattractive and Jane Austen does this thing of making his self importance not disgusting and even forgivable. So yeah, I’d definitely start with Pride and Prejudice.

Brett McKay: Awesome. Well John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about your book and your work?

John Mullan: Ah, well, [chuckle] my book, What Matters in Jane Austen, but I’ve read that wrong ’cause it has got a question mark, What matters in Jane Austen? To which I guess the one word answer is everything, everything, every little detail. So that’s widely available. You said at the beginning, I’m a professor of English literature and so I am, but if it doesn’t sound too self flaunting, I wrote this book for people who enjoy reading novels and people who enjoy reading Jane Austen. And I didn’t write it for students or for… Let alone for other academics, although I would hope that they too might want to read it and might find out things about it. But it’s a book which is very much about her novels, not so much about her or the times or the history or the background, although I hope you’ll find out some things about those things. But it’s a book to read once you’ve read a little bit of Jane Austen I think. And I’ve also edited… Done editions of Jane Austen’s novel, I’ve done an edition for Oxford World’s Classics of Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Brett McKay: Well, John Mullan, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

John Mullan: Been great.

Brett McKay: My guest today was John Mullan. He’s the author of the book, What Matters In Jane Austen? It’s available on Make sure to check out our show notes at where you’ll find links to resources we’ve delved deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. There’s a weekly or daily option and it’s free. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium, head over to, sign up, use code manliness at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you’ll start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review of the podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding to all who listen to the AOM podcast, to put what you’ve heard into action.

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