John Mullan Interview: On Jane Austen and Reading Aloud

John Mullan Interview: On Jane Austen and Reading Aloud
Abbie Jaggers sat down with eighteenth-century literature specialist John Mullan to chat about reading Jane Austen novels aloud, the characters in Austen’s books who love to read, and why academics love Emma.

Listen to the fascinating full interview here:


Interview Highlights

Abbie: So, you’re currently the Dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Humanities at University College London, and you’ve done a lot of work around reading aloud – can you tell us a little bit about how you became interested in that topic?

John Mullan: Well, I think I became interested in it because I just noticed – well, two things really – first of all that writers that I was interested in, so especially Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, seemed to have done a lot of reading out loud, and to some extent in Jane Austen’s case almost road-tested her novels as she was composing them on friends and family by reading out loud. So it seemed as if reading out loud was part of process of composition, it was so essential to what some writers were doing. And then the second thing, which I guess a lot of readers must have noticed, is that in novels – Austen and Dickens, but lots of other ones as well – when people read they often, in the novels, are reading aloud. So, famously in Northanger Abbey when Catherine Morland and the ghastly Isabella Thorpe retire together on a rainy day in Bath to read novels together that doesn’t mean they’re silently sitting there; it means they’re reading bits aloud to each other. And so it just became obvious that this was very important to writers who intrigued me, but that also, in some ways, maybe until certainly the twentieth century or a bit later, a great deal of reading was reading aloud.

Abbie: You mention that Jane Austen would have read her books aloud to her family, how do you think that experience changed the way that she wrote them? I’m thinking particularly of the way that she creates characters through voice, do you think reading aloud helped that?

John Mullan: Yeah, I think that reading aloud – the most obvious thing it does – is that it makes you listen to characters voices. There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.

Abbie: So, particularly thinking about Sense and Sensibility – I think you’ve said before that that book is quite concerned with reading as an activity and what characters read – can you expand a little bit on that for us?

John Mullan: Well, it’s a novel, as is Northanger Abbey in a way, about somebody who has got some of their ideas from life about books. Actually, it’s really interesting – there’s a bit of the novel which is about reading aloud and not just reading – because clearly Marianne and Willoughby read aloud to each other –

Abbie: Yeah, they read poetry to each other.

John Mullan: Yes, they do, and he fancies her, so he emotes in the right way. He’s supposed to read very well, so I imagine he reads in this tremulous manner, which she thinks shows that he’s got a good soul and a good heart, which of course it doesn’t. Notably, the other character in Jane Austen’s novels who’s said to read very well is Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, who is an absolute rake, seducer and bounder, but he reads really well. Anyway, there’s a telling passage in Sense and Sensibility when we hear about this slightly un-expressive, even slightly wooden man, Edward Ferrars, whom Elinor, Marianne’s sister, loves, but without being quite sure if that love is returned. He is given some poetry – some William Cooper, who was a great favourite of Austen’s – to read aloud, and Marianne protests afterwards ‘he read with so little sensibility’, as if the thing you display when you’re reading aloud and the thing which is the essential valuable human quality in the heart or in your soul are the same. As if you know a good person because they’re a good reader.

Abbie: So, do you think that the experience of listening to Austen audiobooks would have been similar to how they would have experienced them when Austen first wrote them, or do you think it’s a different experience because it’s an actor dramatizing it, in a way?

John Mullan: I think it is quite similar. You’re not listening just to an actor, but an actor that’s been edited, and therefore, it may sound trivial, but there aren’t going to be the stops and mistakes and those homely features that would distinguish an amateur from a professional performance. But on the other hand, I think that a lot of those who read aloud in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did it a lot and got very good at it, so they may not have been actors exactly, but some of them, one suspects, would have been excellent at it. And I don’t even think that actors are always the best people to read out loud. I mean, they can be, but I can think of instances where the best person to read out loud is the person who’s written it. I remember listening to a writer I enjoy, but also a writer I know quite well as a friend, Howard Jacobson, I remember I read several of his novels and I enjoyed them. But I enjoyed it in a completely different way when a couple of years ago in Germany I was doing an event with him and he read half of the first chapter of a novel that I’d already read out loud, and it was completely reanimated! I think he’s probably a novelist who writes in his own voice very much, so not necessarily like Austen, but still, you thought no actor could do this. This is this man’s voice, this man’s jokes, this man’s habit of speech.

Abbie: Always a difficult question, do you have a particular favourite Austen novel?

John Mullan: No, that’s not a hard question at all! Sometimes it’s whatever the last one I read was, but I fear like quite a lot of academics my favourite’s Emma, because it’s the most perfect. It’s funny, she wrote six novels, in three sizes – so Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are about the same size, and Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and then two considerably longer ones Mansfield Park and Emma, and they’re longer because they’re more complicated. Emma, it seems to me, because it’s her penultimate novel, she was just at the top of her game and just felt she could do anything, and it’s the most consummately complex and subtle – it’s like a Swiss watch mechanism on a grand scale. So, for academic reasons I love that because there are the most delicate mechanisms to look at. I think a lot of people like Persuasion the best because it gets them in the gut!


We hope you enjoyed this interview. Thanks to John Mullan for speaking to us!

If you love the idea of Jane Austen read aloud, check out our Jane Austen Audio Quiz.

And let us know which Austen novel you love in the comments!


The interview was by Abigail Jaggers. It was recorded and edited by Holly Newson.

Picture credit: etlpics – flickr

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