John Mullan

John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? came out in 2014.

Beastliness: Eric Griffiths

John Mullan, 23 May 2019

Quite​ a few academics in British universities are still called ‘lecturers’ even if plenty of humanities students seem to think lecturing is unnecessary. They can see the point of seminars or tutorials, at which in theory they can contribute, but why go to a lecture when you can get all the information online? Isn’t lecturing a relic of a bygone age? Doesn’t it seem...

Full of Glory: The Inklings

John Mullan, 19 November 2015

On 2 October 1937​, a short but enthusiastic review of a newly published novel called The Hobbit appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. The Hobbit was, the anonymous reviewer said, ‘a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery’. It was to be compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, as belonging to...

There is​ no sign that Freud read Jane Austen. Yet in her use of the words ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconsciously’, Austen might have had some claim to his attention. The words had been around in English since the late 17th century, and when Austen first uses one of them, in Sense and Sensibility, it is in a conventional and wholly un-Freudian manner. Elinor...

I once met F.R. Leavis – or almost. It was in October 1977, in a house in Bulstrode Gardens in Cambridge. I had arrived with a group of fellow students for an introductory meeting with our medieval supervisor, Mrs Helena Shire, a formidable Scottish lady of confident views and startling formality. As she ushered us into her sitting room we realised that it already had an occupant. A small, gaunt, elderly man in a jacket and open-necked shirt stood in the French window. I think I remember a look of something like panic on his face as the gaggle of 19-year-olds approached.

Restless Daniel: Defoe

John Mullan, 20 July 2006

Writers do not always know what their best writings are. Daniel Defoe believed his magnum opus to be his huge, passionately political, intermittently philosophical poem in heroic couplets, Jure Divino (1706). Begun while he was imprisoned in Newgate, its 12 books assailed the doctrine of the divine right of monarchs from every angle he could imagine. The argument mattered very much to him, as...

When we discuss novels, there is nothing easier or harder to talk about than characterisation. Nothing easier, in that unprofessional readers’ expressions of interest or aversion so often fix on a novel’s characters as vivid or pallid, believable or not. Nothing harder, in that academic critics (and their obedient students) have long since learned to steer away from the illusions...

“There is a frankness about Goldman’s pursuit of theme and coincidence. In the novel’s second paragraph we are introduced to a conceit that explains, with untoward explicitness, the continual reappearance of balloons and inflated bladders throughout the book. ‘What if love, earthly or divine, is to history as air is to a rubber balloon?’ Guatemala is an important source of latex, which eventually enables Mack Chinchilla to found a rubber-goods dynasty in New England. Every chapter includes an anecdote about things made from blowing air into rubber. An epilogue asks: ‘What’s more American than balloons? And what’s spookier?’ The stuff that was once ‘a sacred substance to American Indians from Mexico to Brazil’ becomes the material of celebration and idiocy. But also, clearly, rubber is supposed to be like the material of Goldman’s narrative, made to float by human breath.”

Sukhdev Sandhu loves a certain vision of London. He finds it realised in the 1987 film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, scripted by Hanif Kureishi, especially the ‘extraordinary scene’ in which the screen is divided and three attractive couples ‘are all shown fucking’. Here is cinematic confirmation of the city as a place of unpredictable pairings and joyful miscegenation....

“Perhaps here history was decided. The irreversible changes brought about by the Glorious Revolution might have been reversed after all. A Protestant nation with a monarch who exercised his power through grandees and politicians might have become a country with a Roman Catholic king whose right to rule was divinely ordained. The so-called Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 has fascinated historians precisely because it dramatises the sheer chanciness of history and undermines the retrospective sense of inevitability that invariably comes with our confident discovery in the past of patterns and developments.”

Hidden Consequences: Byron

John Mullan, 6 November 2003

The trailer for the recent BBC dramatisation of Byron’s life made no bones about the poet’s appeal. ‘Everything you’ve ever heard about him is true,’ the husky female voice-over promised. Here was a story that would excite us because of what we already thought we knew. Judging by the immediate critical response to Fiona MacCarthy’s biography, the appetite...

Somewhere in the skirts of the fabled land of Prester John, late in the 12th century, Baudolino, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, encounters a pygmy. He discovers that ‘the greeting to exchange with him was Lumus kelmin pesso desmar lon emposo, which means that you pledged not to make war against him and his people.’ Baudolino’s quickness with tongues is...

The rewriting went on and on. Over the course of twenty years, there were nine authorised editions of the novel, each different from its predecessor. Five of them appeared within a year of the first publication. Pamela’s editorial history is inextricable from its contemporary impact, for Richardson was always reacting to his critics.

Shandying It: Sterne’s Foibles

John Mullan, 6 June 2002

‘Tristram is the fashion,’ Laurence Sterne boasted, having just arrived in London in 1760 to taste the success of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. His glee seems understandable. This obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known as a wit only to a small circle of eccentric friends, had reached his mid-forties without achieving any kind of fame or affluence. He was unhappily married,...

It is said that, the night before the capture of Quebec from the French in 1759, General Wolfe read Gray’s Elegy aloud to his officers as they crossed the St Lawrence River. ‘I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow,’ he is supposed to have said. Presumably his men didn’t suddenly start to worry that they were being led into...

Malice: Fanny Burney

John Mullan, 23 August 2001

In March 1815, Madame d’Arblay, the woman we know better as Fanny Burney, was forced by the arrival of Napoleon from Elba to flee Paris and to leave behind almost all her possessions. ‘Books – Cloaths Trinkets – Linnen – argenterie Goods – MSS!!! All!’ When she reached Brussels, she wrote to her brother Charles: ‘Unless some speedy happy turn...

David Lurie, the soured academic who is the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, earns his living as a professor of ‘communications’ in a Cape Town university (his former department, Classics and Modern Languages, has been rationalised out of existence). He is obliged to spend most of his time teaching this new subject, in which he has no interest, no belief even,...

Denis Diderot, the hero of Malcolm Bradbury’s new novel, has one niche in the English language with ‘esprit de l’escalier’, his only entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘An untranslatable phrase, the meaning of which is that one only thinks on one’s way downstairs of the smart retort one might have made in the drawing room’. It is given, here and in the OED, as coming from Paradoxe sur le comédien, Diderot’s account of why the greatest actor must be a person of zero sensibility, ‘un spectateur froid et tranquille’ of human nature. The phrase seems untranslatable because it belongs so clearly to its milieu: we imagine the Philosophes in their salons, not afraid of any ideas, valuing only each other’s intellect, fencing with words. And we think of the mortifications involved in belonging to this milieu. An occupational hazard of Enlightenment man, who lives for clever talk, has been fixed in a phrase as a universal experience. If you want to live by your conversational wits, you are condemned to keep realising how clever you failed to be.‘

Clubs of Quidnuncs

John Mullan, 17 February 2000

Marginalia can sometimes seem the best way into a writer’s head. Those, like Blake and Coleridge, who could not help scribbling in the margins of what they were reading let us imagine their thoughts just as they spring into life. Inspiration and irritation can appear equally raw. If you want to catch sight of Alexander Pope in the hatching of his satire, and you have a British Library reader’s card, you can call up item C.116.b.1-4, unpromisingly described by the electronic catalogue as ‘A Collection of 24 works, lettered “Libels on Pope”, being attacks on Pope and Swift’. Although the catalogue gives no indication that this is so, the four volumes in fact contain Pope’s own collection of attacks on himself. He has written at the front of the first volume a slightly amended quotation from the Book of Job: ‘Behold it is my desire, that mine Adversary had written a Book. Surely I would take it on my Shoulder, and bind it as a crown unto me.’ Grist to my mill, he might as well be saying. Many of the pamphlets are annotated in his own hand, leaving us the traces of both original irritation and original inspiration.‘

The Labour of Being at Ease

John Mullan, 28 October 1999

What is the opposite of Reason? To some writing in the late 17th and early 18th century the answer was Enthusiasm. ‘Enthusiasm’ meant knowing the truth by direct inspiration – being in direct communication with God. ‘Enthusiasm’, Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, takes ‘the ungrounded Fancies of a Man’s own Brain, and assumes them for a Foundation both of Opinion and Conduct’. Enthusiasts are ‘raised into an Opinion of a greater familiarity with GOD, and a nearer admittance to his Favour than is afforded to others’. They know that they are doing what God wants. Enthusiasm intrigued Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers because it appeared an exemplary case of unreason. More than dogmatism, superstition or intolerance, it represented the human inclination to ‘get above’ rational thought.’‘

Plenty of Pinching: The Sad End of Swift

John Mullan, 29 October 1998

Jonathan Swift’s last formal composition, before he slipped into the dementia that swallowed him for the last five years of his life, was his own epitaph. In May 1740 he made his will, fastidiously apportioning his property and specifying arrangements for his interment. He stipulated that he be buried ‘as privately as possible, and at Twelve o’clock at Night’ in the great aisle of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had been Dean since 1714. A tablet of black marble was to be fixed to the wall ‘with the following Inscription in large Letters, deeply cut, and strongly gilded’:‘

Freak Anatomist: Hilary Mantel

John Mullan, 1 October 1998

In the Council Room of the Royal College of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds’s paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter’s face, once bathed in light, is still fairly clear. One can just make out that he is depicted at his writing table, caught, we are to imagine, in the midst of his thoughts. We cannot be shown his actual researches (it took Hogarth and Rowlandson to stoop, with the satirist’s relish, to the horrors of the anatomy room). Rather, we are to see the enlightenment to which the researches led. Hunter’s left hand is held pensively to his chin and his eyes look up, far over the viewer’s head, apparently seeing only his new knowledge of Nature’s works.

Two descriptions of pleasure gardens, a novel feature in the cultural life of 18th-century Londoners:


John Mullan, 19 September 1996

Any pushy, worldly man or woman of letters would like to find and befriend a Thomas Warton. The great 18th-century editor of Shakespeare, Edmond Malone, certainly recognised his usefulness. Malone, single-minded in his pursuit of standards of textual scholarship that would trump preceding editors of Shakespeare, knew that his friendship with Warton was uniquely helpful. Warton would know things, or know where to find them out. Man for minutiae that he was, Malone respected erudition, when it did not threaten him. Warton was one of his resources on the march to vicarious immortality.

Replying to John Sutherland’s review of her All Must Have Prizes, Melanie Phillips (Letters, 17 October) lines me up in support of her polemic about falling educational standards. She writes that I told a Daily Telegraph correspondent that ‘standards have declined among applicants’ to the UCL English Department, of which I am admissions tutor and John Sutherland is head.Even in my...

Head in an Iron Safe: Dickens’s Tricks

David Trotter, 17 December 2020

Dickens fought long and hard against the human tendency to focus exclusively on what is of immediate pressing concern in any given situation. His often anodyne protagonists have to compete for our attention...

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Unhoused: anonymity

Terry Eagleton, 22 May 2008

All literary works are anonymous, but some are more anonymous than others. It is in the nature of a piece of writing that it is able to stand free of its begetter, and can dispense with his or...

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Female Heads

John Bayley, 27 October 1988

Since the 18th century, and the novel’s coming of age, inventing female consciousness has become an absorbing masculine activity, a sex-in-the-head game. It is in the male head that...

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