Last night me and WotN ventured out to go and hear John Mullan in Ely, talking about the divine Jane. I must tell you that there's no other writer from the rich history of world literature for whom I would go this far in cold, cold weather and listen to a talk about them, when I could stay home and read in the warmth of my own home. But for Austen I make exceptions, and I've heard good things both of John Mullan's book about her and of him as a speaker.
I wasn't sorry. It was a wonderful event. Organized by Toppings of Ely, it was held in St Etheldreda's Church in Egremont Street and, no offence to either the Church or the organizers, but the temperature inside wasn't what you'd call toasty. It didn't matter. Mullan was just excellent: knowledgeable, informative, entertaining, funny, and as sharp as can be on the Austen novels. He spoke about weather in Jane Austen and umbrellas; on the significance of an Austen character being called John, and on the way in which crucial plot information is often revealed by one of her less bright creations. He spoke of Emma as not only the best of the six books - a judgement with which I agree - but the best novel in the language. I could have listened to him for another hour again, easily. If I could take his course on Jane Austen, I would seize the opportunity. If you ever have a chance to hear him speak on Austen, you should seize the opportunity.
And here's the topping of it all (to coin one). Adèle and I are standing on platform 2 of Ely station, about to get on the train home to Cambridge, when who do we see but the man himself talking to two others who'd been at St Etheldreda's Church to hear him. We go over to thank him for a splendid evening, and he invites us to join what is now a Jane Austen train party. So we travel along, the five of us, talking you know what. Best of all, John inscribes and signs my newly acquired copy of What Matters in Jane Austen? - he writes, 'To Norm, well met on Ely station'. I'll be showing that about for a while, rest assured.