Early in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, having noticed the attachment between Bingley and her sister Jane, considered with pleasure that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united, with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from the suspicions of the impertinent. She mentioned this to her friend Miss Lucas. ‘It may perhaps be pleasant,’ replied Charlotte, ‘to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded.’ (P&P, p. 23) This is a strange passage. Elizabeth pivots from an interior monologue to a chat with Charlotte as if Charlotte materialises out of nowhere, in response to her mind. Even after Charlotte’s voice appears, her body does not: the ensuing conversation takes place in a vacuum. Although this incident is ordinary, the description is not. No later writer would describe it in the same way because Jane Austen leaves out most of what other writers would consider essential. Just where are Elizabeth and Charlotte? How have they come together? What is their physical relation to each other? What are they doing during this conversation? This seeming indifference to setting is not unusual in Austen. A long tradition of reading Austen as a master realist has masked her weird, experimental minimalism. This masking may have arisen because earlier critics used words like ‘minimalism’ to denigrate Austen as a small-scale writer limiting herself to a feminine, domestic world. Austen criticism of the past four decades has demolished this view by showing how deeply her novels engage Georgian culture. If earlier Austen criticism made her reach too narrow, contemporary criticism has turned her into a British encyclopedia, an authoritative commentator on everything from politics and economics to religion and medicine, from gender and colonialism to cognition and the environment.