The Jane Austen Handbook Hardcover – Apr 1 2007
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“A valuable companion to Austen's novels.”—School Library Journal
“This informative and gently amusing book explains (Austen) in easily digestible sections, and is equally of use to the Austen neophyte and the Austen fan.”—Chicago Tribune
“What a boon to any Jane Austen fan! It is great fun to read.”—Portland Book Review
About the Author
MARGARET C. SULLIVAN is the editrix of Austenblog.com. She lives in Philadelphia.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
This time, it is Margaret Sullivan who has combed through six novels and other literary fragments that Miss Austen left behind, and has come up with a book of manners and truly correct behavior for the modern reader who wants to figure out why in the devil does it seem to take so long for our various heroes and heroines to admit that they do indeed love one another? And why is so much time spent on writing letters, details of dress, and why was it so awful not to get married at all?
Margaret Sullivan takes a look at all of this, and the minutiae of daily living in this volume. The various chapters are filled with quotes, anecdotes, drawings, how to's, and numerous drawings and sidebars. All of this is presented in a small hardbound book about the size of a mass-market paperback, printed on ivory paper in varying shades of teal-coloured ink. At this point, the sheer preciousness of this volume was starting to sink in, and I was wondering if I had indeed, wasted my money.
Well, yes, and no. Let's first take a look at what the various chapters cover:
Margaret Sullivan discusses as to why she wrote this book, along with snippets talking about what is forthcoming in the book.
Jane Austen's World and Welcome To It
This section addresses who are "The Quality," the ever-present question of money and why you need it so badly -- one of the paradoxes of the period was that a 'gentleman' was considered to be someone who had plenty of money, but was required to be never shown actually earning it, how to write letters, and how to get about in a ladylike manner, especially on a horse.
A Quick Succession of Busy Nothing; Or Everyday Activities
The title here implies that the genteel woman was rather idle and listless -- far from it! There are details on clothing, and acquiring it, planning dinner parties, raising children, doing Good Works, and all the rest. While it's certainly interesting, there's a sort of cruel nature to this, as though Sullivan was trying to be sly, but just comes off as being nasty about what women were doing, and how worthless it all was.
Getting the man, keeping the man, breaking up, and getting back together. Not what we would call making love now, but rather, the politics of courtship and planning a wedding. I do have to say this too was interesting, but again, the author puts on the smarmy tone, which isn't too pleasant to read about.
The Best Company; or Social Gatherings
Snobbery runs amuck here. Social calls, balls, dinner parties, and card playing. It's more of how to be a gracious host or guest, two talents that I tend to find woefully absent in our modern age. Still, out of the various chapters, this one at least has some interesting bits that help to explain some of the actions in Austen's novels.
It's this chapter, at the end, which provides the most information for the reader. There is a short biography of Jane Austen, synopsizes of her works. This has, up to the end of 2006, all of the very many books that have been published as prequels and sequels -- what the author has titled 'paraliterature' -- to Jane Austen's novels. Most interesting are the lists of film and television adaptations of all of Jane Austen's works.
In addition to all of this, there are also resources, a bibliography, glossary of terms used in Austen's time, and index, along with a short blurb about the author.
Most of this material is covered elsewhere, and what with the recent upsurge of ephemera on Jane Austen, there's quite a bit for the curious reader to choose from. I would suggest the works of Josephine Ross,
Overall, it's nearly a four star book, but I found the author's attitude a touch on the sarcastic side, and more than a little snobbish towards the reader. This was the most disappointing aspect of the book, as it tends to get very tiresome after the first few occurrences, and Sullivan comes off as trying to be far too clever, and ends up on the cutting side. It's not exactly a way to win over the reader.
Okay, actually it doesn't quite, but after a lengthy discussion of undergarments of the Regency, what it truly does say is:
"That means we may assume, with a high degree of probability, that Jane Austen went commando."
And I don't think that means that the authoress of Emma (which inspired the movie Clueless, y'know) was involved in special forces military operations during the Napoleon Wars.
All righty, now that my title and opening paragraphs have alienated Austen scholars everywhere while also nicely hemming in Amazon's male readership, I'll try for the other half of the public by mentioning that this bite-sized robin's egg blue book is great as a resource for describing the minutia of morals, manners, social customs, dining habits, drinking practices, religion, travel arrangements, and much else of Englishwomen and Englishmen from the period in which Austen set her novels. Far from the boring and dusty tomes that too frequently tackle subjects like these, The Jane Austen Handbook is fast-paced and fun. I can't fairly describe myself as a great admirer of Jane Austen's sex-`n-violence-lacking tales but I thought Margaret C. Sullivan's work was absolutely first-rate. I enjoyed tremendously reading about the background facts of exactly how life would have been played out for those who peopled Persuasion, or who truly lived two centuries ago in rural England.
To highlight a few of the eye-opening revelations:
Back then almost everyone was on opium at one time or another.
Like the former pop stars of today, women didn't wear underwear. (Oh, wait, I already covered that..)
Gentlemen could be more elaborately dressed than women without being thought the slightest bit light in the wrist.
Eloping to Scotland was an option for those seeking the Vegas wedding of the day. In one infamous Scottish town, Gretna Green, girls as young as twelve or boys as ancient as fourteen could seek out the local blacksmith and be legally wed without a license, certificate, or even a pastor. Cool!
"Flattering a gentleman's vanity" was the best all-purpose come-on there was in Miss Austen's age.
Female hypochondria was de rigueur and skilled hypochondriacs were much-respected. (While the garden variety practitioners like Mary Musgrove were less lauded.)
There were but four acceptable professions for a gentleman to enter--the church, the law, the military, or medicine---and strangely not one of them involved music, sports, or acting.
So, whether you want to know the difference in a hack, a gig, or a curricle, wish to know how to fold your next letter "just so" or if you're one of those types who just can't get enough Jane ("Why can't she have her own twenty-four-hour cable network?" you've sincerely remarked) Austen this is the reference book for you!
Some reviewers have snobbishly complained that The Jane Austen Handbook is just for those who came to appreciate Jane Austen after seeing "Colin Firth in a wet shirt" in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice, but to that I say, the accusation is, one, off base and two, out of line. I, for one, studied Austen in grad school before that movie ever came out and I love it and this book. Secondly, even if it is true for some readers, so what? What sort of superiority are these detractors trying to claim -- "I read Jane first so I'm better than you"? That's an indication of a coarse and simpering immaturity that Miss Austen herself would not countenance and would indeed be inclined to masterfully caricature.
The Jane Austen Handbook is a combination handbook or primer and compact compendium of Regency life. It is for those of us who live and work and love and dress in the modern world, but who nonetheless like to display civility, sometimes laced with irony, in our speech and actions, to fold our letters property and to drink our tea from china cups, even as we work for our own "10,000 pounds a year" (Mr. Darcy's income, worth between one-half and six million in today's currency, as the section on Modern Money Equivalents on page 27 explains).
Indeed, as the detractors point out, the information in this book can be obtained from numerous other sources, but why should anyone have to apologize for wanting it all in one attractive and amusing place?
Margaret C. Sullivan's writing style reminds me of that of Judith Martin, a/k/a Miss Manners, whose works I also recommend to the modern Jane Austen acolyte, particularly her wonderful first novel, Gilbert.
The sections in this book (i.e. How to Become an Accomplished Lady, How to Run a Great House, How to Indicate Interest in a Gentleman Without Seeming Forward, How to Throw a Dinner Party, How to Choose and Buy Clothing...) are not so much "How To" spots but delightfully detailed descriptions on what life might have been like for a Regency Gentlewoman such as Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Austen, herself. There are plenty of things for the modern reader to try, but far from coming away with only a new set of social skills, the reader will find a much greater understanding of the era Jane Austen was writing in and consequently a greater ability to enjoy Jane Austen, as well as other Regency writers.
The first of it's kind to focus on what life was really like in the Regency (not the Victorian era, as so many "19th Century Histories" do)this book is a great resource for authors of Regency Era and Jane Austen styled fiction, as well. A first from author Margaret Sullivan, I certainly hope it won't be the last!
The illustrations by Kathryn Rathke are priceless and the appendix is chock full of other Austen related information including a brief biography, summaries of Austen's works as well as film and television adaptations, and a comprehensive list of useful online resources. I give it five enthusiastic stars!
Some of the other reviews for this book have said that this book is good for people who are new to Jane Austen's work, and need a hand, but I disagree. I am a huge Jane fan, and I still found the book somewhat informative and helpful. A lot of the information was familiar, but some was new, and the information that I already knew about was still good to read, because it gave a deeper, more insightful view on the subjects.
I recommend The Jane Austen Handbook to any Janeite. It really is a joy to read and there is a good chance you'll learn something new, no matter how knowledgable you think you are :)
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