It seems that every time I stroll into either a brick-and-mortar or online bookstore, I spot yet another book on Jane Austen. There are books on manners, biographies, cookbooks, tour guides, and even a reality-tv series. Miss Austen, it seems, is a goldmine available for anyone ready to plumb the depths of Regency England.
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.