Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders
Written by Josephine Ross, Illustrated by Henrietta Webb
This short but adorable little book set me back just $3.95 from Basement Books (Sydney, Central- my usual haunt) when it RRPs at about eight pounds. I couldn’t resist the little watercolour-esque illustration on the front- and while it was only around 130 pages long it kept me immersed for long enough and don’t be alarmed- the gorgeous images continue throughout, only getting more delightful.
I admit, I fully expected it to be a comedy. But instead of finding a humorous take on the time, I found a comprehensive mini-handbook on just what Jane Austen expected from people. And, most interestingly, how it was represented through her novel. Pride and Prejudice is a common mention (page ix, 3, 8, 10, 13, 17, 23, 30 and on in this way) and would make fantastic reading for anyone who wants to know more about the Regency era, would like a better understanding of Pride and Prej or with just a keen Austen fancy. Many of the issues are themes in P&P including how to refuse a marriage proposal with delicacy, rules of dancing and the general civility needed for polite conversation.
If you have ever been confused with the rules of “calling” in on your neighbours before (and what in the hell is a “calling card”?!), or how to compliment correctly (in fact, you don’t at all) then this is definitely a read for you. While the book’s execution feels a little amateurish this actually makes it more enjoyable. It feels almost like an Austen juvenilia work (reminding me of Jane and Cassandra’s The History Of England, and even written in an almost Regency fashion). Spanning topics from conversation and intoductions to taste, dress, matrimony and servants, most areas of Jane’s life- and the life of our favourite Elizabeth Bennet- are explored.
Each chapter (which covers the above topics) begins with two quotes from either Austen’s novels or her letters, and is then separated into little rules: “Rule 4. Recognise the ‘distinction of rank‘” before being dissected and explained beneath. It frequently includes short quotes from the books, and plenty of close examples, to elaborate and prove the point.
At the very least, you will find yourself reflecting on your own life versus those from the 18th Century. It is very light and easy reading, but includes witty insights into Pride and Prejudice. We all know, for instance, that Mrs Bennet is coarse and vulgar- but why is she so at odds with what was deemed “proper” at the time? (Especially since she would fit in so well in the 21st Century) In fact, she does observe some of the rules – for instance, not visiting Mr Bingley before Mr Bennet creates the acquaintance – but she blindly ignores others, such as shouting gossip down the table and similar. There are also observations that I completely missed about Sir William Lucas in the novel (aspects of his title and where he fits in terms of being “proper”) that were made plain in this book.
On the downside, it can be a little disorientating. Especially if you don’t know what you’re in for. As a fairly seasoned Janeite not much in this book was new to me (despite how much I enjoyed reading it), and it was also a little unclear about what the point was, or rather- is it supposed to be written as though it were in the Regency era? It felt like a rule book telling YOU how to act- rather than explaining how people of the time were supposed to act. This can be a little unnerving.
It will only take a couple of hours to read through it, but it can definitely be referred to frequently. The illustrations in this paperback version are all black and white other than that on the cover, but in the hardback I have heard that they are in full glorious colour. I daresay it will be kept in my handbag for whenever I need to have a “talking to” from Jane (referred to in the book as The Authoress) in the manner of ‘What would Jane do?’.
Have you read this? Or know of a similar book? Divulge me as is proper!