Book Review: Dear Jane Austen by Patrice Hannon

“A heroine’s guide to Life and Love”

This gorgeous read by Patrice Hannon was given to me by Pauline (my bestie, and member of the frequently-mentioned Jane Austen book club) for Christmas.  It’s an absolute delight, and a really nice concept.  Written in epistolary style, it is a book of advice from Jane Austen to modern-day “heroines in training” as though Jane herself was writing it (with full knowledge of the 21st Century) in response to their desperate questions.  Explaining her advice with references to her novels (there are plenty of Pride and Prejudice quotes and examples) and intersplayed with biographical details about Jane’s life and family, it is a remarkable read.

Potentially categorisable as a ‘self-help’ or Agony Aunt style book- there can be no possible better rules and etiquette guides than Austen herself.  Patrice Hannon does an incredible job of speaking in Austen’s voice, and explains Elizabeth Bennet and all her heroine’s decisions in the process.

This book is set out in different chapters, based on different areas in one’s life that might need Jane’s advice eg character, family, sex (self professed as “A Short Chapter”), beauty and money etc.  While only 150 odd pages and the perfect size for a handbag, it is somehow still very comprehensive.  Points are highlighted in capitals after each main piece of advice has been given, and they sometimes lend for a bit of a giggle.  For instance: “JANE AUSTEN SAYS: A HEROINE LOVES ROMANTIC STORIES BUT DOES NOT MISTAKE THEM FOR REAL LIFE” had me laughing at how often I break the rules. 

The questions from the modern day heroines (of all ages and situations) range from insightful and relatable to downright stupid/vapid/annoying, although I can definitely see people I know coming out with the comments.  For instance, “How can I be perfect the way [your heroines] are?” or “he makes very little money and I must confess that I like nice things … What do you think?” all the way to the simple “Can I call him?”. To which our lovely Jane cuttingly responds “Your letter reveals the unfortunate influence of a culture distinguished by nothing so much as vulgarity and self-absorption.” Love it.

Pride and Prejudice is mentioned on page 4, 8, 12, 14-16, 18, 20 and on in this manner, so even if you aren’t familiar with the other novels it won’t be of detriment to you, in fact a lot of the advice is paralleled to a few books, so it’s a rare case that there is an example only from Mansfield Park (and everything is explained very thoroughly in any case).  And, there’s plenty of Darcy/Elizabeth applicable advice to soak up along the way!  I especially adore this line: “Elizabeth does not torment herself with invidious comparisons, although she knows very well that she is only moderately accomplished… Yet she had pride in herself, pride enough to refuse a most desirable marriage proposal when she is offended by the gentleman’s behaviour and manner of address.” Is that not the reason we love Lizzy summed up in a nutshell?  And what an absolutely perfect piece of advice for any woman.

There are some amusing mentions of the Bronte’s, Eliot and Hemingway that were particularly well done- such that the writing had an authentic ring to it.  Jane’s brother Henry also has a little go at writing at some point, and we have several opinions from himself and Cassandra Austen which makes the piece a little more dynamic.  A small criticism would be that the interruptions from Jane’s life as she is writing the letters can be irritating when they ruin the flow of what was being said, but they do offer a valuable context and insight.

Each chapter has a little quote under the heading, and it is nice that a quote from Elizabeth Bennet “Till this moment, I never knew myself.” graces Chapter One: A Heroine’s Character.  The other quotes are from the other books (including Lady Susan) and from letters to Cassandra.

I think this book is so well written and insightful because of the skill of Hannon- she has a PhD in English literature, and has taught Austen to students previously.  I wonder if any of the questions from the heroines were things she ever wanted to ask herself, or that her students ever pondered.  What questions would you ask Jane Austen if you had the chance?

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2 responses to “Book Review: Dear Jane Austen by Patrice Hannon

  1. Definitely going to look for this book, lovely review!
    I’m thinking about what I’d ask her, and so far have only thought of conversation – “How to maintain pleasant conversation with perfect strangers” would be it. Is it in the book? I suffer from a mild Mr. Darcy Syndrome.

    • thatjennie

      Thank you! Hmmm, in “A Heroine’s Character” the first question is along the lines of “How to be as perfect as the likes of E. Bennet etc” but Jane tells this questioner that she needs to acknowledge first that each of the book characters have flaws, that Lizzy puts down Miss Bingley and Mr Darcy’s notion of an “Accomplished woman”. One question also asks “I’m so confused. Do men like women who are quiet or talkative etc” to which she is told that each of her heroines are different, and we should try to be ourselves as much as possible “What my heroines have in common, however, is a firm character that does not bend with every male influence.” There are also questions e.g. “Your heroines are all so outgoing … What hope is there for a wallflower like me?” to which she is offered some suitable advice. So, I suppose, in part that question is answered! I think it would be great if someone came out with a new book of the title you have suggested or something like “Cultivating Lizzy’s Wit” or similar.

      I have the same syndrome I fear! I have a feeling he has set the bar far too high for any contemporary men *sighs*.

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