REVIEW: Jane Austen’s Guide To Dating, Lauren Henderson

“Dating these days is like walking through a minefield”- Lauren Henderson

I picked up this January 2005-published 309-page paperback from Art on King in Newtown, Sydney for (AU)$24.99. For other Australia-based Janeites, this shop (on King Street near Newtown station) has some brilliant Austen-related reads and alternative fiction of all types. Many of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog have come from there – and as always, I’m not paid to say that, it’s truly a brilliant bookshop.

Lauren Henderson is a Cambridge University educated ex-journo from London who moved to Tuscany. She has written a bunch of mysteries and some rom-coms and I personally think her style falls towards chick-lit quite heavily. Some of her articles she has written before are in that “Finding Mr. Right” type zone.

This particular read serves as a relationship guide full of common sense from our Miss Jane Austen. If you like giggling at self-help books (which I’ll admit to doing) then this, while not serving as a parody as such, will still amuse you, as it subverts all the typical “treat them mean” mind-game type advice we normally expect. Revealing along the way the sheer number of relationships and possible problematic relationships that Austen details, it quickly becomes apparent that we aren’t as far removed from the Regency era as we may have thought and that there are plenty of tips for our sex lives (don’t worry, Henderson doesn’t condemn those who jump into the sack before marriage) that we can learn from all of the novels. There are also book and character summaries at the back that serve to modernise the characters and explain how they would fit in within the 21st century dating scene. For those who are fairly involved with Austen, it might seem a bit tedious to read the novel “dumb-downers” that precede each coupling where Henderson is required to explain the storyline with as much brevity as possible before she teaches us what we can glean from their successes/problems.

Firstly, a nagging criticism I must address, and that made it difficult for me to read (it seriously took me quite a long time to hack through). Henderson purports to have far too many friends in her couple-sphere. Every chapter, of which there are ten, has around three Jane Austen sourced couple examples and three or more in-depth explanations of “Linda and Sam”(etc)’s relationships. I hardly think she knows this many people (especially when she also uses her own relationship and her sisters’ in the first chapter). Quite likely she has made up most, if not all, of the couples she writes her relationship examples about – and I do not remember reading any explanation of the sort in the book (which is supposedly non-fiction). Sure, they may be based on scenarios she has heard of, but she can’t honestly know that many people that well, and this small fact makes the book crumble apart as any sort of acceptable relationship guru. Similarly, her explanations for what “would have happened” if one of the girlfriends or boyfriends had done this or that are ridiculous- how can their responses possibly be predicted in such a manner? The saving grace of this book is the examples she provides about the actual Austen heroes and heroines (and the other characters we tend to care little about) which are insightful, modernised, and really hit home with the ‘Do’ and ‘Don’t’ style advice after each chapter – at a couple of points she actually alters her advice away from what Jane’s heroines actually did, giving us allowances for the 21st Century. Without this at the ending of each chapter, the book would have been an exercise in the tedium of hearing about many hopeless modern couples – a type of read which is never in short supply.

The guide is separated out into the ten chapters each with one over-arching rule, each then divided into “Lessons to be Learned” and then in which every ‘sub-rule’ has a “What not to do” and a “What to do instead” example included within them. Each chapter then ends with “Do” and “Don’t” ideas in a summary, and then a “Tips for …” box. Each of the ten is well presented, and definitely finished well with Roxanna Bikadoroff illustrations and careful editing under Hyperion* and then for the UK by Headline Book Publishing**, with nice decorative floral features for each chapter opening.

At the end of the book we have some quizzes, the first gives a series of 15 modern questions which then tells you which Austen heroine you are most like (based on points accumulated) and therefore what sort of hero you should be looking for, e.g. Elizabeth Bennet should be with a Darcy (duh), a Tilney or a Wentworth while Lydia should be with a Crawford, a Willoughby or a Wickham. I like how the heroes go across novels. There is then a quiz to see which Austen character the man you like is most similar to. Combining the two quizzes I suppose is almost like looking at which star signs are compatible. It then tells you what the problem is with that type of man and who he is suitable/unsuitable for. For instance, Mr. Darcy: “reserved, seemingly haughty, but with a good heart” has the problem for you that “you will always be the one to loosen him up and you may get frustrated with that”. He is suited for Elizabeth, Mary (Crawford), Marianne and Jane (Fairfax). He is unsuitable for Anne and Lydia. There is then a compatibility chart to cross-check your own character with his character to ensure a match. After all of this discussion about being sensible when making choices and on how to respond to people, this chick-lit magazine-style quizzing seems quite contrary to the book itself.

While some of the general suggestions in the book are completely mundane or ridiculous, try “Don’t Date People Who Just Want You Because You Look Good” and “Don’t Bolster Yourself By Putting Other People Down” on for size, overall the sense of the advice is practical and sensible. Unfortunately, Henderson has an underlying assumption that we all want the same thing in a relationship, and that we could all use the same advice. Her conversational-but-authoritative tone frequently borderlines on patronising, such as: “After all, he sits through a lot of stuff that you tell him that doesn’t interest him one little bit. Believe me, he does” and I found it hard to read because of these two main facts.

One thing I’m going to start to do on the blog is include the ISBN numbers for books, as I know it can be hard to find some of the ones I talk about. So, here it is. ISBN: 0 7553 1469 7 (trade paperback).

It is quite a curious read. I think the advice of the entire book can be summed up in her dedication. “For my darling Greg,” she writes, “who brings out the Elizabeth Bennet rather than the Mary Crawford in me…” and this is the best advice that can be given. She explains how close Elizabeth Bennet, Mary Crawford and Emma could be in personality – but that the possibility of their flaws becoming coarse and harsh (as Mary Crawford’s are) as opposed to being their virtues (as in the case of Elizabeth Bennet) is dependent on their partner. Who will bring out the best in them? Mary Crawford has no one to bring out her good side, no one that complements her in that manner. Emma has Mr Knightley who can bring her to the ground and tell her off when necessary, whereas Frank Churchill brings out her worst to the point of cruelty (Box Hill anyone?). Elizabeth has flaws aplenty, a willingness to trust Wickham without any reason to and a very quick judgment, however Mr Darcy brings out her good side- allowing her to tease and be playful but also think seriously and see clearly, to be able, in short, to be discerning. Choosing someone who makes you a better person… Now THAT is good advice.

* Hyperion also brought us Becoming Jane: The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen by Anne Newgarden.

* For the curious, Headline Book Publishing is the publishing company responsible for one of the gorgeous 2006 Pride and Prejudice covers I featured some time ago: ISBN: 9780755331468 I’ve yet to get my hands on this beauty as I saw it in the “flesh” the other day and was without my handbag.

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