Guest Blog with the Amiable Margaret C. Sullivan, Author of The Jane Austen Handbook, & a Giveaway!

The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England, by Margaret C. Sullivan (2011)Please welcome the author and editrix of AustenBlog Margaret Sullivan today. She has graciously consented to share some thoughts on her newly re-issued The Jane Austen Handbook, a lighthearted how-to book for every Regency Miss in the making.

Thanks to Laurel Ann for the opportunity to do a guest post on Austenprose about The Jane Austen Handbook. The book is part of Quirk Books’ handbooks line, which includes a Batman Handbook, a Spiderman Handbook, and some other subjects tied into popular culture–so on that level it’s pretty cool that Quirk chose Jane Austen as the subject of their first literary handbook. The idea behind the Handbook is a straight-faced presentation of a rather silly and fun premise: that should one find oneself sucked through a time warp into one of Jane Austen’s novels, and fortunate enough to be a genteel lady of the gentry rather than a scullery maid, one would be able to use the (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) advice in the Handbook to handle any situation that might arise. Sort of like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Janeite Edition. Don’t Panic!

There have been some great new reviews for the Handbook which I’ve enjoyed reading, but a question came up back when the book was first released in 2007 which has come up again with the re-release: would an average 21st-century woman really want to live in Regency England?

Well, sure! you cry. Men in breeches! Pretty gowns and bonnets! Dances every night! Polite manners! Tea! Did we mention men in breeches, and if not, Men in breeches!

And this, say the critics, is precisely the problem. We’ve read these lighthearted novels that never mention the hard lives of servants, or the fact that Napoleon’s army was rampaging across the European continent, or that a lot of the great fortunes and big houses were purchased with money acquired from the sale and labor of human beings, or that there were a lot of really poor people in England who had really horrible lives. To encourage young women to fantasize about being Mrs. Darcy in some sanitized Disneyesque Regencyland is doing them a disservice, as women in Regency England weren’t educated except for showy “accomplishments,” and they had no freedom and no way to achieve self-determination. She went from her father’s house to her husband’s house and probably died in childbed as she produced her fifteenth baby.

Well, gee, I don’t know about you, Gentle Readers, but my mellow is harshed.

Breeches?

Nope, didn’t work.

The thing is, to an extent I have to agree with all that. I really wouldn’t want to live in those days. No penicillin. No microwave ovens. No birth control. No control at all, really, for women.

But Jane Austen really didn’t ignore that stuff. Among her characters were soldiers and sailors, engaged in protecting the country from invasion or actively fighting Boney; men who ensured that the families and workers under their protection did not starve or freeze; happily married women and mothers; women who took advantage of their fathers’ libraries to fill in the gaps on their limited education. Austen did not explain every detail, because she didn’t have to. She was writing for an audience of her own contemporaries, who would have understood that Elizabeth Bennet, seeing Pemberley for the first time as a well-run house and village, not showy or pretentious, and hearing Mr. Darcy praised by “an intelligent servant” as someone who does good for the poor, did not change her opinion only because she could imagine herself living there among wealth and luxury (well, maybe a little; Lizzy was human, after all) but because it was evidence of Mr. Darcy’s true quality. The contemporary reader would have understood that Fanny Price’s first dance was a big occasion, and why she was panicky about “being looked at” as she opened the ball, and that a gentleman engaging a lady for the first dance of a ball is a sign that he is interested in her romantically. She would have understood the implications of Marianne Dashwood writing letters to Willoughby and Jane Fairfax receiving them from Frank Churchill. Because Jane Austen wrote about these everyday things with intelligence and humor, with a knowledge of her fellow men and women and a willingness to plainly show that sometimes people are awful to one another, we recognize an internal truth of the novels that have kept us reading them for two centuries. She gave us tremendous, complex characters with whom we still fall in love as we fall in love with the novels. The everyday details don’t really make a bit of difference.

So why read The Jane Austen Handbook? Well, it’s a lighthearted look at the life and times of Jane Austen’s characters, and even if they’re not vital, it still can be fun to learn about them. I tried to keep in mind the questions I had when I first read Jane Austen. What did their clothes look like? Did they do anything but go to dances, and who taught them all the dances anyway? Why are letters only one page long? Why was it such an operation to travel, and why did it take so long, and did they really stay at someone’s house for months and months? Why is it such a big deal to run away to Scotland? Why not run away to Bath or York? And for pity’s sake why didn’t they just TALK to each other? I tried to make it informative for newbies and still fun for the long-time Janeites, with lots of inside jokes and familiar comments.

And of course with the help of The Jane Austen Handbook, you’ll be a hoopy frood of a Janeite who really knows where her towel is.*

*R.I.P. Douglas Adams.

Thanks for your insights Margaret. I know that I am a wiser Janeite for having read your lovely handbook, and refer to it quite often when one of those nagging questing arise on the era.

About the author:

Margaret C. Sullivan is the Editrix of AustenBlog.com, a compendium of news and commentary about Jane Austen and her work in popular culture. She is the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England (Quirk Books, 2007 and 2011) and There Must Be Murder (Girlebooks/Librifiles 2010). Her favorite Jane Austen novel is Persuasion, which led her to a continuing enthusiasm for Age of Sail fiction. Visit Margaret at her website Tilney and Trap Doors & blog AustenBlog.

Giveaway of The Jane Austen Handbook:

Proper Life Skills from Regency England

Enter a chance to win one of three copies of The Jane Austen Handbook, by leaving a comment answering which proper Regency life skills you think one of Jane Austen’s erring characters might have benefited from, or offer your best guess of what the C. in Margaret’s name is an abbreviation of (extra points for the most creative answer) by midnight PT, Wednesday, March 30, 2011. Winner announced on Thursday, March 31, 2010. Shipment to US and Canadian addresses only. Good luck!

© 2007 – 2011 Margaret C. Sullivan, Austenprose

43 thoughts on “Guest Blog with the Amiable Margaret C. Sullivan, Author of The Jane Austen Handbook, & a Giveaway!

  1. I’ll guess Camille for her middle name. I think Fanny Price would have really needed to know how to shut down an eager suitor well, I felt so bad for her when Henry Crawford kept bugging her!

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  2. Thanks for the giveaway.
    The Bennett sisters would have well benefited from a sense of propriety.
    I’m guessing that the C stands for Charlotte.

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  3. I think that Catherine in Northanger Abbey could have done without the accomplishment of “extensive reading!”
    My guess for Ms. Sullivan’s middle name is Cassandra. Lovely post. :)

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  4. I think that Mr. & Mrs. Bennett would be better served to teach their daughters, at least the younger ones, a sense of “propriety”. Also, I think Mr. Collins would be better served to not act so enamored by Lady Catherine’s wealth – it makes him seem awfully ridiculous, being a clergyman, as they are not to be so materially inclined.

    “Charlotte” is a name used twice in Austen’s most famous novels, Pride & Prejudice as well as Sense & Sensibility – and both happened to be lovely characters, so I’d like to guess “Charlotte” would be Margaret’s middle name. But seeing as “Cassandra” was Austen’s sister AND grandmother, perhaps Ms. Sullivan’s family named her that, accordingly. Those two would be my best guesses.

    Thank you so much for hosting this amazing giveaway!

    Email: Enamoredsoul@gmail.com or Enamoredsoul(at)gmail(dot)com
    Twitter: @inluvwithbookz

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  5. This was a very enjoyable post; many thanks!
    Mr. Woodhouse should have known how tiresome it was for his friends and neighbors to hear so much about his “theories” of good health and medicine, and to be constantly presented with evidence of his ill-health, at every turn!
    My guess is that “C” stands for Caroline…

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  6. I would have to agree that the younger Bennett sisters need help in the area of proper etiquette. This book sounds so intriguing. I’ve loved having Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, and this sounds similar. My own middle name is Carol, so I’ll guess that for the C.

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  7. Hm. I’m going to guess the C. is for Clarissa, since Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is a novel Jane might have read!

    As for which Austen character needs a lesson in manners, I think Mr. Collins could use a few rigorous courses in the Art of Polite Conversation, since he manages to bungle his every attempt!

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  8. Oh my goodness, this is all so vexing! Why certainly all of Jane’s characters could have used a gentle “improvement” here or there – but it is their foibles that make them so charming and so real!! Maryanne could have certainly benefitted from a greater sense of charity….but then she wouldn’t be our lovely, self-absorbed Maryanne at all!! Mrs. Bennett without frivolity? Anne Elliot with greater gaiety? The younger Bennet sister’s could have benefitted from more propriety and dear Emma could have used some of her time more sensibly at her embroidery hoop but all would have been certainly more dull for it!
    I think the “C” stands for Catherine for Margaret Catherine Sulliavan has a lovely ring to it………..!

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  9. I’ve always believed, Mags, that I’d have been a scullery maid in a past life; and dead before the age of twenty-two. Not to be a downer–just a healthy corrective to all our wishful past-life thinking! Whenever I consider the fates of Jane’s sisters-in-law, Anne, Elizabeth, Mary and Fanny–all of whom died as a result of childbirth, Fanny before she was 25–I have to think a bit of romance at a ball was the least these young girls were due. What’s remarkable is that Jane could continue to focus on the joy, instead of the possibility of tragedy, in her work.

    No need to enter me in the drawing–have the book–but many congratulations, Ms. Sullivan!

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    • Oh, I would definitely have been a scullery maid. As Mary Musgrove would say, it would be my usual luck!

      If I could choose, now, I’d like to be a bluestocking; in which case I would probably be a spinster, which eliminates the whole childbearing issue. (Actually, I am kind of a bluestocking spinster, 21st-century edition.)

      I am loving the “C.” guesses, everyone! What a fun question. Thanks again for asking me to write a guest post, Laurel Ann!

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  10. The C stands for: Clementine or Chloe! (Talk about outlandish!)

    My real guess would be Caroline, though. Thanks for doing the giveaway; I have to admit, this is definitely a book I want to win! :)

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  11. Hmmm…. well, you said we’d get extra points for a crazy name, so: Cadelaria (which is a real Spanish name!)

    But maybe her real name is Caitlyn? (Any spelling?)

    Thanks again!

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  12. C for Collins, as in everyone’s favorite clergyman! I’m going to say that Marianne would have benefitted from a stronger sense of propriety – might have spared her some pain.

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  13. My apologies to Patricia, who I see guessed Catherine well before me! In the spirit of good sport, I respectfully wish to change my entry to Cordelia! And thank you, Laurel Ann for sponsoring this giveaway!

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  14. It is hard to choose just one of Jane Austen’s errant characters that needed some polish to them but if pressed,I’d have to say that Mrs. Bennet should have taught her girls a little something about running a household.

    According to a book I read called The Gentleman’s Daughter a few years ago,ladies were expected to know all of the ins and outs of keeping a large home(in order to direct the servants properly as well as check up on their work properly) and Mrs. Bennet’s boast to Mr. Collins about her girls not knowing how to cook did them no favors in the marriage department.

    Oh,and my guess is that C stands for Constance!

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  15. Growing up my mother, Nina would tell everyone that her middle name was Clock. This was, of course, not her actual name, but if you said her full name together (her last name was Sharp) you would at least walk away with a smile. However, once she married and lost her joke she went back to her real name…which brings me to my guess. It is a good solid C name…and that name is Carol.

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  16. What a great post! I’m surprised I haven’t read this book before. It sounds very entertaining. (Loved the Douglas Adams allusions also.)

    I think, like others who have already commented, that several characters could have used a better knowledge of socially acceptable behavior.

    I think the C stands for Colleen. It just sounds nice.

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  17. I also have the Handbook so no need to enter me in the drawing, but I think C=Cluebat.

    I loved this guest blog, btw. I love learning about days of yore, but I’m pretty sure I would have gone nuts had I actually lived in pre-modern times.

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  18. I’ll guess that the C stands for Cassandra.

    Mr. Bennet should be made aware that standing back and watching your wife and youngest daughters make fools of themselves, to say nothing of his finding their actions amusing, is not the way a gentleman behaves.

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  19. I’m going to say the C stands for Calliope.

    As for what skills would benefit whom, I think Marianne would have benefited from self-restraint to curb her impetuous nature.

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  20. I’m going to guess the “C” is Cressida, as in one of the key women in False Colours by one of our favorite authors, Georgette Heyer!

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  21. I think Claudia-and it hasn’t been guessed yet! I think Elizabeth Elliot could benefit from the book-she thought she had her act together, but she really mised the mark!

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  22. I believe that dear, innocent, Anne Elliot should not have given in to the pressure to refuse Captain Wentworth. I agree that some of Jane’s characters needed a bit of moral tune-up, but for Anne to almost miss out on growing old with the love of her life, that would have been sad indeed.

    Since I LOVE the color blue, I will guess Margaret’s middle name is CERULEAN.

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  23. Love this question. One character who could have benefitted vastly would be Mary Bennet, whose many scholarly and musical “accomplishments” weren’t really accomplishments at all. When I first fell in love with P&P, I always felt so sorry for poor Mary and wanted to step in to give her some advice.

    Middle name of C — perhaps Catherine as in Catherine Morland? Or Catharine of the juvenalia? Such a lovely name.

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  24. I’m going to say it stands for ‘Charlotte’ or maybe it doesn’t stand for anything, and it really is just ‘C’ :-)

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  25. Due to Margaret’s ‘preternaturally clear and acute perception’ of proper life skills for our Jane in Regency England, her initial “C.” can stand only for one thing. “Clairvoyant.”
    Although her mother was known to call her ” Margaret Clair” for short , [but just when she was upset!] :))
    thx Laurel Ann for making it FuN!! would luv the win “)

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  26. well… my guess for the middle name is Claire.
    And I think some one should have taught “Miss Bingley” in P&P that too much flattery in general is not good it can be really disadvantageous (especially for a guy like Darcy, surely it backfired !) haha :)

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  27. I love the aside “Lizzy was human, after all.” Made me laugh. I know she is to us, but non-Janeites might beg to differ. I will say that Catherine Morland needed your help on how to conduct herself as a houseguest. Perhaps then she wouldn’t have gone about snooping into cupboards. And my guess is that “C” is for Cassiopeia – a constelation of the norther hemisphere. Who wouldn’t want to be named for the stars?

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  28. Well many of my guesses have been taken by my fellow Janeites! I was going for “Caroline” but I’d rather not copy a fellow fan so I shall guess…

    “C” stands for “Cathleen”.

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  29. I already own this wonderful book. It’s waiting for me on my bedside table where I allow myself only little bits at a time to make it last. But I’d love another one to give as a gift!

    I would like to guess Carol, because that’s my name and I believe we are both ladies of a certain age.

    But I’m sensing a potential Irish background in the name (which I’m not sure is your maiden or married name, but still…)

    So, I’m going with Cathleen.

    ;)

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  30. I liked Laurel Ann’s tweet that dared to suggest Mags’ middle name is Cluebat. It’s not that I think Mags’ parents would give her that moniker, but Mags seems to possess the sense of humor that would have led her to legally incorporate Cluebat into her given name. ;-) Of course, the C could also mean the same thing as the O in David O Selznick’s name; but on that I know nothing.

    Cathleen and Carolyn were the first two names that popped into my head, but I don’t know why and I actually like the above ideas better. ;-)

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