I am late out of the gate in reviewing this book. It’s been sitting here on my desk for months. Released on 25 October 2012, it has not garnered much attention and I don’t know why. Honestly, I am a bit burned out on Jane Austen advice books after two great submissions arrived earlier this year: The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After and The Jane Austen Guide to Life. We also missed reviewing Finding Mister Darcy: Jane Austen’s Rules for Love, by Diane Clark which arrived on 31 Aug 2012. And, gentle readers, there are more Jane Austen advice books in the queue: Jane Austen’s Guide to Thrift: An Independent Woman’s Advice on Living within One’s Means, by Kathleen Anderson and Susan Jones will arrive on 3 April 2013. It’s a focused topic and quite amazing to see so many competing with each other.
Regardless of past releases, or future, this clever tome deserves your attention. First off, the cover will make you smile: the vintage image of a Regency-era lady holding an iPad is very apropos and the subtitle will pique your interest: Answers to Your Most Burning Questions About Life, Love, Happiness (and what to wear) from the Great Novelist Herself. At 27 words, this book might have the longest title I have ever seen. Let’s hope that it is more succinct with the text!
Happily, it is broken down into six chapters: Love & Relationships; Friends & Family; Fashion & Style; Home & Garden; and Leisure & Travel. This is a good start—and I must state right up front that the writer Rebecca Smith brings an air of authority and distinctive pedigree to the subject and that few can boast: she is the great-grandniece of Jane Austen, four times removed. She was also the first official writer in residence at Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England with previously published books: The Bluebird Café, Happy Birthday and All That, and A Bit of Earth. Brava Ms. Smith!
So, enough setup, let’s get down to facts. My first impression of Miss Jane Austen’s Guide is that it is intriguing eye candy; a thorough exploration interspersed with vintage images and text boxes of tidbits. It is set up as a Q&A: Ms. Smith presents questions of modern topics and Jane Austen answers directly from her novels and letters, or more precisely, Ms. Smith selects quotes and brief excerpts from Jane Austen’s prose and correspondence. It is quite a clever premise. Who better to answer your questions on life’s mysteries than the renown authoress whose astute skills of characterization and social machinations are unsurpassed? Here are a few examples of the questions presented: What Should I Be Looking for In a Man?, How Can I Make My Friend Stop the Baby Talk?, How do I Out a Cheating Spouse?, To Tattoo or Not to Tattoo?, How Can I Delete a Contact on Facebook without Causing Offense?, What Can I Do to Control My Shopping Binges?, and, many, many more. In addition to using Jane Austen’s text in a reply, Smith offers pithy supporting text in her own words illustrated with vintage images:
What Should My Book Club Read?
Q. One thing you never seem to find the time for these days is reading. As you were a bookworm when you were younger. You have decided to start a club in order to get back to basics and take some time to improve your mind. But your group is made up of some very different people with very different tastes. So how do you choose which kind of books to read?
A. “I have received a very civil note from Mrs. Martin, requesting my name as a subscriber to her library … As an inducement to subscribe, Mrs. Martin tells me that her collection is not to consist only of novels, but of every kind of literature, &c. She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great novel-readers and not ashamed of being so …” — Letter to Cassandra, Steventon, 18 December 1798
Smith then elaborates on Austen’s view of reading, especially the not so well-thought-of fiction of her day and how it influenced Austen’s own writing, and then offers her own advice:
“Your club’s first choice is important. You could start with Northanger Abbey. It is certainly not desultory, and is a novel about novels, so should get you talking about reading and please everybody you’d like to keep as a member of your book club.” p. 213
I am always a bit leery of advice books; even though I am the first person of my acquaintance that should heed their wisdom. Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I find Lady Catherine’s arrogant pontificating tiresome and not always spot on. Not so here. The one thing that saved me from total ignominy in reading this book was the arrangement of Miss Jane Austen’s Guide in an encapsulated manner. One can pick it up, open it to any page, and then just read one question and answer a day—almost like a daily devotional with Austen as your adviser. Taken in smaller doses, I found it amusing and enlightening.
So, gentle readers, as I present my last book review of the year, take Miss Jane Austen’s advice from this clever book and look life in the face and laugh …
I am glad you are so well yourself, and wish everybody else were equally so. I will not say that your mulberry-trees are dead, but I am afraid they are not alive.”—Letter to Cassandra, Chawton, 31 May 1811
4.5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Miss Jane Austen’s Guide to Modern Life’s Dilemmas: Answers to Your Most Burning Questions About Life, Love, Happiness (and What to Wear) from the Great Jane Austen Herself, by Rebecca Smith
Trade paperback (224) pages
Book cover image courtesy of Tarcher © 2012, text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2012, Austenprose