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.
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