And now, for your semi-regular non-fiction review… Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades, and Horrible Blunders! In this book by Josephine Ross, you learn all you need to know to comport yourself with dignity and grace in Regency England. Never will you be so crass as to adorn yourself with too many fripperies (A lady cannot go wrong with simple white) or to put the wrong items out for sewing on during calls (no socks or underwear, please).
I will henceforth refer to this book as Jane's Guide even though doing so with such cavalier informality is, as they say in Lost in Austen, setting Jane Austen “spinning in her grave like a cat in a tumble dryer”. As the title suggests, Jane's Guide is an earnest guide to proper Regency behavior. It's a very pretty book, hardcover, with nice quality paper and a ribbon for a bookmark, and lovely illustrations by Henrietta Webb. It's small enough to fit into a generously sized reticule and I'm positive that someone you know, possibly yourself, is longing to get this as a tasteful and thoughtful birthday present.
The information about proper behavior is mostly drawn from correspondence between Jane Austen and her eldest niece, Anna Austen, who asked her literary aunt to look over her (Anna's) novel, which was set in Regency England, and mention any errors. Most of the errors that Jane pointed out involved lapses in manners and custom. Apparently when critiquing one particularly harrowing moment in Anna's novel, Jane points out that the most harrowing aspect is that one set of characters have waited so long to call on another set of characters. So this is high stakes stuff. Many examples are drawn from Austen's characters, with particular emphasis drawn to those who show superficially excellent manners but are shown to be less admirable than characters whose manners are less refined but more genuine (*cough*Wickham*cough*).
You can get a good sense of the book just by reading the Table of Contents:
• Manners Makyth Man – and Woman
• The Forms of Introduction
• Calling and Conversation
• Dancing and Dining
• Dress and Taste
• The Subject of Matrimony
• The Family Circle
• The Assistance of Servants
I have to admit that after reading the rather scandalous book, To Marry an English Lord, which dealt with manners during the Edwardian Era, I was a bit let down by the respectful tone in Jane's Guide. Where's the chapter on how to politely have an affair? Where's the chapter on how to backbite and manipulate your way higher in society when you are scorned for your low birth while doted upon for your high bank account? Alas for my baser instincts, Ross takes Regency manners very seriously. That's not to say that the book is dry, but it is a little lacking in the sense of absurdity that, in my opinion, should accompany all discussions of manners, whether historical or contemporary. Ross does know that at least some of these conventions are ridiculous, just like it's ridiculous that nowadays you aren't supposed to wear white after Labor Day, right? Right?
In this case, I think it's not very helpful to say the book is “good” or “not good”. It makes more sense to list who would like it, because it's obviously going to have a strong but limited appeal. This is a great book for:
Hardcore Jane Austen fans who like the codes and rules of the world and want a deeper understanding of what's happening with the characters. One thing I particularly enjoyed was the discussion of how Elizabeth Bennet has a fine understanding of what customs she is willing to break, and why, and what customs to follow, and why, whereas her sister Lydia is simply a mess.
Writers of Regency fiction. Even if you decide that it is vital to your story to have your heroine wander around the ballroom without a chaperone nipping at her finely dressed heels, it's a good idea to at least have some grasp of what typical behavior would have been.
- Some Regency romance fans. The reason I say some, and not all fans is that how much you care about manners depends on your approach to historical romance. Some people are just in it for fun and could care less whether or not a single woman would ever have a single moment by herself at a ball (the answer, I'm sorry to tell you, is “No”). Other fans love the historical underpinnings and they will love all the many nuances that be inferred from whether a social call is fourteen minutes long (BURN!) or fifteen minutes long (proper).
I also recommend this book for anyone who is hoping for some sort of time travel, dimensional traval, or magic portal time of experience. Imagine how mortified you would be should your dreams of attending the Netherfield Ball finally come true only for you to realize that you do not know how to dance or when it is proper to sit down. You can't be too prepared!