Monday, May 2, 2011

The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret C. Sullivan

I have been terribly remiss in neglecting to review The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England by Margaret C. Sullivan (editrix of the fabulous AustenBlog) for so long, which the good people at Quirk Books were so kind as to send me, but life has become rather complex as my pregnancy nears its end (so tired!). I have also been slow to read the book, as I have not sat down and just consumed it from cover to cover, as I usually do with the books I review, but meandered through it instead, reading bits and pieces here and there. Often I have picked it up as I write, either because it might confirm an historical quandry I have, or as a means of combating writer's block. This is actually the same manner in which used the first edition of the book which, until its successor arrived, had a permanent place on my desk. For example, there is a scene in the novel I am currently working on which sets Lady Catherine up as a matchmaker, so upon hitting a part in the dialogue in which I was stumped as to how to move forward, I opened up my trusty Jane Austen Handbook and turned to the section entitled "How to Marry Off Your Daughter", where I was treated to twelve handy tips on making a match for eligible young ladies. Not only did this prove to be the perfect means of rekindling the creative juices, but I was further delighted by the short section that followed, "Is Mrs. Bennet the Hero of Pride and Prejudice?" The book is filled with delightful deviations such as this one, in which Ms. Sullivan explores different aspects of Austen's works, as opposed to the more strictly cultural/social information that makes up its bulk. I particularly enjoyed the list of Austen's sickly ladies in "Hypochondriacs in Jane Austen's Novels" and a similar delineation of the "Worst (and Funniest) Proposals in Jane Austen's Novels".

But this book is in no way geared to those, like myself, who write about, live for, and hungrily devour all things Austen. I have to imagine that it proves even more useful to those just engaging in Austen's world, or those who have long loved her novels without exploring the cultural realities that inform the stories. For example, have you been wondering why Catherine Morland took a sedan chair home from the assembly rooms in Bath as opposed to a carriage, or why Gretna Green was the destination of choice for an eloping couple and how it differed from a reading the banns? If any of this has puzzled you, you will find The Jane Austen Handbook a very handy tool. Alternatively, maybe you'd like to learn how to engage in the endless needlework and crafts that seem to fill each day for the ladies in Austen's novels. If so, Ms. Sullivan has provided a handy primer on how to engage in netting, as well as full instruction on making a filigree basket. From details on the different types of dress, morning through evening, to inheritance laws, The Jane Austen Handbook proves itself time and time again an invaluable source of information on Regency life. I highly recommend this delightful book to all Janeites. It is truly a must have volume.  


  1. Alexa,

    Thanks for the review of this one book that I picked up but still have not perused. I, too, picked it up some time ago to answer all things Regency. Sounds like I need to put it on the table next to my reading chair for those quick 10-minutes I find while making dinner!

    Try to get as much rest as you can. Someone once told me that God created the ninth month to prepare you for life after the baby is born. Make sure you take up ANY and ALL offers to watch the baby so you can get more than three hours sleep in a row! :~)

  2. Hi Kate! I have actually been laughing about the sleep issue as, most unlike your average pregnant lady, I have slept far better since I have been pregnant than I ever have in my life. This is because I usually suffer from pretty constant insomnia - not the kind that keeps you from falling asleep, but the kind that wakes you up after two hours. My joke is that this has beautifully prepared me for motherhood. I'm far more concerned about my husband who is decidedly cranky if he doesn't get 8 to 10 hours. Maybe we'll get lucky and the baby will inherit his genes!

  3. Isn't it a very pleasant, precious addition any Janeite should add to their own Austen-shelf? I loved it! I'm glad to hear you appreciated it too!

  4. Yes, Maria, it certainly is! I would like to do a pot on all the books I consider must have reference guides, but I can't imagine when I'll find the time to do so. My poor neglected blog! To be so superseded by a creature who hasn't even been born yet!