Margaret Sullivan •
The Jane Austen Handbook •
The Janeite of your acquaintance cannot fail to be charmed by this ladylike volume, faithful in spirit to the Austen oeuvre and small enough to slip into a reticule. Subtitled A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World, it provides practical counsel on such diverse topics as riding sidesaddle and managing servants.
Each chapter opens with a quote from one of Austen’s seven published novels. (Yes, there were seven: Sanditon, although unfinished, was published after her death.) “It was a quick succession of busy nothings” (Mansfield Park) prefaces a discussion on how a lady might pass her hours of leisure. A well-bred young woman was expected to dance gracefully, master the art of needlework, and pay calls on her less fortunate neighbors—not to lord it over them, but to listen politely to their news, offer gifts of food, and help tend the sick.
Then there’s the thorny matter of navigating romantic encounters. “As a Regency lady, choosing a husband is the most important decision you will make in your life. Once you’re married, you’re stuck with him.” Therefore, the author lays out a succinct campaign plan for determining who will make a suitable life partner (income, principles, physical comeliness, sense of humor) and following through on the choice (“Flatter his vanity” and “Ask him if he would like to go ‘stargazing’ ”). Plus ça change.
Life was considerably more straitlaced—in every sense of the word—during the Regency period, making revelations like this all the more piquant: “We may indeed assume, with a high degree of probability, that Jane Austen went commando.” Translation: no undies.