‘The Jane Austen Handbook’ Teaches Regency-Era Life Skills, Step by Step

Image: Quirk Books

My library of Jane Austen books and related materials is always growing. Recently, I acquired annotated versions of all of her novels, put together by David M. Shapard. I don’t recommend these for a first reading of her works, as the annotations pull you out of the story on each page, but I highly recommend them for deeper study, after you’re well acquainted with the stories. I also have Jane Austen’s England (a very scholarly work), Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners, Jane Austen’s Sewing Box, and even Jane Austen for Dummies (which is surprisingly informative and well done). So, when I had the chance to check out The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills From Regency England, I wondered what yet another Jane Austen-based book could bring to the table. Still, I find that every new resource has something different to offer, so despite all the resources I’d already read, I was intrigued.

The book is organized into a few sections, each one tackling an important worry of the day, such as the lifestyle in general, everyday activities, your love life, and social gatherings. At first glance, it seems to cover similar topics as the Good Manners book, but this book is larger, and more organized like a Hints from Heloise reference. The table of contents is very useful, and just a quick glance at it shows you where to go to learn How to Ride Sidesaddle, How to Plan a Dinner Party, How to Marry Off Your Daughter, and over 150 pages of other How-tos. (Learning how to marry off your daughter may seem overblown in importance, but, I can assure you, it is not. If daughters do not inherit wealth on their own, as was often the case because of entailments, they needed to marry well to insure their security, and that of the family.) There are also almost 50 pages of useful back matter, including a brief biography of Jane Austen, summaries of her books, a list of resources, a glossary, and more.

The book gives instructions on how to make the most of writing a letter to someone. Image: Quirk Books

(Publisher Quirk Books shares an excerpt from the book on how to write a letter.)

Since Jane Austen’s novels were written for her contemporaries, she assumed her readers would understand all of her references. Fast forward 200 years, and many of these references are lost on us, especially here in the States. That’s why a book like this is really useful. It helps you further understand the details of the stories and the importance of off-hand remarks. Unlike a lot of the other books detailing life at Jane Austen’s time, this one gives quite a lot of detail in practical matters. Though not exhaustive, it does give step-by-step instructions for navigating polite society, and fills in some of the holes left by other books.

The voice of this book is from the perspective of a fellow “Janeite,” one who knows all of the inside jokes and can giggle with you about yet another impropriety–in short, one who is a huge fan of Jane Austen’s works. The book addresses the life of the landed gentry of Regency England, mostly written for and directly at ladies, both married and unmarried, and how they can thrive in society, but sidebars and other references also cover the experience and perspective of gentlemen and young men.

The book does contain the occasional mistake, such as calling Some Thoughts Concerning Education by John Locke instead Some Thoughts on Education, and there is a typo or two, but, on the whole, the book is well assembled. Plus, the occasional illustration helps readers visualize the explanations.

Though not perfect, and making an obvious effort to be light-hearted, The Jane Austen Handbook is a valuable addition to any Regency era reference library, for its straightforwardness, step-by-step instructions, and peek behind the fancy fa├žade of the landed gentry. It’s an easy read, and you’ll come away knowing enough to reasonably navigate the ins and outs of society. Once you’ve read her novels, I recommend The Jane Austen Handbook as a wonderful starting place for learning more about the world in which she and her novels inhabit.

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

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