What would Jane do?

A guide to Miss Austen's world
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 29, 2007

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"How to dress"

Now that Julian Jarrold’s film Becoming Jane (starring The Devil Wears Prada’s Anne Hathaway) has been announced for August 3, those who aren’t already Janeites will be wondering how they can become Jane Austen–literate without re-reading Pride and Prejudice or wading through the recent Austen biographies by David Nokes, Park Honan, and Valerie Grosvenor Myer. Enter The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World, by the “editrix” of Austenblog.com, Margaret C. Sullivan. This compact (5x7) hardback from Quirk Books (224 pages; $16.95) promises to reveal “the practicalities of life in Regency England.” You’ll learn how to dress, how to pay a morning call, how to behave at a dinner party. The section on “How To Attend a Ball” includes “How To Converse with Your Dancing Partner” and “How To Avoid Dancing with an Undesirable Partner.” The appendix comprises “A Short Biography of Jane Austen” (just seven pages, but it could still position you to poke holes in the film), synopses of Jane’s novels (you’ll be well ahead of most people when it comes to Northanger Abbey, if not P&P), a rundown of film adaptations (some comment on the author’s favorites would have been welcome here), a bibliography, and a list of resources that includes Web sites and e-mail discussion lists.

What’s missing from the body of this handbook is irreverence — given that we’re not living in Regency England, the advice on how to deal with that place and time seems inappropriately straight-faced. (One exception is the conclusion of “How To Ride Sidesaddle”: “Do not go faster than a trot or attempt to jump the horse until you have a great deal of experience. Only the fast girls follow the hounds, anyway.”) Sullivan does loosen up in the sidebars: we learn how and why the Bennet family estate was entailed, what Darcy’s 10,000 a year is worth in 21st-century dollars (not as easy a computation as you might think, and the result is probably more mind-boggling than you expected), what people ate (hardly any breakfast or lunch), what kind of card games they played and dances they favored, and what they had for underwear. (Women, it turns out, pretty much had nothing; “We may indeed assume,” Sullivan concludes, “with a high degree of probability, that Jane Austen went commando.”) It’s not always clear what’s tongue-in-cheek: you’re advised to slip a drop or two of laudanum into a colicky baby’s milk, and when it comes to children, well, “If all else fails, liberal slices of cake solve many child-rearing problems.” And Jane surely knew that Twelfth Night (in the section “How To Celebrate Christmas in a Country House”) is January 5, not 6. Still, you can read this guide in less time than even Persuasion would take, and afterward you can impress your friends at the moviehouse by wondering whether Hathaway is going commando.

Related: Becoming Jane, Masterpieces and mysteries, Dead white females, More more >
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