Adventures in Reading

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners
October 4, 2007, 9:33 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Apparently it is not possible for me to work in any section of the bookstore and not stumble across something Jane Austen related. (Really, it seems she has infiltrated everywhere.) The other afternoon while pulling books from the etiquette section I stumbled across Josephine Ross’ Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. Ross’ book describes the codes and rules of etiquette recorded in Austen’s books and letters.

“Every society has its ‘Rules’ – and where these contribute to good order, and the wellbeing of all, it is (on balance) as well to abide by them. At all events, it is necessary to be thoroughly acquainted with them… in the world of which the Authoress writes, a thorough understanding of the proper codes of conduct is the only rational recipe for happiness, in life, as in literature” (13). From here Ross’ book is broken into chapters ranging from “Calling and Conversation” to “Dress and Taste,” and these chapters are further broken into a set of rules with further explanation and Austen references.

For example, the chapter “The Subject of Matrimony” offers the following rules: (1) “Never be indecorous, or indiscreet,” (2) “Avoid open shows of affection,” (3) “Maintain your dignity,” (4) “Do not indulge in matchmaking,”(5) “Do not be ‘bent’ on marriage,” (6) “Do not encourage unjustifiable expectations,” (7) “Pay heed to the rules of engagement,” (8) “Marry only for the right reasons,” (9) “Refuse a marriage proposal with dignity,” and (10) “Accept a marriage proposal with grace” (81 – 97). I must admit this chapter was an interesting contrast in my own opinions as while Austen obviously seems to encourage and prefer matches of affection I have always left her novels with the feeling that she still understood the times (or at least certain times) when security and finances must be considered.

All in all it has not been my favorite book and I would recommend Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate over Good Manners. But if you ever find yourself on a rainy afternoon at a bookstore buy a cup of coffee and pick up a copy and take a look through the book. I did, however, find Ross’ interpretation of the rules of society in interesting juxtaposition of my own. Often it seems the rules of etiquette in decorum are confining while Ross’ opinion is “Society’s rules of conduct, is intended to safeguard the dignity of others and ensure a mutual sense of respect” (27). Perhaps the true interpretation exists somewhere in between.

My favorite part of the book were actually the illustrations by Henrietta Webb, one of which can be seen on the book jacket. One of my increasing delights of late has been locating modern and historical paintings, illustrations, etc. representing Austen’s (and her contemporaries’) works. I find it to be just as an intriguing commentary as reading critical literary analysis to book reviews from her period. But Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners is full of these rather whimsical interpretations by Webb.

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