One-Minute Book Reviews

June 9, 2007

Why Jane Austen’s Novels Aren’t ‘Trivial’ or ‘Frothy’: Quote of the Day #29

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Like so many masterpieces, Jane Austen’s novels might sound trivial or frothy if reduced to their plot summaries. Here’s a partial explanation for why they aren’t:

“Though a contemporary of the major Romantics, Jane Austen is a child of the 18th century, particularly in its Neo-Classical aspects; she is a witty and ironic observer of human inconsistency and ludicrousness rather than a painstaking recorder of consuming passions. As a writer of comedy of manners, she is concerned with a world in which the problems are of good form rather than of subsistence, of the ill-bred rather than the undernourished, of manors rather than slums, of matrimony rather than careers, of gracious gregariousness rather than aggressive worldliness – in short, of bread-and-butter letters rather than bread and butter. To say as much is to risk suggesting that Jane Austen’s world is basically a rather trivial and frothy one. But no discerning reader of hers could hold such an opinion, for she is a serious writer of comedy. In her world the relative unimportance of economic, professional, and political problems permits a concentrating of attention upon personal relations and the quality of living that they make possible. The issue is uniting of moral and social graces, the reconciliation of form and spontaneity.”

From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973). Revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, Leon Edel and Horst Frenz.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

As I’ve mentioned, I like The Reader’s Companion to World Literature partly because its A-to-Z entries — unlike those in many literary encyclopedias — aren’t timid. That “no discerning reader” above is typical of its editors’ willingness to put you in your place. I also use reference books that are more tolerant of lesser intellects. But those books are often duller than this one. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature — opinionated as it is — gets it right more often than wrong.

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(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 27, 2006

Josephine Ross on Jane Austen’s View of Manners

A charmingly illustrated explanation of the Regency etiquette rules followed by the novelist’s characters

Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. By Josephine Ross. Illustrated by Henrietta Webb. Boomsbury, 133 pp., $14.95.

A while back, I wrote a novel about a bride-to-be who believed that Jane Austen could have solved all her romantic problems. One reason for her view, I hoped, was clear: Austen’s novels are full of rules for social conduct.

The catch – for my heroine as for others – is that Austen’s characters typically follow rules that are implicit, not explicit. And because Austen was a satirist, her precepts can’t always be taken at face value even when they are spelled out. Perhaps the best case in point is the much-misunderstood first line of Pride and Prejudice, which is often taken literally though meant ironically: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Josephine Ross has decoded some of the social conventions of the Regency era in Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners. And as befits an ironist like Austen, this book is less a “guide to good manners” than a literary companion disguised as Regency self-help manual.

Ross does not try to extrapolate from the behavior of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and others to modern life. Instead she describes the rules of the Regency era as she sees them and shows how Austen’s characters observe or break them. The rule “Do not be presumptuous in offering introductions” leads to a brief discussion of the proper ways of introducing people in the early 1800s. Then Ross writes: “When Lady Catherine de Bourgh, in high dudgeon, calls on the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice to dissuade Elizabeth from marrying her nephew Darcy, she does not ask Lizzy to introduce her mother, and sits for some time in the presence of awed Mrs. Bennet, who has therefore not been granted permission to converse with her Ladyship in her own house. This, of course, is not ‘good manners.’”

Some of the conventions that Ross describes went out with the chamber pot: “After dinner the ladies must withdraw.” Others continue in a modified form: “When in doubt, talk of the weather.” Either way, Ross writes so gracefully that her book is a delight, enhanced by charming watercolors by Henrietta Webb. How nice that she and her collaborator knew enough not to take literally the words of Northanger Abby: “A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

Best line: “Only by understanding Society’s strict rules is anyone – man or woman – in a position to break them.”

Worst line: Why doesn’t the comma in “Compliments, Charades,” which appears on the cover, show up also on the title page?

Recommended if … you’re looking for an ideal gift for an Austen fan.

Published: October 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent book-review blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor and critic for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Please visit to learn more about her comic novels.



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