Ross, Josephine. Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades, & Horrible Blunders.

NY: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Jane Austen wasn’t really appreciated in her lifetime, except by her family, and it took several more generations for her to acquire a firm reputation as a great writer. In fact, the steadily increasing regard for her novels has reached the level of idolatry and has engendered a considerable cottage industry since the 1970s of ancillary books and derivative fiction. This small, quiet volume is one of the better examples of that trend.

Ross has written several previous works on Miss Austen (she certainly would not have wanted to be called “Jane” nor merely “Austen”) and seems to understand quite well the Authoress’s view of the world and its proper management. “Manners” here means not which fork to use but the practice of courtesy and the best way for people to interrelate with each other — and Judith Martin is nodding vigorously. The world of (almost exactly) two centuries ago was very different in many ways from our own, and Miss Austen accepted the necessity of the class structure, and servants knowing their place, and women following their predestined social paths, but there are nevertheless a great many points in this book that still apply today — or should. It’s hard to identify the modern counterpart of “polite society” these days, and I think we’re all probably the worse for it. In any case, speaking in modern English but with a definite Jane Austen flavor to her words, Ross will lead you through the complexities of making introductions and house calls, the rules for dancing and dining, the requirements of good taste and restrained dress as Miss Austen saw them, and the whole complex subject of marriage and relationships within the family. If people could actually function this way today (with due allowances being made for women in the professions, and cell phones, and so on), we’d all probably be happier.

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