When we reviewed Jane Austen’s Guide to Dating a while back, we remarked that reading the advice contained therein was like receiving a letter full of good advice from Aunt Jane. In Dear Jane Austen: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love, Patrice Hannon has gone one better and provided exactly that: a series of letters in Jane Austen’s voice, full of common sense and bracing admonitions, not just on romantic matters but embracing other aspects of life on which modern women might need advice, from financial to fashion to family relations, illustrating the advice with examples from her own novels.
In the wrong hands, such an endeavour could turn revoltingly twee, but Dr. Hannon has a sure grasp of the tone and subject matter. A college professor who has “taught Jane Austen’s novels to hundreds of students” according to her bio blurb, Dr. Hannon knows her Austen and aptly applies the novels to the situation of each applicant for advice, reinforcing each “lesson” with an aphorism (“Jane Austen says: A heroine needs good friends as much as she needs a hero”).
Since modern “heroines in training” are writing the letters to Jane Austen, she has the advantage of a 200-year view of the situation. Though she is physically placed in 1816 Chawton, rethinking her original ending to Persuasion and trying to throw off the first pangs of her fatal illness, Jane offers wry comments on everything from the Brontës (“who, after all my labour to entertain women with comedies having only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them, set the poor creatures back hundreds of years with stories full of improbable circumstances and unnatural characters”) to Sex and the City. It may sound strange, but it works.
Like the Guide to Dating, even those Janeites who are more experienced and perhaps less in need of a stern auntish talking-to will enjoy this book, as it can be read almost as light lit-crit as well as earnestly-meant advice. The author has an impressive and detailed grasp on Jane Austen’s novels and mostly gets Jane’s voice just right: brisk and no-nonsense, with the merest flutter of poignancy where appropriate, only to be picked up by those conversant with her life story.
Dear Jane Austen is less structured than the Guide, and as a result rambles in a few places, but even the rambles are interesting, so there is no great harm in it. Various Austen family members wander in and out in the background, and Jane’s conversations with them are also recorded, making her sound rather chattier and Miss Batesish than one might expect, though we suppose that is the nature of such one-sided sort of conversations.
We found Dear Jane Austen to be meatier than expected from such a slim volume and basic premise, and we think that there are few Janeites who will not enjoy spending a few afternoons caught up in the fantasy. We are just not sure whether to categorize it as fiction for the premise or non-fiction for the common-sense self-help advice and the discussion of the books. Ultimately it doesn’t matter; the book can be enjoyed on both levels.
Plume has positioned the book as fiction.
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Plume (26 Jun 2007)
Margaret C. Sullivan is the Editrix of AustenBlog and the author of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World.