Non-Fic Fridays: What Regency Women Did For Us

I loved my Finnemore Fridays, and soon I will find a legit way to bring them back, continuing my quest to spread the brilliance of John Finnemore far and wide (without bending any copyright laws).

Until then, let’s talk non-fiction!

There was a major swath of years between 25-35 where I don’t recall reading any non-fiction that wasn’t work-related. But I got married, and my husband’s brain is SO BIG, and so filled with useful stuff, that I decided to be more like him.

About ten years ago, I made a point of reading more widely. including biographies, science, business, and politics. I’ve learned how to tell quickly whether a book will hold my interest: Does it have humor? Does it have a good tone? Does it balance good writing and density of information?

Following this criteria, my favorite non-fic books from the past several years are The Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr and A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. Favorite non-fiction audiobooks are The Girl With the Lower Back Tatoo, by Amy Schumer, and The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fischer.

This weekend I am supposed to attend the Jane Austen Book Club meeting in nearby Ventura, but the freeway will still be closed due to the Montecito mudslides. As a result, you, Dear Readers, gain from my book club’s loss.

Here are the Questions posed, and my answers about What Regency Women Did For Us.

TL;DR

This is a nice reference book, not an engaging read. The author has summarized a lot of research without telling any stories about Regency women that made me really enjoy reading about them.

 

1. Out of the 12 women described in this book, who was your favorite person, and why? (you can’t say Jane Austen)

Thanks to Knowles, the women were reduced to nearly identical, narrow descriptions. Childhood, struggles, education, pursuits…I found it hard to tell them apart, and I believe they all felt “the same” because the author didn’t have an attitude, or make an emotional distinction between them.

I found myself wondering if she had put them into the book in a particular order for any reason, and yes, they are ordered according to their date of birth. Very fair. Knowles presented some brilliant women to rectify history. A worthy goal, except her work leaves out sufficient details or narrative threads to interest me. What was presented frustrated me as a reader. If she was trying to make me want to toss her book in the garbage and go do my own research, in that, Knowles has succeeded.

This is teaching history at it’s worst: merely sketching important characters, including their birth, death, and contributions without engaging the learner unduly. I can’t say I truly “liked” any of the subjects. I don’t feel I know who they really were. (She even made me feel momentarily ambivalent about JA! (A feat of amazingly blasé writing.)

2. Who was your least favorite?

Ditto rant above.

3. Was there any person in this book you had never heard of that particularly impressed you?

Jane Marcet’s ability to present complicated information in a format that increases widespread comprehension is a skill I am particularly impressed by.

4. Did you feel that there were women in the book who should not have been included? Any you know of that should have been?

No, all the women in the book met the criteria set by the author: They left an admirable legacy behind. I don’t know of anyone missing, but then, I am not a student of British women’s history.

5. Which of these 12 women do you feel had the greatest impact on Regency England or to life in the Regency era?

I have to point to Jane Marcet again, as her manuals for disseminating learning are likely to have touched the most individuals.

6. How did marriage, or a lack of marriage, influence these women’s lives?

In the same way marriages influence women today: Good ones allow partners to become the best people they can be; bad ones distract, disrupt, and deprive the world of talent.

7. Did you feel that there were any instances when being a woman actually was an advantage in any of these 12 cases?

Being a beautiful woman has always been an advantage – a source of power – when used wisely. This is especially true in the stories of Sarah Siddons and Harriott Mellon, who needed to be seen and admired on the stage.

8. Do you feel that there are any commonalities between the lives of these 12 women?

They are all presented as being born street-smart, clever, or perceptive…whatever your word is for an innate intelligence. Though their education, circumstances, and encouragement all differed, each one had not only an intrinsic drive, but the power to discern a plan for making a good life and follow the plan.

9. What do you think about the title of the book?

As a play on the question, “What have Regency Women ever done for me?” it is fairly clever. The “Us” in the book feels predominantly British and scientific, which is a bit distancing, as I am neither British nor a scientist.

10. What do you think of the writer’s style?

Very academic.
Except when it is exclamatory!
But seriously, Knowles should absolutely write for Wikipedia. This book feels like a JASNA presentation or paper that was expanded…these women are represented at a superficial level.

True to its title, the book focuses on the outcomes of the women’s lives too much to make it a “good read.” It almost discounts the women themselves, in favor of their accomplishments. I think the book tries, but it does not succeed in going deep enough to make the reader see these women as the heroines of important stories that should be told. This is a failure (or perhaps it was exactly the intent) of the distant writing tone, the segmented structure, and the academician’s refusal to let the most interesting bits of the women’s lives be the central story.

Lest I seem harsh, I praise Knowles for creating an excellent piece of reference material. The book is a good starting point for a young person curious about the era, about women’s roles in history, or how to go about finding additional works for researching any of these women (Bibliographies! May they live forever!).

 

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says:

Thanks for this, Yvette! I didn’t even get as far as TL;DR. For me it was the expense of a book with a title that didn’t sound intriguing. You’ve convinced me I wasn’t wrong in my cover judgment!

What do you think?