The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullany

The quotation on the cover of this book claims that its author is “clearly the witty, secret love child of Jane Austen and Lord Byron.” An intriguing premise, and an accurate one.

Our heroine, Miss Philomena Wellesley-Clegg, considers the “pursuit[s] of . . . bonnets and [of] husband[s] fairly alike,” and the task of the book is to document her pursuing both, and potential suitors pursuing her. These pursuits are made more interesting with quasi-diary entries of both our heroine and the reader’s first choice of hero, Inigo Linsley, who, though he has a shameful past, may offer her the best future. 

The other choices, which include a rather dull childhood friend, a man so interested in bonnets—and in Inigo—that the reader is immediately concerned about his desire to perform with Philomena, and a man (like Diana Birchall’s eldest Darcy son) more interested in horses and dogs than in real romance.

Our heroine is likeable, bright, and passionate, like Austen heroines before her, but her obsession with the bulge in Inigo’s breeches and the bonnets she can design—after all, “every woman knows [that] a new bonnet is the best diversion of all”—make her more than Lydia, than Jane, Bennett. It turns out that Mullany was inspired by Lydia to create Philomena, so this is a new twist. We’re rooting for the virginal girl who gets cornered in the water closet on multiple occasions—and likes it.

Even her family resembles the Bennetts in the sense that her mother rambles on without punctuation or pauses for breath, and her father can be counted to do what’s right by her—after making a few errors in judgment. A primary suitor is troubled that her family is linked to trade, while his is part of the ton. Twin sisters, though annoying, offer insight into Philomena’s life, especially on the honeymoon, when the married pair keep “disappearing.”

Prior to that happy time, one Byron may address in his works, but Austen certainly does not, our heroine also seems to be witness to several illicit liaisons—why aren’t these people more cautious with their stays?—some accidentally, and some, when she has more experience, deliberately. Nineteen-year-old Philomena goes where Lizzy Bennett never would have gone, but her doing so offers the reader some sexy fun.

In an intriguing scene with a statue, for instance, Philomena has been drafted by her family artistically to mask a revealed breast, whereupon Inigo encounters her and tries to help—by breaking it. On their errand to replace the destroyed statue, Philomena feels the muscular thigh of a male statue in the shop, and Inigo is so aroused he needs to stand behind something until the matter subsides. There are many such titillating scenes in this text, and while Austen suggests the sexual tension between our matched pairs in a subtle manner, Mullany turns to Byron for more overt discussion of sex, and everything that leads to, and results from, sexual desire. Juxtaposing Philomena’s innocence with the wildness of everyone from local prostitutes and their pimps to Inigo’s aging mother, creates irresistible humor; the young woman, aware that she’s thinking thoughts society says she shouldn’t yet—donates money to charity every time she ponders a penis.

I must admit, for a few chapters, I was so engrossed in the tale I forgot to take notes for the review, which is probably just as well for those of my readers who resist Byronesque tales, and I will state clearly here that though the text consists of a lot of bonnets and virgins fiddling around in men’s pockets, I think Austen would like it—even if she had to read it under the covers with Cassandra.

Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

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