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Three Stories Of Gossip Not Even Austen Could Resist
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Three Stories Of Gossip Not Even Austen Could Resist


When you think of a novel of manners, Jane Austen probably comes to mind. But Helen Simonson, author of her own novel of manners, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," says not so fast.

In our series Three Books, in which authors recommend three books on one theme, she recommends three books about manners not written by Miss Austen.

Ms. HELEN SIMONSON (Author, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand"): Over the centuries, novels of manners with their wit and acute observation have always illustrated people behaving badly. A quick flip through today's celebrity magazines will prove that century to century, nothing changes: the social climbers, the gossips, the ruthless acquiring of a suitably endowed spouse all are as relevant and as fascinating today as in Jane Austen's portraits of small English villages. Beyond Jane Austen, the true master, here are three of my favorite examples of novels of manners.

Undine Spragg the name says it all. In Edith Wharton's acclaimed novel, "The Custom of the Country," this monster of a shallow social climber arrives from the rough commercial Midwest to reside in a Looey suite at a New York City Hotel and to look for a husband.

Undine's ruthless quest leads her to trade up, first through the old guard Washington Square elite and then into French nobility. Though she sacrifices a husband and her child to her ambition, no rank she achieves is quite good enough, and the novel ends with her absolute frustration in discovering that she will never be an ambassador's wife.

A sharp portrait of the shifting rules of American society in the early 1900s, it is also timeless. Substitute names from the today tabloid celebrities, annoying heiresses with their own clothing lines, political appointees with a keen nose for protocol and this book is more textbook than novel.

For anyone who thrilled to the recent scandal of Oxford poets conducting smear campaigns, "Cakes and Ale" by Somerset Maugham is a delicious, biting satire of the lengths writers will go to advance and burnish their reputations.

A famous writer and his second wife need a biographer. The catch being that the writer's beautiful, unfaithful first wife, his true muse, is to be carefully written out. The writer they choose is a complete hack whose fine literary reputation has been built by shamelessly courting critics with expensive lunches.

The book was considered a scandalous, thinly veiled portrait of Thomas Hardy, an idea Maugham slyly refuted by suggesting the names of two other writers who were equally on his mind. Writers behaving badly in wonderful country settings more proof that nothing changes.

"Mapp and Lucia" is the third title in a series of six novels by British author E.F. Benson set mostly in Tilling, a fictionalized version of my hometown of Rye, East Sussex. The widowed Lucia, a sophisticated summer visitor, arrives to rent a house from the town's leading light, Miss Mapp, and to battle for control of the social life.

The fete, the art show, and control over the gardener nothing is too petty to fight over, in a malicious war of attrition disguised as a friendly cup of tea.

The redeeming in novels of manners is that while we laugh at the scheming and squabbles of others, we might recognize a few guilty flaws of our own. I'm convinced that if we can only learn to laugh at ourselves we may become a more civilized society. Please pass the finger sandwiches.

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SIEGEL: Helen Simonson is the author of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand."

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