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Monday, December 1, 2014

“What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist -- The Facts of Daily Life in 19th Century England”, by Daniel Pool


416 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0671793371

Have you ever wondered why Fanny Price was so dizzy after drinking negus (it’s a drink made with port in this case and not an African king)? What exactly was the difference between a gig and a curricle (the former is a two-wheeled cart pulled by a single horse; the latter is much smarter a two-wheeled chaise pulled by a pair of horses)? Where in the Order of Precedence did Sir William Lucas fall as a baronet (he was above hereditary knights but beneath barons)? If you love 19th Century English literature but sometimes feel at sea in the terminology of the period, Daniel Pool comes to your rescue with What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, a pleasant, sometimes shocking look at those ever-fascinating Victorians. Quoting liberally from the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, The Brontës, Thomas Hardy, and many more besides, as well as from journalistic and non-fiction dispatches of the period, Pool clues us in on the intricacies of social rank, the relative value of money, the etiquette observed and dishes served at a formal dinner, the operations of Parliament, the tortures inflicted on the sick by the medical profession, and the miseries of the workhouse. So much of that society and its basic suppositions are so different from ours that it reminds us of the quote from the novelist L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

Pool’s book is divided into two parts: a series of essays on daily life in the 19th Century; and an exhaustive glossary of words common to the folk of the period, but not to us. Both parts are engaging and interesting, admirably filling in the gaps in one’s Victorian vocabulary (I certainly wish that I had this book before I started reading Jane Austen, because it would have answered so many of my questions; I had tried to use a modern dictionary and was not always successful). The only area that needed further clarification was the chapter about Entails and Protecting The Estate; I never quite understood how Miss Anne de Bourgh was able to inherit her father’s estate upon his death (since “A girl should not inherit because if she remained single the line could die out and if she married the estate would pass in possession to someone outside the family”). Apart from that, I would advise anyone who loves 19th Century English Literature to add it to their collection as an invaluable reference guide of the period.

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