Black Elephants's Reviews > What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist—the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool
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Feb 17, 09

bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in September, 2007

You all know my weakness for a book with Jane Austen's name in the title, so when I came across What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, the double whammy decided my reading for the week.

The book is by Daniel Pool, but it is not anything more than a reference book divided into subsections of "Public Life," "Country Life," "Private Life," etc. Each subsection has chapters that address their theme. For instance, "Private Life" has chapters about sex, marriage, clothing, pudding and evil spirits (drinks). The second half of the book is a glossary, which defines many terms readers of great literature may not know when they come across them in the works of Austen or Dickens. I now know what an epergne is. And if you don't, then I suggest you google it.

The real fun of this read is that it is solely for literature lovers like myself (or high school students forced to read it for a class). Pool admits several times in his book that there is more he could say about certain subjects, but that he won't because he's only interested in the facts that pertain to novels. And if you are a reader familiar with those novels—the works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and the Bronte Sisters—then the book is infinitely more fun when Pool illustrates real life history with real fictional examples.

There were some "boring" parts. I could care less about the supposed currency rate between the guinea and the modern UK pound. I yawned over certain tiers of country government, but otherwise, I zipped through this read in a few days.

On a sidenote: I found myself thinking a lot about an article that discusses how fiction is no longer needed to mirror real life because real life, or non-fiction, is so fantastic. It is true that this is the age of non-fiction, the short story, maybe even the recap, so it was interesting for me to read a reference book where all history and true fact had to been filtered through the lens of fiction. Perhaps fiction was more effective at the time because it could be made to be more universal? Also, because people, especially the upper classes, were reading what they saw as fiction, this was a socially appropriate way to introduce them to the lifestyles of classes that might suffer beneath them.

Although Pool does joke that upon a woman's marriage, she would beg her husband to finally let her read Tom Jones because she had left her maiden status behind and didn't have to be as shielded from immorality anymore.

Edited for a 2nd sidenote: What was also fun was how I used this historical reference based on literature as a mirror to what's happening in modern life. One point that Pool kept emphasizing was that in the beginning of the 1800s, Jane Austen's time, it was not uncommon for the gentry to get their hands dirty and do household tasks. However, thirty years later, it was a mark of social standing by how little you had to do; in short, the more helpless, the more noble. Anyway, I felt that this was something applicable to today, which also crossreferences my reading of Nickel and Dimed. Today, it is a mark of your social standing if you have a big house and grounds, which you don't have to tend. Also, jobs that were perfectly acceptable for teens, i.e. grocery bagger, janitor, waitress & etc, are now for the "lower class" or less educated while coffee shop, retail and office jobs are the distinction of "class." My point is that the middle class is relegating unappealing tasks like the Victorian upper class to the "lower classes" to show off their affluence or declare their superiority. The end.

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