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What Jane Austen Ate, and Charles Dickens Knew    by Daniel Pool order for
What Jane Austen Ate, and Charles Dickens Knew
by Daniel Pool
Order:  USA  Can
Simon & Schuster, 1994 (1993)
Hardcover, Softcover
* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

Almost hidden by the scattered newspapers, sale inserts, and other paraphernalia peculiar to my mother-in-law's kitchen counters peeped an incongruous find: a book on Victoriana. Incongruous because of its presence in that house among thousands of "how-to" books on all subjects having to do with bettering the reader's life in today's world, and the absence of any reading material whatsoever for purely frivolous pleasure.

I immediately pounced on this treasure, delighted to find that What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew was, in fact, a book dealing exclusively with Victoriana peculiar to novels of this period. I then and there determined to acquire this book for my own, being an avid fan of Dickens, Austen and Hardy. A quick question for politeness sake on the antecedents of the book reassured me that no one would miss it, as it was a gift from some misguided person to my father-in-law. As I knew that nothing short of bamboo shoots under his fingernails would ever force him to actually read this book, I had no further qualms about commandeering it for myself.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew answers many puzzling questions in readers' minds: how exactly did a hostess know who outranked whom when it came time for pairing up for leading into dinner; what being "presented at Court" was all about; and why did 19th century English novelists always have their characters declare they would rather die than go to the workhouse? Certain 19th century mores and customs are also touched on to enlighten the reader on how many seemingly unimportant (to us today) descriptions in actuality deal with the characters' places in society, in a way that would have been immediately obvious to readers of that time - such as what sort of candles they were described as using, or what kind of servants they employed.

This book states at the outset that its intention is not to discuss at length every aspect of life in this period, but rather to concentrate on items mentioned in many popular books of the time. This may leave readers wanting more, but on the whole, there is a good amount of interesting information. There are two main sections. The first deals with day-to-day background information in paragraph form and the second is a glossary of definitions.

I was immediately intrigued by the map of London, which let me know exactly where everything was. I then went on to discover that the "Season", which I had been used to reading about in Georgette Heyer's books (not a 19th century novelist, but a 20th century writer specializing in the Regency period) was directly tied to the duration of Parliament's sessions. I never knew that. Other nuggets of information I didn't know were what "parishes" really were, what was the difference between a "moor" and a "heath", and what time of the day "morning calls" actually took place (the afternoon!).

Some facts were sad (as in the forced indenturing of orphans from the age of 8 until they were 21) but others were highly amusing. I was comforted to know that even then the court system had its problems. Bleak House, for instance, was based on a court case in Chancery Court (which was somewhat like the appeal system in the US) involving the estate of a man who died intestate in 1798. This case was still not resolved by 1915 and had by then cost over £250,000. This same Chancery Court's reputation was so bad, there was even a boxing hold called "Getting in Chancery", which involved your opponent locking your head under his arm and pounding it repeatedly with his other fist.

There are numerous other fascinating items to read about as well, and many well-known novels and authors are featured in conjunction with explanations of terms. I was unfamiliar with some of the books and have added them to my reading list for the future. I have also become interested in further research into the Victorian era.

This is a thoroughly delightful book for any fan of 19th century literature, and also for history buffs in general.

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