Study Guide

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

by Daniel Pool

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew Essay - Critical Essays

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew

Pool’s subtitle, “From Fox Hunting to Whist—The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England,” begins to tell the story of his remarkably enlightening work. Organized into a series of essays (part 1) and an extensive glossary (part 2), the book is a cornucopia of facts, many of them arcane and bewildering when one comes upon them in Victorian fiction, as every American student must.

Questions about school and law terms (what and when is Michaelmas?), about money (what is a guinea?), about titles (is a Baroness below a Marchioness?), find answers in Pool’s pages. Likewise, the basics of farming, schooling, measures, pecking order of servants, and rules of card games come to light.

Pool goes well beyond the basics, writing in great detail about household management, transportation (of felons and of travelers), country life and customs, and government on all levels. He treats of the grim world of orphans, examines the treadmill and workhouse, the debtor’s prison, and that most complicated legal system lurking in most Victorian novels waiting to confuse readers with barristers, solicitors, serjeants, police magistrates, and their ilk in police courts, Doctors’ Commons, Chancery Court, and “assizes.”

We learn much about food and drink, menus and recipes, the relative merits and costs of tapers, tallows, and candles, sanitation and ablutions, the varied fashions Victorian novelists treated with realistic familiarity.

The glossary (some 136 pages) is a rare treat as it reveals the Victorian senses of such words as lozenge, entail, jointure, net, reversion, and wimble. It also contains enlightening discussions of physicians and parishes, an example from the Court Circular along with its description, an explanation of the borough and of pattens, with illustrations from Dickens, Hardy, and Thackeray.

Pool’s meticulous research draws liberally from many Victorian sources and recent scholarly works in a book that deserves a wide readership.