Feb 5, 2009

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is a social history of nineteenth century England. Its main aim is helping readers understand the context of the novels of that period. The books is divided into different sections, which cover topics like “The Basics” (general information about England), “The Public World” (titles, forms of address, dances, dinner parties, power, money, schools, etc.), “The Private World” (sex, marriage, personal hygiene, food, clothing, etc), or “The Grim World” (orphanages, the workhouse, diseases, and death). And at the end of the book, there’s a detailed glossary of common nineteenth-century terms that are no longer used, or don’t have the same meaning today.

If you like social history, novels from this period, or cool random historical facts, then What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is probably a book for you. Many of the things discussed are actually illustrated with examples from novels, from the Bront√ęs and Jane Austen to Dickens, Trollope or Hardy. There are probably quite a few spoilers, but the good thing about not knowing much at all about the plots of classic novels is that I’m not likely to even remember the spoilers. This book did put me in the mood for classics, though, and that’s always a good thing.

Some examples of interesting (not always for good reasons) things I learned:
In 1752 the British joined the rest of Europe by switching from the Julian (thereafter called Old Style) to the Gregorian calendar. This meant going from Wednesday, September 2, 1752, directly to Thursday, September 14, 1752, and dropping eleven days permanently.
About the absence of toilets in trains:
Ladies might travel together in compartments separate from the gentlemen, for long journeys bringing chamber pots concealed in discreet baskets, while for gentlemen long tubes that could be strapped along the leg under a trouser were advertised.
And this, which is followed by a longer explain of how classics were not considered “proper” for ladies in general:
In 1869, an etiquette manual observed that “gentlemen should not make use of classical quotations in the presence of ladies, without apologizing for or translating them.”
Other things include the existence of window taxes (I used to know this, actually, but I'd forgotten), which was the reason why poor people lived in houses with no ventilation whatsoever; the fact that until the 1840’s, the penalty of sheep stealing or sodomy was heavier than for killing a man in a duel; or the ways in which people tried to prevent grave robbery.

There was something that made me smile: a lot of things I hadn’t read about before in history books were in fact familiar to me. And the reason is Discworld. I knew that Terry Pratchett incorporated a lot of historical facts into the series, but it was fun to see it for myself. For example, I think this will be familiar to all Discworld fans:
…the watch tramped through the streets at night armed with cutlass, lantern, clacker (to summon aid), and truncheon, shouting out the time and weather—“One o’clock on a rainy night and all’s well”—before returning so it in their little sentry boxes and keep an eye on the immediate street area.
The Watch has come such a long way.

It’s likely that the more you already know about nineteenth century English history, the less satisfying this book will be. But being fairly ignorant myself, I found a lot to enjoy here.

Reviewed at:
Chain Reading

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. How fascinating! I never knew Britain lost 11 days! I love books like this. Full of interesting (though often useless) information! Thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This sounds so intriguing, and I'm sure it would help me out next time I open a classic.

  4. Sounds good - I'm reading Drood right now and this sounds like it would be a good companion to it.

  5. This book feels like the perfect reference read for someone trying to read some of the classics.

    I might have to check this out! Or perhaps gift it to one of my friends :)

  6. I need to read this one!
    how funny that 'gentlemen should not make use of classical quotations in the presence of ladies, without apologizing for or translating them'.

    I think I would enjoy this one too.
    great review :)


  7. This sounds so incredibly cool! Where'd you find this one? I love the title to begin with. I bet if I read this, it may help me develop a little more of a liking to novels of that period. And I shouldn't have to worry too much about spoilers because I've seen nearly all the BBC productions of these old novels :p

  8. This type of book is right up my alley....now I have to add it to my library request list!!! Thank you for making me aware of this one!!!

  9. This sounds fascinating! I'll have to see if my library has it.

  10. This sounds like an interesting book, Nymeth!

    After reading several classics, I want to know more about the things and what they did in that time period!

  11. I'm definitely one for random historical facts and i love social history so this one's for me. Thanks!

  12. Probably shouldn't admit it, but this era of classics generally doesn't do a lot for me (I know, I'm so uncouth), yet this book still sounds mighty interesting! Maybe if I read it, I'd be more inclined to give some more of those books a chance. Well, probably not, but it seemed like a good thing to say. ;)

  13. I'm putting this one on my TBR Pile!! How interesting!!

  14. I have been meaning to read this book for a while. Maybe a new review will inspire me to move it up the wish list!

  15. LOL. I had to chuckle at the quote about not quoting classics in front of ladies! And it makes me wonder how the Japanese handled changing from the old lunar calendar to the current one. Sounds like a really fun read!

  16. Ooh, this sounds really interesting! I can never know too many useless facts about the 19th century. :D I'm sure I'll impress someone with my knowledge someday.

  17. Mariel: lol, it is pretty useless. But fun!

    Jeane: The book does explain a lot! There were some examples from the two Austen books I've read that helped me understand the character's reactions to certain things better.

    bermudaonion: Indeed! And I can't wait to read your thoughts on Drood.

    saveophelia: lol, I'm glad I'm not the only one who sometimes gives borrowtastic gifts :P

    Naida: It's... I don't even have a word for it. It makes me glad to live now, even though a lot of things are still bad today.

    Chris: It was a Christmas gift from my boyfriend. He said I'd mentioned it a while ago, but I had no recollection of it, so it was a complete surprise. And lol :P It's next to impossible to avoid spoilers for some classics anyway.

    Staci, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy it :)

    Memory: I hope it does!

    Melody: The classics always make me want to read more about the time period they were written in too.

    Joanna: It sounds like it's for you indeed!

    Debi: Shame on you!!!1 :P Actually, my favourite classics are early 20th century ones...from the periods just before and after WWI. I love reading about that time. But this is definitely still fun to read even if you're not too crazy about 19th century classics.

    Kristina, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Kailana: I think this is right up your alley!

    tanabata: It's just so baffling, isn't it? I didn't know the calendar had also changed in Japan. I wonder if they "lost" some days too.

    Meghan: I agree; you can never know too many!

  18. Hey this sounds really good. I bet this would be a great help to me when I'm trying to figure out my next classic. lol. Thanks for the review Nymeth.

  19. Oh my goodness, what a neat-sounding book! It sounds like you could probably read bits and pieces, and not have to read the entire book. I'm a big fan of Austen, Dickens, and other classic authors, so I think it would be really fun to become more familiar with this time period. I like the interesting factoids you included :)

  20. What a cool book! If my library got this, I'd totally check it out. Sounds like a lot of fun for a useless trivia junkie like me. :)

  21. This sounds really interesting! I have seen this one before and I do enjoy history. What fun!

  22. I've had this for ages on my TBR shelf!!! I've dipped into it, but really should read it end to end.

    I did know that England lost 11 days....my writing friend from long ago and I wanted to write a fantasy story based on those lost 11 days, and what would happen. I always wanted to bring some Shakespeare into it. It's still waiting to be written! lol

  23. This book has been on my TBR list for ages...I love Austen, and I love trivia, so I know I'd enjoy it. I just need to find a copy and some time to read it! :)

  24. Dar: It's both fun and helpful :)

    Laura: Yeah, it's a good one to dip into now and again...but it's also fun to read back to back.

    Stephanie: I'm a bit of a useless trivia junkie myself :P And hey, you never know when all that info could become useful :P

    Kim: It is lots of fun!

    Susan: Do! I think you'd enjoy it. And wow, that is a FABULOUS idea! You should definitely write it, you know.

    Jessi, I think this would definitely be a winner for you :)

  25. I read this book about ten years ago and I remember very little about it EXCEPT that it introduced me to Anthony Trollope. I'd never heard of him and now he's one of my favorites.

  26. social history is my thing - thanks for making me aware of this book. Now, if I could only remember the random tidbits between its covers I'd have a lot of fun impressing people with trivia at cocktail parties!

  27. I have a feeling I'm going to love it! Those are some interesting bits you've included in your review. Thanks for sharing (especially the toilet passage).

    I've got an award for you!

  28. The title alone makes me want to pick this book up!

  29. Hope: The book made me curious about Trollope too!

    Dawn: lol, I bet I'll forget most of it soon, but some things are actually bizarre enough to stick in your mind!

    Alice: I'm glad I'm not the only one amused by the toilet bit :P

    Literary Feline: It's a great title indeed :)

  30. I remember checking this book out years ago. Quite an eye-opener wasn't it? I should look for it again as I can hardly remember any of it anymore.

  31. I'm fairly ignorant myself so I think I would enjoy something like this. Love the title too!

  32. I read and enjoyed this last year - and I've kept it on my shelf for quick reference when reading a classic from this time period. The glossary in the back is invaluable!

  33. Thanks for this review. I really love when I find these gems...I've already popped this on the TBR list at good reads.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.