Book Review: What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, by Daniel Pool

This book answers many questions about life in England in the 19th Century

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew is a terrific book to accompany the reading of nineteenth-century English novels. As its catchy title suggests, it provides explanations to many aspects of life in the nineteenth century that can be puzzling to a present-day reader.

I bought my copy from the book shop at Jane Austen's house in Chawton in the UK, but it is available at other bookstores.

When you read this book, you may find yourself nodding your head, saying ‘Aahh, now I understand,’ as I did many times.

It’s a book you can enjoy reading cover to cover for its interesting facts, or to keep handy as a reference book.

It covers pretty much every thing you need to know, from major institutions such as Parliament, the Church, the Army and Navy, down to how many calling cards people left when paying visits. The book even covers the ‘unspoken’ areas of life rarely alluded to in nineteenth-century novels, such as sex, bathing and toileting. Mr Pool frequently refers to examples from well-known English literature.

Part 1 is divided up into conveniently titled chapters and sub-sections if you need to refer to a specific topic.

Part 2 is a glossary, an A-Z guide of words you come across all the time, but don’t know exactly what they are. Ague? Vail? Twelfth Cakes? Michaelmas? All explained here.

A detailed index at the back is handy if there is a particular term you want to find.

My one criticism of the book is the absence of maps and illustrations, particularly in the section on London. A series of maps would have made Pool’s explanation of the changes that took place during the century more comprehensible. As it was, not being very familiar with London, I found myself a little lost. That aside, I highly recommend it.


Fascinating Facts from "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew."


Got Milk?

Donkey’s milk was sometimes used instead of breast milk by the upper classes if the mother did not want to send the child to a wet nurse or breastfeed the child herself.

Old fashioned food colouring anyone? (Don’t try these at home)

For Gold and Silver – throw some copper and zinc into your recipe.

Blue – add a little iron.

Red – what’s a bit of lead?

Green – arsenic, not surprisingly with at least one fatality.

Pre-Nups Are So Old-Fashioned

In families where there was any money worth arguing about, a marriage settlement was created before the union of the happy couple could take place.

The family lawyers created legal documents to lay out the financial arrangements of the union. For example, the woman’s family may ensure that if the husband died, the widow would have something to live on, as well as to give her an allowance, called ‘pin money’, while he lived. They could also negotiate portions of money for any future children. (If only Mrs Dashwood’s parents had worked out a better arrangment for her in Sense and Sensibility). If the bride was a wealthy heiress, part of the agreement may have been to place her property and money in the hands of a trustee to keep it out of the hands of her husband. Often a bride from a wealthy family brought a large dowry to the marriage.

The Distinctions of Rank

I couldn’t help feeling pleased (think of pompous Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion) to learn that a baronet, along with a knight, was at the bottom of the titled classes and was not even considered part of the peerage.

Dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and barons comprised the peerage, and those holding the title were often referred to as “Lord”, while baronets and knights had to be content with "Sir".

Have We Met?

A social inferior should only be introduced to one of superior social standing at the latter's initiation. Think of Mr. Darcy’s surprise and Elizabeth’s mortification when Mr. Collins dares to introduce himself to Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. It also explains the Elliots’ concern when they want to make contact with Lady Dalrymple without seeming improper in Persuasion.

Gentlemanly Behaviour

A gentleman had to go in front of the lady when walking up a flight of stairs; if going down the stairs he had to follow behind her.

If a gentleman wished to converse with a female acquaintance he met in the street, he had to turn and walk with her. It was not polite to let a lady stand in the street.

Smoking was never done in the presence of a lady. Think of how the men always withdrew from the ladies for a while after dinner at gatherings.

A gentleman was always introduced to a lady, never the other way around.

Not a Slip-up

Dresses were virtually transparent at the beginning of the nineteenth century - I was shocked that I could see through Elizabeth Bennet’s dress in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, but as usual, the BBC was historically accurate. Dresses at the beginning of the century ‘were of thin muslin, with only light stays if that’ (a stay was one half of a corset, two stays were a whole one), ‘and a chemise underneath.’

As the century wore on, dresses became fuller, fabrics heavier, waistlines dropped to the actual waist and hoops and petticoats became the fashion.

Waste Not, Want Not

The nineteenth-century English understood how to recycle, although saving the environment was not their concern.

Dresses were handed down to ladies' maids, and servants often kept 'rag-bags' of discarded cloth that could then be sold on. For example, linen rags could be sold on to a paper manufacturer since paper was made of linen and rag for much of the century.

Used tea-leaves could be used to clean carpets, or sold on to be recycled and passed off as fresh tea. Even soot from the chimneys could be used for insect-killer.

The streets, the river and household garbage was scavenged by the desperately poor for anything that could be sold for a bit of cash. Even dog mess could be sold on to tan-yards which used it in processing leather.

Aah, the good old days..

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Comments 6 comments

Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Sounds like a wonderful book to help understand the behavior of people in Victorian books.


MayG profile image

MayG 6 years ago from Melbourne, Australia Author

Thank you Dolores. It really is a great book, not just for the Victorian period of the nineteenth century, but for the earlier part of the century as well. And of course it explains the monarchy of the century as well!! I appreciate your comment.


rebekahELLE profile image

rebekahELLE 6 years ago from Tampa Bay

the title led me in! what a delightful, informative hub. the books sounds so interesting. the time period is one of my favorites to read! you've whet my appetite. :]


MayG profile image

MayG 6 years ago from Melbourne, Australia Author

Thanks for reading this hub, Rebekaelle. I do really love this book, as 19th Century lit is my absolute favourite to read, especially Dickens and Austen!


Design Artistree profile image

Design Artistree 4 years ago

Fascinating. Your "Have We Met?" section made me go "aha!" too. And your comment on Sir Walter's unjustified pomposity made me chuckle. (Have you seen the 2007 movie version of Persuasion? His character is played to perfection) This one's definitely going on my already-too-long reading list ;)


MayG profile image

MayG 4 years ago from Melbourne, Australia Author

Hi Design Artistree, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I don't think I have seen the 2007 movie of persuasion, only an older BBC version. I must check it out. Thanks!

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