I think this will be my first non-fiction book review, even though the title of the book, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew might let one think otherwise. Daniel Pool’s book has nothing to do with literature or fiction per se. But if you’Re wondering what did Austen eat in her time, then this book is for you.Pool’s book is indeed about the life of the 19th century in England, period alas rather neglected in history class in France for it paved the way to how we live today. The 19th century is also remembered for being a very prolific period for English literature. Not only Austen and Dickens, but also the Brontës sisters, Shelley, Wells or Thackeray to name only a few.
This intriguing period was also the theater of the industrial revolution, the development of a much more efficient medicine and the democratisation of education. And yet that world was very different than the one we live in (even the English) in many ways.
Pool’s book sheds light on many references that would only be understood by contemporary readers of those authors, about daily life, conventions, traditions and habits that are now lost and unknown.
Some chapters are quite obscure and slightly inaccessible for the average reader (I would include myself as one of them) for instance regarding the form of address or the classification of titles. I had to skip parts of those chapters for they were simply not of my interest and I did not feel like I was learning anything. It is unfortunate that they also are the early chapters. As the book progresses, the topics approached become easier to understand and, for a socio-historical book, rather entertaining. It is a delightful way of learning easily, thanks to an uncomplicated style and numerous examples.
Speaking of which, those examples are very often derived from novels written by authors of the 19th century. I happen to have studied English literature in university, hence I know what happens in Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d’Ubervilles, just like I know who Fagin or Mr Rochester are. I can only imagine that these recurring references might come across as off-putting for the uninitiated reader.
In a nutshell, I would probably not read the book again, unless for some extracts if I am looking for specific information. However it is a pleasant and informative piece of work, accessible to most readers and it is a comfortable thought to know the book is available at my local library.