I haven’t quite finished What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist – the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-Century England, but I’ve read more than enough to know that it’s a second rate effort. The book is supposed to be a guide to the cultural settings of the great novels by Austen, the Brontës, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, Dickens, and Hardy. Unfortunately, the author is not a historian nor is he a literature professor, and I’m afraid it shows.
The book is sprinkled with errors (some of which have been corrected by past readers of my library copy!) and is rather uneven in it’s treatment of various subjects. The author got his training as a lawyer so it is perhaps not too surprising that the section on 19th century law is excessively long and detailed. He also devotes many pages to servants, and repeats some of the information twice (almost verbatim), calling the editor of this book into question as well. Otherwise, the book restricts itself to those customs and practices mentioned in the great novels; it is by no means a guide to 19th century England in general.
The tone of the book is a bit uneven as well, varying between learned teacher and American tourist (as in, ‘Look, Martha, they only bathed once a week!’). It also jumps around chronologically in an erratic manner, blurring the distinctions between the Regency and Victorian eras. The book suffers from a lack of illustrations that would have compensated for Pool’s sometimes scanty explanations, for instance, of the different types of carriages.
Perhaps the most helpful part of the book is the glossary, which takes up one third of the book, although it contains nothing that a really good dictionary wouldn’t include, and like the rest of the book it suffers from some errors and omissions. Having said that, I think the book might be convenient for a novice reader who didn’t want to lug around a big dictionary or read a thorough social history of the era. But for the experienced reader much of the information will be old hat, and one should look elsewhere for depth and breadth.