Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels, by Janet Todd – A Review

Jane Austen Her Life Her Times and Her Novels by Janet Todd 2014 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress: 

One of my greatest discoveries while touring Jane Austen’s England last year was on our first day in London. Our group was at The British Library to see Jane Austen’s writing desk (awe inspiring) and of course we hit the library gift shop on our way out. We were delighted to find a whole table display featuring books by and about Jane Austen. Dead center was the striking purple cover of a large, over-sized book that I did not recognize entitled, Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels. It had just been released in the UK in honor of the bicentenary of Pride and Prejudice. On first impression it appeared, by its size and design, to be one of those glitzy oversized gift books that had pull out facsimiles of letters and documents along with big glossy images – a trophy book that you might place on your coffee table as a display piece or give as a gift to friend that you were trying to convert into a Janeite. When I noticed that the author was the celebrated Austen scholar Janet Todd, my first impressions changed immediately.

Weighing in at 2.7 pounds and sizing up at 11 X 10 inches, this full feature Jane Austen experience packs a wallop – a giant adrenalin rush for any fan or neophyte. Not only is the book beautifully bound and designed, it seeks to dispel any speculation and myth about the author’s life and works. The text has been laid out logically within twenty-two chapters covering biographical material, her early writing, published and unpublished works, history in context to her life and writing, and concludes with her legacy entitled, The Cult of Austen. Drawing on previously unseen documents from The British Library and the archives of The Bridgeman Art Library, Todd offers sixteen facsimile copies of Austen’s handwritten letters, manuscripts and notes, period maps and illustrations, and a frontis piece from the 1833 Pride and Prejudice. Her brilliant introduction will draw you into Austen’s Georgian world and the handy index in the back allows for quick reference to facts and details.

Jane Austen Her Life Her Times Her Novels

Stylish, expertly crafted, and surprisingly illuminating to this long-time Austen fan, Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels is just superb. You will consume this book like the richly flavored and decadent confection that it is. It now holds pride of place in my extensive Austen library and will be on the top of my list as a gift book to friends. And, as a word of extreme warning, there is a pirated copy of this book for sale on eBay which includes Todd’s text and lists Deirdre Le Faye as the author. Please do not support these thieves by purchasing it.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels, by Janet Todd
Carlton Books (2013)
Hardcover (112) pages
ISBN: 978-0233003702

Cover image courtesy of Carlton Books © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane – A Review

Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane 2013 x 200From the desk of Sarah Emsley:

Is it easier or harder to write if you’re also responsible for feeding and looking after your family? “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in September 1816, after a period in which she managed the household at Chawton Cottage in Cassandra’s absence. Fortunately for Jane – and for us, as readers of her fiction – most of the time it was Cassandra who filled this role, freeing Jane to write. In her writing, she doesn’t mention food very often, yet Maggie Lane’s book Jane Austen and Food shows her references to it are significant because “she uses it to define character and illustrate moral worth.” Jane Austen and Food was first published in 1995 by The Hambledon Press, and it’s newly available as an inexpensive e-book from Endeavour Press. It isn’t a cookbook, but a discussion of food in Austen’s letters and fiction.

I’ve always loved that line from her letters about composition, and reading Jane Austen and Food helped me understand it better. I learned that “mutton” isn’t always just mutton, and that “rhubarb” isn’t what I think of as rhubarb. Mutton, says Lane, “seems to have become the generic word for meat – or for dinner itself.” She cites the example from Mansfield Park of Dr. Grant inviting Edmund Bertram “‘to eat his mutton with him the next day,’ without supposing, for a moment, that ‘the bill of fare’ as he calls it is actually mutton (in fact it’s turkey).” The rhubarb Austen refers to is “not the plant we think of, the stalks of which are eaten as fruit,” but “the medicinal rootstock of the species of rheum grown in China and Tibet,” imported in powdered form to be “used as a purgative by the overfed part of the population.” Lane points out that in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland eventually realizes poisons are not as readily available as doses of rhubarb.

Jane Austen and Food begins with a discussion of “domestic economy” in Austen’s life and letters, outlining the historical context for subsequent analysis of meals, menus, manners, and morals in her novels. The book is full of entertaining facts, including the Austen family’s choice of turkey at Christmas (they reared their own turkeys at Steventon) while many other families ate beef; Jane Austen’s preference for the term “garden stuff,” instead of “vegetable,” a word she didn’t use in her writing until Sanditon in 1817; the rare appearance of similes in her work (“as White as a Whipt Syllabub” and “as cool as a cream-cheese” are both in Lesley Castle); and the importance of the hour at which a family had dinner.

Lane traces a progression from the “humble” Watsons, who dine at three, to the Dashwoods and the Woodhouses (four), to the Grants (half past four), to the Tilneys (five). Those who are fashionable or aspire to be considered fashionable dine late. At Netherfield, the hour is half past six, a full two hours after the dinner hour at Longbourn. Where characters eat is as important as when they eat and what they eat. Lane talks about why Mr. Knightley objects so strongly to eating outside – it’s thought to be “dangerous because of its tendency to break down those careful rules of behaviour which have been built up over generations to protect men and women from their baser selves.”

Who has control over food is also a key question in the novels, and Lane’s analysis is fascinating. We can learn a great deal, she says, about General Tilney and Dr. Grant from their obsessive focus on the quantity and quality of their food. While the former is “active and officious” and the latter is “idle,” Austen “shows how apparently very different styles of men can use food to manipulate and tyrannise over their immediate family.” Even characters with little or no control over the type of food or the time or place it is served find ways to exert control. Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Jane Fairfax all reject food at times of intense emotional distress. Lane writes that “the eating disorders of Marianne, Fanny and Jane may thus be said to mirror a degree of social disorder.” In contrast, Austen’s other heroines are indifferent to food. They “eat to keep themselves healthy, to be sociable, to conform. But not one of them ever anticipates or expresses pleasure in a meal, or admits to liking a particular food.” Whether a character is eating or not eating, talking about food or not talking about it, Austen’s choices are always telling.

The book concludes with not one but two interpretations of Emma, a novel “so replete with food that it requires a whole chapter to itself,” and a helpful index of food and drink in the novels, so you can look up references to cherries, chicken, and chocolate, for example, or parsnips, partridges, and pineapples. Food and housekeeping may be considered “mundane” by some, as Lane says in her introduction, but her excellent analysis demonstrates that both are central to the moral world of Austen’s novels. Writers must decide for themselves whether the care and feeding of a family distracts them from writing, or nourishes their creative lives. But food in fiction will continue to fascinate both readers and writers. Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food entertains us with a wealth of information about historical context, and makes a compelling argument for the moral significance of food in art as well as in life.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2013)
Digital eBook (218) pages
ASIN: B00GYJD9CC

Cover image courtesy of Endeavour Press Ltd. © 2013; text Sarah Emsley © 2014, Austenprose.com

A Social History of Tea: Expanded 2nd Edition, by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson – A Review

A Social History of Tea 2013Tea passed pleasantly, and nobody seemed in a hurry to move. – Jane Austen, Emma, Chapter 41

Taking tea is so quintessentially British. You cannot think of that noble nation without envisioning its residents with a tea cup in one hand and a cucumber sandwich in the other. English novelist Jane Austen mentions tea no less than 49 times in her major works. The popularity of tea has grown even more since her Regency times, evolving during the Victorian era into a light meal served at four in the afternoon: resplendent with white linen, silver trays, scones and clotted cream. Today, in our fast-paced-world of takeout food and frozen dinners, attending a tea party at a friend’s home or tea room is an event to be cherished and savored. The calming ritual and lively conversation is the ultimate indulgence that has not changed for polished society for four hundred years.

The tale of tea is a captivating story revealed in A Social History of Tea, a new expanded second edition by British tea authority Jane Pettigrew and American tea historian Bruce Richardson. Originally published in 2001 by The National Trust, this new edition has been revised and expanded and includes the research of two tea authorities from both sides of the pond. We are so internationally bipartisan these days—I am sure that mad King George III must be rolling in his grave!

The Tea Garden, by George Morland 1790

The Tea Garden, by George Morland 1790

Having long been a “tea advocate” I knew of Mr. Richardson from my cherished subscription to TeaTime magazine. I was thrilled to discover that he would be a speaker at the 2013 Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting in Minneapolis. I missed his talk, Society Steeped in Tea, but glowing reports piqued my interest in obtaining a copy of his new book with Pettigrew. I was not disappointed. Beautifully designed with 150 full color images, this tome on the evolution of tea through the last four centuries and its influence on society and world economics is fascinating. Broken down into an introduction, six major chapters, a select bibliography, a list of illustration credits and an index, readers can easily use A Social History of Tea as either an illustrated history, a reference book, or purely a pleasure read, depending on their mood. Being a Janeite, I jumped to the index and skimmed for Jane Austen’s name. Huzzah. There she is on page 127 in a featurette entitled Tea in Literature with Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll, two other famous British authors from the 1800’s who show that taking tea was an excellent way to bring characters together in a prudential parlor or at a mad tea party. Several passages illustrating Austen’s use of “tea-things” by her characters are featured from her novels, and if we pay attention, the timing of when they are taking tea gives us a social insight into when it was drunk and what was served with it.

The next opening of the door brought something more welcome: it was for the tea–things, which she had begun almost to despair of seeing that evening…Fanny was very thankful. She could not but own that she should be very glad of a little tea, and Susan immediately set about making it, as if pleased to have the employment all to herself…Fanny’s spirit was as much refreshed as her body; her head and heart were soon the better for such well–timed kindness.” – Mansfield Park, Chapter 38

The East India Company, London, by Thomas Malton the Younger ca 1800

 The East India Company building in London, ca 1800

Richly detailed and agreeably accessible, A Social History of Tea is both enlightening and entertaining. Every important historical, economic and social aspect is covered. I particularly appreciated the details surrounding the forming and growth of The East India Trading Company, the Boston Tea Party of 1773 which sparked the American Revolution, and the rise of tea rooms suitable for respectable ladies to dine out at the end of the nineteenth century. We can also thank the Victorian’s for raising tea-time to an art form chock-full of the incredibly delicious fare we enjoy today.

Tea at the London Ritz Hotel 2014

Tea at the London Ritz  Hotel 2014

In Jane Austen’s world “tea meant rest and pleasure, and its absence would be a severe disappointment.” (127) Pettigrew and Richardson have combined detailed history, social asides and beautiful illustrations covering the four centuries that we have enjoyed tea—its rise and fall in popularity—and rebirth. A Social History of Tea is the resource for those who would like to discover even more about this delectable beverage. There is a guaranteed abundance of rest and pleasure on every page. I recommend it highly.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

A Social History of Tea: Expanded 2nd Edition, by Jane Pettigrew & Bruce Richardson
Benjamin Press Publishing (2013)
Paperback (248) pages
ISBN: 978-0983610625

Cover image courtesy of Benjamin Press Publishing © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, by Pen Vogler – A Review

Dinner with Mr. Darcy, by Pen Vogler (2013)Imagine eating white soup with Mr. Darcy, roast pork with Miss Bates, or scones with Mr. Collins! Just thinking of those dishes transports me back into the scenes in Jane Austen’s novels and makes me smile. In Dinner with Mr. Darcy, food historian Pen Vogler examines Austen’s use of food in her writing, researches ancient Georgian recipes, converting them for the modern cook.

Even though Austen is not known for her descriptive writing, food is an important theme in her stories, speaking for her if you know how to listen. Every time we dine with characters, or food is mentioned, it relays an important fact that Austen wants us to note: wealth and station, poverty and charity, and of course comedy. While poor Mr. Woodhouse frets over wedding cake in Emma, Mr. Bingley offers white soup to his guests at Netherfield Park in Pride and Prejudice, and Aunt Norris lifts the supernumerary jellies after the ball in Mansfield Park, we are offered insights into their characters and their social station.

In Austen’s letter she writes to her sister Cassandra about many domestic matters: clothes, social gatherings and food. When she mentions orange wine, apple pie and sponge cake we know it is of importance to her.

“I hope you had not a disagreeable evening with Miss Austen and her niece. You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” – Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra, 15 June 1808

White soup

White soup

Vogler has combed Austen’s novels, letters and juvenilia pulling out dishes and researching them in contemporary cookbooks from the Georgian era. The sections are cleverly arranged: Breakfast with General Tilney; Mrs. Bennet’s Dinner to Impress; Pork and Apples: An Autumn Dinner with the Bateses; Jane’s Family Favorites; The Picnic Parade; Tea and Cake; The Ball at Netherfield; An Old-fashioned Supper for Mr. Woodhouse; Christmas with the Musgroves and Other Celebrations; Gifts, Drinks, and Preserves for Friends and the Sick at Heart. The recipes have been converted for the modern cook and look sumptuous from the numerous full-color pictures. I am dying to try Sally Lunn Cakes, a recipe from the famous bakery and tea shop in Bath, everlasting syllabub, ragout veal, Mrs. Austen’s pudding, rout cakes, white soup, flummery and many others. Several of the recipes have been adapted from Martha Lloyds household cookbook, Jane’s dear friend and confidante, who lived with the widowed Mrs. Austen and her daughters from 1807 until her marriage to Jane’s widowed elder brother Sir Francis Austen in 1823 at the age of 62! The bibliography in the back is also a great resource for those interested in Georgian cooking and its history.

Roast pork

Roast pork

While there are other scholarly books devoted to Georgian cooking focusing on Jane Austen such as The Jane Austen Cookbook, by Maggie Black and Deidre Le Faye (1995) and Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane (1995), which we will be reviewing next month, Dinner with Mr. Darcy will appeal to the average cook who wants to experience what Austen and her characters ate and enjoyed, and discover why Austen’s choice of food and dining was so important to the plot development. The recipes are both simple and elaborate and the ingredients are available to most, even in the colonies! So if you are ready for your own picnic at Box Hill or supper at Pemberley, bon appetite!

Bath buns

Bath buns

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels and Letters of Jane Austen, by Pen Vogler
Cico Books (2013)
Hardcover (160) pages
ISBN: 978-1782490562

Additional Reviews:

Note: My copy of Dinner with Mr. Darcy was in US measurements, but the publisher also makes a UK edition. Which version you receive depends upon the point of origin.

Cover image courtesy of Cico Books © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins – A Review

Jane Austens England, by Lesley and Roy Adkins (2013)From the desk of Shelley DeWees:

“In her novels Jane Austen brilliantly portrayed the lives of the middle and upper classes, but barely mentioned the cast of characters who constituted the bulk of the population. It would be left to the genius of the next generation, Charles Dickens, to write novels about the poor, the workers and the lower middle classes. His novel A Tale of Two Cities starts with celebrated words: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ This is a succinct summary of Jane Austen’s England, on which we are about to eavesdrop.” p. xxvi

You’ve been warned. Should you wish to maintain the sanctity of your internal imagery of Jane Austen, turn back now, before you step into the not-so-forgiving light of real history. Do thoughts of frocks and frolicking and tea cakes and rainbows seen through the thin gauze of parasols really blow your skirt up? Wishing you could be amongst the ladies and gents of an Austen ball? Hoping against hope that somehow, magically, you could be transported into Jane’s idyllic agrarian life? Jane Austen’s England, in all its cool clarity and detail, is probably not where you should look for inspiration, and may in fact leave you reeling; your perfect imaginary life forever ruined! The humanity of it!

But if you’re still with me (and I hope you are), prepare yourself for an eye-opening journey, most especially if this is your first foray into the real daily experiences of English Austen life. You’re in for more than a few surprises. Those who have already dabbled in history will find themselves going, “Huh! Really?” often enough, too! Don’t believe me? Behold the following snippets that stupefied me, an Austen lover well versed in the ways of history who, even still, wasn’t at all prepared:

  1. Able-bodied men were constantly worried about being forced to join the Royal Navy. Many thousands were dragged out of their lodgings and off the streets, fitted for a uniform, and directed toward the nearest ship despite having foreign citizenship and the passports to prove it. A rude way to wake up indeed, and ruder still if you found yourself fighting against your own country. Score one for England!
  2. Jane Austen’s visits to her brother’s fashionable London apartment took place only blocks away from unspeakable squalor. Traveling there, she would have undoubtedly passed at least a few decomposing corpses strung up alongside the road as a warning to criminals. Seeing as how death was the penalty for almost every crime, even trivial ones, sights such as these were commonplace but probably still fairly distracting.
  3. In an effort to free the local parish from the unwanted costs of raising illegitimate children, the pregnant woman was compelled, under the Bastardy Act (giggles!) of 1733, to name the father of her child, who then had the choice to either pay the church for the upkeep of the kid or to go to jail. Barring the ability or desire to do one of those things, he could choose to marry the lady, or run away. A perfect beginning to a perfect marriage, it would seem. Extremely desirable, right?

Candles smelled like the slaughterhouse, income gaps between rich and poor were ridiculous, and medical staff were almost hysterical in their ineptitude. But, all of this is ignored in Jane’s masterpieces, swept under the rug along with the burned remains of last year’s dress that, oops, accidentally set on fire (small price to pay for sitting in the part of the room with a temperature above 30 degrees, because seriously, that corner over there is literally frozen). Austen’s works were created by a lovely lady who, despite her apparent grace, must’ve been stinky beyond all comprehension. And even though it hurts to say it, she probably, just like the rest of her monied comrades, possessed an excessive amount of free time and thus, led an epically idle lifestyle. I suppose it’s no great astonishment that she chose to leave that kind of information out.

Oh, it stings, but it stings so good. While this beautiful, impeccably-researched volume will rob you of your fancies, it leaves in their place a much more interesting and dynamic picture of Austen’s life and times. Never will you have more appreciation for Jane until you fully understand the world she occupied while spinning peaceful, blissful tales of country life, tales that always, somehow, end just the way they’re supposed to despite being outlined on a napkin in the back of a filthy carriage, squelching through 3 inches of mud. Jane Austen’s England is the first book to address the daily lives of Austen’s contemporaries, stocked full of interesting facts and firsthand accounts (those of governess Nelly Weeton are particularly intriguing). The considerable skills of Mr. and Mrs. Adkins have never been put to better use, something which will become obvious after you stroll brightly from cradle to grave through marriage, child-rearing, fashions and filth, sermons and superstitions, and wealth and work. You’ll be clinging to your wool socks and smartphone like never before. Also, inquisitive researchers and flippant dabblers alike will find lots of goodies lingering in the back pages: a chronological overview, chapter-by-chapter notes, a full index, and a dazzling bibliography all await.

So pull up your petticoats and start trudging through the mess, because the real world is truly an amazing place, even more amazing that Jane Austen was a part of it all. Jane Austen’s England will leave you dumbfounded! And for those of you who fear the lamentable loss of your Regency idealism, don’t worry, there’s always Colin Firth.

5 out of 5 Regency Stars

Jane Austen’s England, by Roy and Lesley Adkins
The Viking Press (2013)
Hardcover (448) pages
ISBN: 978-0670785841

Cover image courtesy of The Viking Press © 2013; text Shelley DeWees © 2013, Austenprose.com