Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, by Deirdre Le Faye – A Review       

Jane Austen's Country Life, by Deirdre Le Faye (2014 )From the desk of Tracy Hickman:

Ask any fan of Jane Austen what they love about her works and they can readily describe cherished characters, pithy quotes, and probably several screen adaptations that are especially close to their hearts. But what about what Austen loved? Jane’s niece Anna Lefroy remembered her aunt as a lover of the outdoors and natural scenery. Her letters are filled with walks in all kinds of weather and you don’t have to search her novels long to find numerous scenes that take place not in a stuffy drawing room, but on a tree-lined path or windswept hill. Jane Austen’s Country Life focuses on the Hampshire countryside where she spent three-quarters of her life:

“This first-hand knowledge of country life underpins her writing and gives the time-frame against which she constructs her plots; she was not only a clergyman’s daughter, but a farmer’s daughter as well…” (8)

The first chapter “Hampshire” begins with an overview of the county, explaining the then-controversial process of enclosure that deprived the rural poor of the use of common land. Enclosure features in three Austen novels: Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Emma. Descriptions and illustrations of the villages of Steventon and Deane follow, as well as those of nearby Oakley and Ashe. The larger towns of Overton, Basingstoke and Odiham provided the Austen family with well-stocked market places for shopping and assembly balls for dancing and socializing. While Le Faye includes several lovely antique maps of Hampshire, I longed for a simple map showing the villages and towns in relation to one another at this point in the book.

“Life at Steventon Rectory” describes the family’s domestic routines, the love of amateur theatricals, and Austen’s early comic works now known as The Juvenelia. Young Jane and her sister also spent a short time away from Steventon at a girls’ boarding school in Reading. Le Faye suggests that as the academic regime was “very casual” and the girls were allowed to spend their afternoons as they pleased, this may have been when Jane immersed herself in the romantic popular novels that she later parodied in Northanger Abbey.

My favorite chapter “A Year in the Countryside” charts the seasons from January through December. Beginning with Plough Monday in early January when the Steventon farming community would have marked the start of the English agricultural year and finishing with the twelve days of Christmas and the New Year, Le Faye seamlessly weaves events from the agricultural calendar with Austen’s life, as well as the action in her novels. Highlights from the year include sheep shearing in June, haymaking in July, and harvesting crops from August to October. Seasonal rhythms dictate the lives of Austen’s characters as much as her family and neighbors:

“No fewer than four of Jane’s novels start their main action in September: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion. This is not accidental, but tacitly acknowledges that the slight pause after the hectic and anxious time of harvesting gave the opportunity for both farmers and gentry to plan for agricultural and social life respectively.” (105)

Continuing with “The Hardships and Pleasures of Rural Life” and “Crops, Livestock and Pleasure-Grounds” Le Faye’s text and choice of illustrations create a vivid and lively picture of English rural life in Jane Austen’s time. Just as the reader is feeling at home in Hampshire, and agreeing with Austen that “there is nothing like staying at home, for real  comfort,” an abrupt removal to Bath described in the chapter titled “Urban Interlude” turns Austen’s world on its head. While Austen seemed to dislike Bath as much as her heroine Anne Elliot, the city’s relative proximity to a number of seaside resorts made possible some of her most beloved visits to the English coast. Austen uncharacteristically describes the scenery of Lyme and the surrounding countryside in Persuasion:

“…the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better.” (226)

Concluding with “Life at Godmersham and Chawton” Le Faye describes how Mrs. Austen and her daughters settled back into a comfortable country life when Edward Austen Knight offered them a rent-free cottage in Chawton. The author also notes a subtle shift in Austen’s novels from this time. Their author was no longer a farmer’s daughter, but the squire’s sister:

“…the novels of her maturity—Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion—are written much more from the point of view of that rank of society: the domestic lives of the men who have the responsibility of managing large estates and leading their local communities.” (253)

Regardless of her choice of subject matter, a return to country life must have appealed to Austen. With Deidre Le Faye as our knowledgeable guide, we can re-visit this vanished rural landscape and gain a greater appreciation of Jane’s delight in natural scenery. We love Austen’s characters and stories, but may not realize how her realistic depiction of time and place contributes to our sense of her works, unless we explore Jane Austen’s Country Life.

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars

Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the rural backdrop to her life, her letters and her novels, by Deirdre Le Faye
Francis Lincoln Ltd., (2014)
Hardcover (256) pages
ISBN: 978-0711231580

Cover image courtesy of Francis Lincoln Ltd., © 2014; text Tracy Hickman © 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.”

So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams – A Review

So Jane Crafts and Recipes from a Jane Austen Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams (2014)From the desk of Lisa Galek:

If you’re like most Janeites, it’s never enough just to read Austen’s novels. You want to live in them, too. That means decorating your house with Austenesque items, baking Regency era goodies, and throwing fabulous book-based soirees. So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life by Jennifer Adams and Hollie Keith is the perfect book for bringing your Austen obsession to life in your very own home.

So Jane is an extensive collection of recipes and craft projects inspired by the works and life of Jane Austen. Organized into six chapters—one for each of Austen’s major novels—the book is filled with well over 100 pages of ideas for Austenesque décor, gifts, crafts, and entertaining. There’s Breakfast in Bath (Northanger Abbey), Tea with the Middletons (Sense and Sensibility), Dinner at the Great House (Persuasion), Emma’s Picnic (Emma), A Rustic Dinner (Mansfield Park), and Netherfield Ball (Pride and Prejudice). Each chapter features a full menu and six adorable craft projects inspired by that novel and its characters.

This book is billed as a way to “help you bring all things Austen into your home in a contemporary way” and it completely succeeds. With pages and pages of gorgeous full-color photographs that really bring to life the look and taste of each section, you’ll find tons of Austenesque ideas that you’ll be dying to create. The instructions and steps are very easy to follow. The layout of the book is simple, too—just choose an entire menu or book theme and go from there. If you want to get a little more creative, you can branch out and mix and match ideas from different sections or adjust the projects and recipes for your skill level. The ideas are so creative and inspirational that the possibilities are endless.

Of course, if you’re looking for items and foods that are totally authentic to Regency England this book doesn’t promise that. This is truly Jane-inspired with a modern twist. The authors have actually done a great job using the Regency era as a jumping off point while picking colors, materials, and ingredients that are more appealing to our contemporary tastes. For example, the recipe for Hot Spiced Cocoa notes that early 19th century cocoa would have been flavored with chilies, which not many modern folks would enjoy. With a slight adjustment in flavors, you have a treat that your guests will love rather than something authentic that doesn’t taste as delicious.

The author also does a really nice job of including ideas and instructions for every skill level. If you’re not handy with a sewing machine, a few of the craft projects will be off limits. I also thought the Honey-Lemon Teaspoons looked delicious, but the fact that I had to use a candy thermometer scared me off. Other recipes would be no problem at all even for a beginner cook. As far as the craft projects go, some of them could take days or weeks to complete (like the large blanket with silhouettes of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy on it), while others (such as the paper dolls or sandwich wrappers) could be ready to go in a few minutes. It’s a variety, but there really is something for everyone.

If you’re looking for ideas for an Austen-inspired event, a handmade gift for a fellow Janeite, or just some fun Regency-ish recipes, you will definitely enjoy So Jane. Even if you never make a single craft or recipe from the book (and they’re so delightful, I’m sure you’ll want to) the book is worth it just for the creativity and breadth of its ideas. I enjoyed it so much that I started inventing reasons to recreate the picnic on Box Hill or the ball at Netherfield at my house. I’m sure my family won’t mind at all!

★★★★★ 5 out of 5 Stars 

So Jane: Crafts and Recipes for an Austen-Inspired Life, by Hollie Keith and Jennifer Adams
Gibbs Smith (2014)
Paperback (144) pages
ISBN: 978-1423633235

Additional Reviews: 

Cover image courtesy of Gibbs Smith © 2014; text Lisa Galek © 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: 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