While there are a lot of people who find the classics out of date and hard to understand, there are still many of us who love to dig into Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens and the stories and worlds that they have created. While it may feel like these books are overwhelming and a lot of work, sometimes knowing the context behind it all can make a world of difference. These books are the perfect way to understand what life was like in the Regency and Georgian periods, and just how Jane Austen came to be so very important all of these years later!
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist- the Facts of Daily Life in 19th-century England, Daniel Pool
I read What Jane Austen Ate when I was probably only 12 years old- I borrowed it from my grandpa, and was hooked immediately! This is a detailed but easy to digest encyclopedia of life in the early and mid-nineteenth century in England. If you want to figure out why embroidery was so important to the Bennett sisters, or why so many of Dickens’ characters ended up in the poor house, this is the book for you. Even the most dedicated Austenite will have a question or two. And even if you just have general interest, it is well-written and moves along quickly to give you the info without labouring the point! In the almost fifteen years since publication, I don’t believe that another Austen-ish encyclopedia has even come close to Pool’s work. The only warning I have is that upon reading it, you may have several huge realisations that you were totally misunderstanding something through multiple rereads…. (This may also be of significant use to any secondary or post-secondary students who happen to be studying Austen, Dickens, Brontë, or any number of nineteenth century writers- your teachers and professors will very much appreciate you taking the time to dig into the novel, and it will pay off in your work!)
The Making of Jane Austen, Devoney Looser
I’m currently reading this right now, and it’s a fascinating wander through Jane’s history and how she ended up as the figure and myth that she is today! Looser examines Austen through four different lenses: illustrations, dramatisations, politics, and education. It’s easy to think that Jane Austen came out of a vacuum but it is interesting to see who was working with Jane’s works in the early days, and how their interpretations contributed the Jane that we know today. It also follows the evolution and growth of Jane and her followers throughout the years, something that I’ve never really thought about before. It is a scholarly work, but the chapters are short and the sources are incredibly interesting (using things like movie posters and political cartoons). I have to say, I’m only part way through and my “Jane Austen to be read” list is growing exponentially… It’s perfect for a cosy weekend in! If nothing else, I would recommend that anyone who is even tangentially interested in Jane and her works read the last chapter, “Twenty First Century Jane”. I read ahead, and it’s a wonderful summary on the current cultural cache and weight of Jane today that I think everyone can appreciate!
Jane Austen at Home, Lucy Worsley
Oh, Lucy. My favourite historian and role model in all areas of life, Worsley is a historian and Chief Curator at the Historic Royal Palaces in London. (If there was some way to guarantee that I could work with her at HRP, I would totally take on the debt of a PhD. Sure, it’s not the most financially prudent choice but it’s my dream!) Worsley’s newest book, published in July 2017 (in North America), and examines Jane through the lens of her homes. Homes (and families) play an integral role in each of Jane’s works, and it is a different approach to examine the casual, at-home Jane, rather than the public (and often romantic) Jane that is the focus of most studies. She does touch on her romantic relationships, but they are in no way more important than her relationship with her siblings and parents for Worsley! It is a well-rounded look at Jane that doesn’t privilege one area of her life over another. Worsley writes popular rather than academic histories, meaning that her works are VERY easy to read for the fan of any level. She also has accompanying BBC programmes, like this one here:
Unfortunately, Paula Byrne, the author of The Real Jane Austen criticised Worsley of plagarism in May of 2017. Although plagarism is a very real issue in writing and academics, I found it an odd complaint to understand- Lucy’s books are written for the casual reader of history, and usually features limited endnotes, as the casual reader does not want to be inundated with footnote after footnote. This does not equate to plagarism, though. She also references Byrne in her acknowledgements. There is drama and hate, even in the history community! Go figure. I have Byrne’s book in my to-be-read pile, but I’m not sure that I want to read it- Worsley has earned my trust, she hasn’t.
The last Austen-ish thing I will leave you with is an Austen-themed subscription box, Pembertea! Jane Austen and tea are two of my favourite things, and I’m strongly considering buying an individual box to see if I like it. However, my main “issue” with subscription services is that I don’t know that I need to receive anything repeatedly, be it books, tea, food, clothes, make up or anything else. Also, ordering this would mean that I will have to give something else up, and I am hesitant to take a huge plunge. Does anyone have experience with Pembertea? (Or any other subscription box that you would like to share your thoughts on?)
Are you an Austenite, or has she scared you off? What is your favourite Austen work?