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jane austen and food Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane is not a cookbook with recipes, but a well-researched, highly informative, and entertaining historical discussion about food, mealtimes, manners, and housekeeping in the age of Jane Austen. Lane examines Austen’s letters regarding food and drink, and how she uses both to define the characters in her novels.

Today, the Jane Austen and Food’s hardcover edition, which was first published in 1995, can be purchased on Amazon in hardcover or paperback for $85 to $129! But the kindle edition from Endeavor Press is available for a mere $2.99 – and it contains the same content as the hardcover and paperback editions. (Keep in mind that kindle apps are available for those who do not own kindles. I have downloaded the book on my iPad and android devices, for example.)

Let me explain what a bargain you will be getting with the kindle version of Maggie Lane’s thoroughly enjoyable and informative book. Jane Austen’s treatment of food yields new insights in which she creates character and establishes her moral values in her novels:

In Steventon, the glebe lands (which added to about 3 acres) supplied the Rectory with pork, mutton, wheat, peas, barley, hops, and oats and hay for the horses. The surplus in produce contributed up to £300 per year to the Austen’s income. They made their own mead and wines and preserved foods that were produced with foods in season. The only commodities that were purchased were expensive items like tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, spices, and dried fruits.

No gentleman, single or widowed, could run his own home. He depended upon a paid housekeeper to oversee his hearth for good dinners, or, like Mr Bingley, he required a sister to keep house for him. Mr. Rushworth depended upon his mother, while Mr. Collins was in need of a wife.  When Mrs. Austen was kept away in 1770 for a month to look after her sister in childbirth, Mr. Austen wrote that “I must bear … [for] about three weeks longer, at which time I expect my housekeeper’s return.” Jane never took the responsibility of a household completely, although she assisted whenever she was needed. Composing for her was difficult during such times, and she wrote, “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.”

In terms of food and its purchase, the Austen’s move to Bath was a shock. Slow transportation changed the quality of the food that Jane and her family were accustomed to, and the very fact that they had to purchase all their produce made them anxious, for they had lost sources of revenue in the form of farm produce, pupils, and Reverend Austen’s clerical stipend. Milk was of a poor quality due to the cows being kept in unhygienic barns, and food, purchased at the bakers, grocers, butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers was quite expensive. In addition, its cost  fluctuated.

Mrs. Austen in particular never lost her love for working in a garden. She did so at Steventon and later at Chawton Cottage, where she dug up her own potatoes and delighted in her flower borders. According to one of her great-grand-daughters: “She wore a green round frock like a day-laborer’s.”

At Chawton Cottage, the Austen women were able to find their footing again, growing their own fruit and vegetables, rearing poultry, keeping bees, baking bread, and making wine and brewing beer. Villagers recalled in later years that their dog, Link, would carry home a pail of milk in his mouth. It must be emphasized that, although Jane Austen worried about financial security, she and her sister and mother were comfortable enough to eat well and, like Emma Woodhouse, to dispense charity to those less fortunate than themselves. If Jane envied others, it was for their freedom from perpetual contrivance. In the sale of her novels, she found some relief from such worry.

In later chapters, Maggie Lane describes the history of tea, coffee, and chocolate, and how these fashionable drinks were imbibed before and during Jane Austen’s day. Austen herself only mentioned chocolate twice in her letters, but Mrs Austen during her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey wrote that their breakfast at her ancestral home consisted of “Chocolate Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, brad and Butter, and dry toast for me.”

Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper are described, but Lane emphasizes that Jane barely mentions these daily events in her letters and novels. She gives scant details, especially as to the preferences of her heroines, most of whom are not concerned with the daily details of food. There are hints here and there in her novels: Willoughby takes porter at an inn during midday, and Frank Churchill imbibes spruce beer on a hot day at Donwell.

Dinner times are moved up as the Regency era progresses. In 1798, Jane writes to Cassandra that they dine at half after three, and by 1808, “we never dine now till five.” This was a gradual shift in dinner-time that took place with most families during this era, although dinner in town (London) was taken fashionably later. In addition, dinners in the early 19th century were far less splendid than those in the latter part of the century. Edward Austen-Leigh noted that there was a “far less splendid appearance than it does now.” By the time Jane wrote Mansfield Park, silver forks emerged, as well as napkins and finger glasses. In 1808 Jane wrote, “My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate – a whole tablespoon and a whole dessertspoon, and six whole teaspoons – which makes our sideboard border on the magnificent.”

I could go on and on describing the enormous amount of information in this ebook. Lane goes on to discuss in great detail the attitudes towards food and domesticity in Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Mansfield Park – all of which excited this reader. The characters of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Grant, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Norris, Mr. Price, and General Tilney are elaborated in great detail in their obsession (or not) with food and general housekeeping details.

tea cups ratingIs Jane Austen and Food worth the cost of $2.99? Oh, yes. Definitely.!I paid so much more for my hardback copy several years ago and do not regret its purchase. I give this ebook a rating of 5 out of 5 Regency teacups.

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A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse), is an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Image @Wikipedia

A Young Girl Reading, or The Reader (French: La Liseuse), is an 18th-century oil painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Image @Wikipedia

Happy New Year, gentle readers. I hope to write more for my blog in 2014. Thank you for your loyal readership. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy your comments and thoughts.

In winter weather, what can be a better way to pass the time than to curl up under a blanket with a good book? I’d like to recommend two books for you to purchase with the gift  money you (hopefully) received this holiday season. Both books are necessary additions in the libraries of confirmed Janeites and Jane Austen lovers, or so it is my belief. (Note: Contest closed. Congratulations Janice Jacobson!)

Sense and Sensibility: An Annoted Edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks.

The first is the 4th installment of  an incomparable anthology series of Jane Austen’s novels. Sense and Sensibility: An Annoted Edition is published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press and edited by noted scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks. This lush book could easy be confused for a coffee table book – the cover is so beautiful and the color images inside are of the highest quality, but the annotations are anything but superficial. Dr. Spacks’ research adds dimension to Jane Austen’s words and to an era that is long gone, and whose customs have become foreign to our modern understanding. Her observations include a comparison of characters within the novel – “Miss Steele is as acquisitive in a small way as the John Dashwoods are in a grander fashion”. She also draws a similarity between two novels, nothing that Willoughby is similar to Henry Crawford in that both men have fallen in love with the women they targeted for a light flirtation and amusement.

In her introduction, Dr. Spacks elaborates on the 18th century definition of sensibility, which was understood to be derived from the nervous system. Hence, fragile nerves, irritability, hysteria, tremors, fainting spells, and sickness at heart were closely associated with the term (as with Marianne Dashwood’s and Mrs. Bennet’s histrionics). Spacks’s introduction also delineates how Austen conceived of the book and how Elinor and Marianne cannot easily be pigeon-holed into the two separate categories. As they grow in understanding, both women possess elements of the other’s characteristic. As most of us know, Jane Austen wrote the first draft (known as Elinor and Marianne) by the time she was 20 years old. The book, written first in epistolary form, did not assume the third person narrative until 1811. Perhaps this is the reason why a number of passages in the book seem to lack detail or were uneven.

Sense_Sensibility_Spacks

Publicity materials for this annotated edition explain that:

In her notes, Spacks elucidates language and allusions that have become obscure (What are Nabobs? When is rent day?), draws comparisons to Austen’s other work and to that of her precursors, and gives an idea of how other critics have seen the novel. In her introduction and annotations, she explores Austen’s sympathy with both Elinor and Marianne, the degree to which the sisters share “sense” and “sensibility,” and how they must learn from each other. Both manage to achieve security and a degree of happiness by the novel’s end. Austen’s romance, however, reveals darker overtones, and Spacks does not leave unexamined the issue of the social and psychological restrictions of women in Austen’s era.

One get the strong sense that Spacks prefers Willoughby as a hero over Edward, whose character is rather tepid and static. Colonel Brandon’s mature patience doesn’t fare much better in some of the annotations, which also include extensive descriptions of manners, mores, and historical facts. Mundane customs are described, such as the games of whist and cassino.

Home, hearth, and space play important roles in this novel.The country side affects Edward more than Willoughby, who regards the land merely as a place in which to hunt. Edward will eventually live off the land, and happily so. Ennui, or inertia, is also evident in the novel’s characters. Spacks quotes the scholar, Isobel Armstrong, who observed that “a long, patient but sapping wait is the fate of many in this novel; Edward, Elinor, Colonel Brandon, even the unsympathetic Steeles.” Perhaps this is the reason why so few of us think of Edward as a strong hero. His character lacks decisive action. When he does make a decision, as with his unfortunate choice of fiancee, he seems stuck and unable to make a move when encountering a road block. The conniving Lucy spends considerable time waiting for Edward and hoping that Mrs. Ferrars will come around to accepting her. Most of her machinations (that of seducing Robert Ferrars) occur off the novel’s pages and we hear about her success in marrying Robert only through word of mouth.

My one complaint about this edition is that the annotations seem spare compared to Pride and Prejudice, the first annotated book edited by Dr. Spacks. To be fair, Sense and Sensibility is not as highly ranked on most reader’s lists as Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, or Emma. It is the earliest of Jane Austen’s published novels, which may explain why the number of annotations seem to be fewer in this book. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this edition, which costs $35, a bargain considering the the number of colored illustrations and information contained therein.

Northanger Abbey is the next novel to be annotated. It will come out in spring of 2014. I cannot wait for it to be published. 

Jane Austen's England by Roy and Lesley Adkins

Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins

Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins

The next book on my recommended buy list is Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins. Actually, I should amend my ranking, for both books are equal in my estimation. The publisher sent an uncorrected proof of  Jane Austen’s England when I was in the throes of taking care of my parents this past summer and fall, and so I read the book piecemeal, hoping to find the time to give it the review it deserved. My copy is earmarked and underlined. I have read many passages twice. Roy and Lesley Adkins have accomplished a remarkable job of research and writing that informs as well as entertains. I realize that many of you have read a number of histories associated with Jane Austen’s age and some of you will find the information repetitive. In addition, you can easily find many of the sources used for this book on the Internet or for purchase.

This book is divided into topics that follow the lives of Jane Austen and her characters. While the historic territory that the Adkins go over is not unique, their presentation is organized in such a way that all we need to do is to turn to Breeding or Toddler to Teenager to Wealth and Work and Medicine Men to find out more about the daily habits of the Austens, Jane’s characters, or the socio-economic conditions of those who lived during the Regency era. The Adkins do not subject us to mere romantic assumptions, but relate the harsh reality of life for the majority of people living during that age. The chapter on Filth minces few nice words. This was an era when outhouses abutted to sculleries, cholera was spread through contaminated water, and cesspits drained into watercourses. Men and women were known to urinate and defecate in streets. While our dear Jane did not write about these indelicacies, she must have witnessed such actions and known of many more contemporary customs that would turn our heads today. In her novels, she ignored the harsh realities of war and famine, common occurrences in her day, and assumed that her readers would seamlessly fill in the details of daily life while she concentrated on her character studies.

Topics in Jane Austen’s England  include kidnapped children, superstitions and folk wisdom, the use of Almanacs (useful for planning evening parties during a full moon), boundary stones, funeral customs, tax burdens of the rich and poor, Frost Fairs, animal fighting, animal abuse, hunting, cricket, horse races, regattas, amateur theatricals, London theatres with their noisy audiences, the cost of music tickets (two weeks wages for a servant), ballad sellers, public houses, taking snuff, state lotteries, the cessation of the Grand Tour during the Napoleonic Wars, the danger and challenges of travel and transportation, boot scrapers, toll roads, toll booths, turnpikes, surveying,  mapping England, medicine, apothecaries, the royal navy, and more. Whew!

Even though I finished the book late last month, I struggle to remember all the fascinating details that this 300+ page book contains.

For a New Year’s gift, I am holding a book giveaway of a hard back copy of Jane Austen’s England until midnight, January 7, 2014. All you need to do is leave a comment about an interesting fact you know about Regency life or Jane Austen’s era. Participants are confined to the U.S. and Canada. (So sorry!) Winners will be chosen by a random number generator. You may enter as often as you like, provided that you share another interesting bit of information about Jane Austen’s England each time you make a comment.

Happy New Year, all. Thank you for stopping by my blog.

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Michael Chwe is an associate professor of political science at UCLA whose research centers on game theory and “its applications to social movements and macroeconomics and violence. He has written a book entitled Jane Austen: Game Theorist, which asserts that Austen is one of our best social theorists.

game theory austen

Steve Levitt of the University of Chicago, Economics Department uses the following definition of game theory:  “The study of the strategic interactions between a small number of adversaries, usually two or three competitors”. This application is usually applied to sports and gambling.

In his introduction to the podcast between Levitt and Chew, Stephen J. Dubner, co-author of the pop-economics book Freakonomics, writes that Levitt loves Clueless, a movie based on Emma, and has watched it repeatedly. The film is about a young woman who constantly schemes to set up others romantically and continually meddles in their lives. Levitt sees that Jane Austen does this intentionally and uses strategic thinking explicitly in her novels.

game theorist jane austen

In the podcast Levitt interviews Michael Chwe about his interesting take on Jane Austen:

[T]here are lots of little parables, or little asides, in the novels which don’t have anything really much to do with the plot or anything. You could just take them out and no one would care, but they do seem to be little explicit discussions of aspects of choice and aspects of strategic thinking. So, for example, in Pride And Prejudice, the very first manipulation is kind of what gets the whole novel started. The Bingleys come into town and so the Bennet family has five unmarried daughters, and that’s kind of a huge problem. So Mrs. Bennet is super-focused on getting her daughters married and for obvious reasons. It’s not like they can get jobs or anything. If that is the main way, you could become either a governess or you could get married. That’s basically it. So the very first manipulation is Mr. Bingley shows up with his sister and they rent out Netherfield which is this estate nearby. And so Mr. Bingley’s sister invites Jane to come for dinner. And the first manipulation is Mrs. Bennet says, “Well you’ve got to go on horseback.” … The daughters say, “Why horseback? Shouldn’t she take the carriage?” And Mrs. Bennet says, “Well, it’s going to rain and if she goes on horseback it is very likely that they will invite her to stay the night, and hence she’ll get to spend more time.” [I]t seems kind of silly but you have to play for keeps. This is a big deal. If you know, if somebody marriageable is nearby and you have a chance to spend 20 more minutes with that person, you’ve got to go for it. … And so in Pride And Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet is not a very sympathetic character, and she seems to be very foolish, but if you look at what she accomplishes, it is pretty good. Jane marries and she incentivizes Lydia, who runs off with Wickham without being married, which is a scandal. But maybe she realizes that by creating this crisis situation the members in her family will solve he problem for her.

Here’s another interesting observation that Chwe makes: in Jane Austen’s novels, high status people have difficulty understanding that low status people are capable of strategic thinking.

Click here to see a short YouTube video on the topic.

The podcast from Freakonomics lasts another 17 minutes after the discussion quoted in the text above. Click here to enjoy the discussion!

game theory austen

Analysis of the strategic words Jane Austen uses in her novels.

My thanks to Christine Stewart for sending the link to the podcast!

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list lovers guideThe List-Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen is a quick, easy reference guide for all things Jane Austen. When you enter a JA trivia quiz, you can quickly become an expert by looking up the books Jane read, her #1 pet peeve, the people in her social circle, the balls she attended, who broke her heart and the hearts she broke, etc.

Joan Strasbaugh has created the first-ever list-only biography! Written mostly in 140 characters or less, this volume is jam-packed with information presented as lists or charts.

  • The flowers in her garden
  • Her royal ancestors
  • Particulars about her wardrobe
  • What she did for fun
  • Characters in her book
  • Where she traveled
  • The items she possessed
  • Where she worshipped
  • Where she lived and shopped
  • Contemporary descriptions of her features

The lists go on and on. (Click here for a view inside the book). The book provides a comprehensive overview of her life. Nieces and nephews born after she died are not listed, and places her friends or family may have traveled (but there’s no evidence she did) are not included. The lists do include friends’ and relatives’ firsthand accounts and reminiscences from neighbors and people who crossed her path.

Four out of five Regency tea cups

Four out of five Regency tea cups

My impressions of this book are positive. Any time I need to review a fact, I can turn to it and quickly find the information. The cover is attractive but I found the print a bit hard to read. This book will be helpful to Janeites, teachers, students, authors, and anyone interested in the Regency era. I give it 4 out of 5 Regency teacups.

About the Author

Joan Strasbaugh has been a proud Janeite for half of her life. She now works as the senior editor of Abbeville Press in New York, and notably organized the Jane Austen in the 21st Century Humanities Festival at the University of Wisconsin. She is currently spearheading the A former publisher at Jones Books, Strasbaugh also holds a membership to the Jane Austen Society of North America.

The biggest surprise in putting this book together was discovering the sheer number of social contacts, places visited, and characters in her books. Her social circle was enormous and her travels many, mirrored in her novels by the sixty plus characters and forty plus locations in Sense and Sensibility, for starters.

About the contest: (NOTE: Contest closed! The winners are – Cara D. , Anne F., Tess G., Lilyane S., and Alison M. Congratulations all and thank you for participating in this contest. The winners were drawn with random number generator. (Long discussions between two individuals were not included.) One of you entered the first day of the contest, and someone entered on the last day. Amazing.

Sourcebooks has agreed to give out 5 copies of the book. Yes, 5! To enter the contest, please share what information you’d like to know about Jane Austen. Contest ends June 9th at midnight!

List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen by Joan Strasbaugh, released this month.

June 4th, 2013, ISBN 9781402282034, Trade Paperback

$12.99 U.S. / £8.99 UK

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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The House Servant’s Directory: An African American Butler’s 1827 Guide by Robert Roberts is the first books written by an African American to have been published in the

Gore Place, Waltham MA

Gore Place, Waltham MA. Image @Wikipedia

United States by a major publisher. Roberts worked as a butler and major domo for Christopher Gore (a U.S. Senator and governor of Massachusetts) from 1825-1827 at Gore Place. Robert’s book, a remarkable feat, was also popular, for it was to have two more printings in 1828 and 1834. His advice gives us a glimpse into the life of an early 19th century butler.

Here are his instructions for taking care of a gentleman’s clothes:

if your gentleman’s clothes should happen to get wet or muddy, hang them out in the sun or before the fire to dry. Do not attempt to brush them when wet, or you will surely spoil them, but as soon as they are perfectly dry, take and rub them between your hands where there are any spots of mud, then hang them on your clothes horse, which you must have for the purpose; then take a rattan and give them a whipping, to take out the dust, but be careful and don’t hit the buttons, or you will be apt to break or scratch them.

Image @Wikipedia

Image @Wikipedia

He goes on to describe how one should then carefully brush the coat, starting with the back of the collar, moving to the shoulders, and then to the sleeves and cuffs.  Roberts’ instructions for folding the coat are equally meticulous and given so that “you will find the coat folded in a manner that will gain you credit from any gentleman, and will keep smooth for any journey.” Clothes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, were quite expensive, and taking care of them and keeping them in good shape was a major undertaking.

Man's suit, American. 1810-1820. Museum of Fine Art

Man’s suit, American. 1810-1820. Museum of Fine Art

Hats were another part of a gentleman’s wardrobe that required great care lest they begin to look shabby. A soft camels hair brush is the preferred instrument to brush hats with, for it will not injure fur or scratch it off. Wet hands should be handled with great care or “you will put it out of form.” Using a silk handkerchief and holding the hat carefully (hand inside and fingers extended) “rub it lightly all round, the way the fur goes”. Roberts was most likely talking about beaver hats, which were quite the rage and expensive.

Hat 1820-1830, Snowshill Manor. Image @Nationa Trust/Richard Blakey

Hat 1820-1830, Snowshill Manor. Image @Nationa Trust/Richard Blakey

There are some people that think brushing a hat while it is wet, certainly spoils it; but it is quite the contrary; for the hatters themselves always brush and finish off their hats while damp, so as to give the fur a brilliant appearance. Likewise they set them to their regular shape while damp. I have received these instructions myself, from one of the best hat manufacturers in London.”

This last statement demonstrates Roberts’s worldly and educated background. It is no wonder that his advice still holds up well today.

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The REAL Jane Austen_Byrne

Musings from a blogger:

I meant to write a review of The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne in February shortly after the book came out, but life intervened – life in the form of visitors, a busy schedule at work and move to new offices, a bum knee that required an operation and recuperation, and the book itself, which – several pages into it – urged me to read it to the last before recommending it (or not) to others. I carried the book every day to work hoping to complete it during lunch, but my best laid plans were inevitably derailed.

In addition to this blog and my interest in Jane Austen and the world she lived in, I have been reading other authors: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Georgette Heyer, to name a few. David Stockman’s The Great Deformation, a great big bear of a book that holds economic insights that will chill the confidence of avid savers like myself, is my most recent acquisition. And then there’s Netflix. I admit to being a serial viewer of series that I missed seeing: The West Wing, for example, The Walking Dead, and now 30 Rock. Warmer weather now pulls me to spring gardening and walking in the great outdoors.

The real life of Vic Sanborn has been getting in the way of her quest to know more about the real Jane Austen, which is why this blog’s entries have been so spare of late and why I took so long to finish Paula Byrne’s book. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. This image of my copy of The Real Jane Austen will tell you all.

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

My well thumbed copy of The Real Jane Austen

One would think that as a devoted Janeite who has read almost all the major biographies and articles about Jane, plus her books and letters and a great number of sequels about her novels and life, that I would have my fill of reading about Miss Austen. But I haven’t.

One acquaintance asked me how I could continue reading books that, on the surface, seemed all so similar. It’s simple, really. I rarely tire of talking about Jane and her works. I love the conversations in our book group. I enjoy attending conferences and meetings about her, listening to Janeite scholars and reading the insights of other bloggers who bring their own unique perspectives to her life and work. No matter how much I learn, I am still eager to know more. Just a slightly different take on her life and novels will provide me with new insights that spur me to uncovering more information. Full-fledged Janeite that I am, I can now publicly confess: I am dotty about Jane Austen and crazy about the Regency era.

My review of The Real Jane Austen

I frankly did not think I would like this book, my preconception coming from the blitz of publicity last year about the lost image of Jane Austen that Paula Byrne discovered. (I much prefer Cassandra’s tiny amateurish watercolour, which I viewed at the National Portrait Gallery.) When I received the book for review, I was mightily sick of the hoopla surrounding the portrait and began reading Dr. Byrne’s biography with some skepticism. Imagine my joy when the book held my interest from the start.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

My preferred image of Jane Austen painted by Cassandra Austen. Image @National Portrait Gallery.

The Real Jane Austen focuses on specific objects, like the topaz crosses that Jane and her sister Cassandra received from their brother Charles. The conversation segued into a discussion of Charles and Frank Austen’s careers in the Royal Navy, and the lives of sailors in general, including that of William Price in Mansfield Park and those of the sailors in Persuasion. Details of letters and visits home flesh out our knowledge of Jane’s relationship with her brothers, as well as the background for some of the characters in her novels. While life on board ship was harsh, a career in the navy was one way in which the Austen men could seek their fortune through promotions and the spoils of war. At the tender age of eighteen, Frank obtained his lieutenant’s commission.

In some cases, early promotion led to discontent among the crews, particularly when over-enthusiastic young officers meted out punishments to their inferiors. Logbooks taken from Frank’s ships show the severity of the punishments. Forty-nine lashes would be given for theft and a hundred for insolence to a superior officer.”

Janeites who have read Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by John Henry Hubback, Edith C. Hubback, J.H. Hubback would already know many of these sailor details, but they are new for many. Dr. Byrne threads the influences in Jane’s life in such a way that a seasoned Janeite is happily reminded of well-known facts and a new reader is introduced to them in the context of Jane’s life, her letters and novels, and her influences.

Dr. Byrne uses other objects to develop Jane’s biography: a vellum notebook; a card of lace, which led to a discussion of the shoplifting trial of her aunt, Jane Leigh Perrot; the laptop writing box given to her by her father; her royalty check, which confirmed her as a professional writer; and a bathing machine, commonly used by bathers at seaside resorts. While at Lyme, Jane caught a fever and took to bathing to recover, using bathing machines and the services of a dipper named Molly:

Jane Austen enjoyed the experience of being dipped so much that she continued to take advantage: “The Bathing was so delightful this morning and Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself that I believe I staid in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired.”

We learn that Jane, while a doting aunt, viewed children much as she did adults – some were simply easier to like than others. Her observation of Anna Lefroy’s girls is not unlike one that I can make of my family members, including myself: “Jemima has a very irritable bad Temper (her Mother says so) – and Julia a very sweet one, always pleased and happy.” Jane fondly thought about her fictional characters and how their lives would unfold, telling her relatives the details of Jane Fairfax’s and Kitty Bennet’s futures, for example – details that we Janeites crave.

There are other pleasant tidbits, of which I shall name a few. They include Tom Fowle’s letter to Cassandra, her fiance who tragically died at sea before he could afford to wed her; Cassandra’s deep romantic nature and her humorous side; the fact that Elizabeth Bridges preferred Cassandra over Jane, whom she did not like; details of Jane’s travels in an age when 90% of the populace sojourned only a few miles from their own community (This proves her to be less provincial than the myth of the isolated, rural spinster); Jane’s knowledge of the larger world, including the Napoleonic wars, slave and opium trades, and life at sea; that serious Frank Austen lacked a sense of humor but that he was quite generous towards the Austen women after Rev. George Austen’s death; and that Henry, Jane’s favorite brother called his sisters and mother “The Dear Trio”.

Frank Austen

Frank Austen

Many of these details are well-known to those of us who have researched Jane’s life for a number of years, but their presentation is delivered in a unique package that ties biographical influences to key moments and objects, and that weaves a view of Jane Austen which is both personal and well-researched. Unlike dry scholarly endeavors, filled with footnotes and references and a dense academic tone, Byrne keeps her wide readership in mind with a writing style that is relaxed and quite readable. There are just enough images to add another layer of depth to our reading experience.

Five out of five regency teacups

Five out of five regency teacups

I recommend The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things highly to readers who are new to Jane Austen’s life and times, as well as to committed Janeites who simply cannot read enough about their favorite author. I imagine there will be some Janeites who will find this biography somewhat repetitive – I am not one of those. My rating is five out of five regency teacups.
Product Details
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 29, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0061999091
ISBN-13: 978-0061999093

More on the topic:

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Jane Austens World LaneI am continuing this blog’s giveaways in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice and 6 millionth visit to my blog with one free copy of the reissue of Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen’s World, courtesy of Sterling Publishing.

Jane Austen’s World takes a look at Jane Austen’s private life and examines the world she inhabited—a time when England was developing into a colonial power, the Napoleonic Wars raged, and the Regency took hold.

Maggie Lane is an active committee member of the Jane Austen Society and has written several highly acclaimed books on the author, including Jane Austen and Food (Hambledon Continuum), Jane Austen’s England (Robert Hale), and Jane Austen’s Family (Robert Hale). She has also appeared on television as a Jane Austen expert.

jane austens world

Like the 2005 reissue (left) this book features a short introduction by Brian Southam and a Jane Austen timeline, and is filled with colored plates and illustrations. Interestingly this reissue was printed and bound in Dubai. The reason I say this is that I found the color in the plates to be brighter. It’s a matter of taste, I know. Some will like these images over the somewhat more subdued color palate in the other edition.

If you already own a copy of the book with the cover on the left  (first published in 1993), be aware that only minor changes have been made. For those who already own the book, this reissue will be the perfect gift for their Janeite friends and relatives.

To Enter the Contest: This contest is open only to those who live in the U.S. Tell us what you want to know about Jane Austen’s world that eludes you or will help you understand her novels better. Contest closes April 3rd. Note: Click here to enter another giveaway on this blog of The Jane Austen Handbook and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. That contest, open to those who live in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, closes April 1st. CONTEST CLOSED. Congratulations, Raquel Muniz!

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