Before I'd gotten to page 10 in this book, I put it on my birthday wish list. This is precisely the sort of book I want to have beside me while I read 19th-century fiction so I can figure out the difference between damask and bombazine, why a dwelling is called a house or a park or grange or an abbey, why butlers ironed the newspaper, and so much more. Invaluable! In the Introduction, the author says that he wrote this "to answer some of the questions that nag any half-curious reader of the great nineteenth-century English novels," and that is precisely what it does.
The first half of the book is an explanation of various facets of life in the 1800s, and it links everything back to books by Austen, Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes, as well as a few of their contemporaries. It also explains how customs and practices and fashions and even words changed over the course of the century. Fascinating stuff if you read or watch a lot of stories set in this era! It's very, very read-able, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
The second half of the book is a glossary of all sorts of words you'll run across in books about or from the era that we might not understand today. Want to know what a ha-ha is, why the Bennets hoped Lydia and Wickham had gone to Gretna Green, or just exactly what an 'orange girl' did? It's all there!
My only criticism is that the author did tend to repeat himself from time to time in the first half. I suppose that's so that if you only read the section on Occupations you wouldn't be missing some vital information from the section on Servants, but it did get a little annoying now and then. Still, "repetition is the mother of learning," as my dad loves to say.
Particularly Interesting Bits:
In fact, heath and moor are different names for a similar terrain, namely, a desolate, sandy-soiled place, where dead vegetation piles up and accumulates into peat. The difference between a heath and a moor is the greater amount of rainfall on the moor, which, unlike the heath, is characteristically boggy and marshy (p. 161).
It is the gentry from whom Jane Austen draws most of her characters -- educated, comfortably well-off -- they do not work themselves but oversee the work of others and spend their time plotting how to marry off their children, paying calls or seeking to elevate their social standing (p. 164).
We think of afternoon tea as being an English practice of long standing, but in fact the habit began in the 1840s. Before that, tea was frequently offered after dinner, when the ladies and gentlemen had gathered together in the drawing room (p. 209).
I read this book as my way of participating in the Birthday Celebration and Reading Dickens event hosted by Fanda Classiclit. I'm so glad I did! Like I said, this is a book I absolutely want to acquire my own copy of. But I got it from the library, which means it's also my second entry into the I Love Library Books Challenge 2014.