For lovers of 19th-century English novels, an explanation of the facts of life

August 22, 1993|By Norrie Epstein







Daniel Pool

Simon & Schuster

416 pages. $25

To truly understand the 19th-century English novel, you don't need semiotics, deconstructionism or even any critical approach. What you need is a working knowledge of pounds and pence, the class system, dowries, primogeniture, church politics, weddings and wills. If this sounds like a Lewis Caroll nonsense list, it should. The 19th-century novel, more than any other genre in any other period, is an omnium gatherum of life as it was lived by its readers.

It's no coincidence that one of Trollope's greatest novels is titled "The Way We Live Now," or that the full title of Dickens' tale of factory life is "Hard Times for These Times." The 19th-century novelist assumed that his readers shared a body of knowledge that is not only obsolete but was never part of American life. Few Americans can tell a guinea from a crown, a baron from an earl, an Esq. from an Hon. Daniel Pool's "What Jane Austen Ate and Dickens Knew," an encyclopedic guide to this rich fictional world, is a delightful antidote to such ignorance.

From the perspective of the novel lover, such delectable potables as Jane Austen's negus or Dickens' smoking bishop are far more weighty subjects than the Crimean War. Mr. Pool seems to agree with this view, sparing us windy discussions of Parliament and the like. His information is reader-centric: He includes only those subjects as they relate to novels. In Jane Austen's world, the outcome of a rubber of whist has as much significance -- if not more -- than Napoleon at Waterloo.

Besides, to those who have read "Jane Eyre" 20 times, what's the Crimean War? We want to know what a governess did, why Mr. Rochester's house is called Thornfield Hall, what was Mrs. Fairfax's position, and, most interestingly, does Mr. Rochester have a legal right to keep his mad wife locked in the attic? These questions may not be crucial in a novel about self-discovery, but they help to place it in its proper historical and social context and thus avert the inevitable confusions of those who try to impose 20th-century judgments on 19th-century values.

The first part of Mr. Pool's book is divided into subjects, a brief sampling of which should give any Jane Austenite or Dickensian a frisson of recognition: " 'The Law is an Ass' "; "The Ball"; "The Country House Visit"; "A Taxonomy of Maids"; "Pudding!"; " 'Please, Sir, I Want Some More.' " ("The most famous request for seconds in history"); "Men's Clothing" ("No gentleman was ever without an umbrella"); " 'Reader, I Married Him' "; "The Orphan," and "Servants" (whose ranking downstairs was just as stratified as that of their employers upstairs).

After reading Mr. Pool's description of servitude, one might well believe that the real 19th-century heroines are maids, those invisible creatures who wait patiently upstairs until their mistresses come home, or labor below in the scullery washing up after one of the numerous supper parties that punctuate these novels. "There was a lot to be done . . . an eighteen-guest dinner party might generate as many as five hundred items to be washed when it was over."

The rules of conduct for men and women were as elaborate and inviolable as a papal bull: "When you left for town, you submitted a card with PPC written on it, short for pour prendre conge, French for 'I'm leaving.' " From Mr. Pool, we learn that a gentleman never called a lady by her first name unless he had Intentions. Thus a request -- usually uttered hesitatingly -- "May I call you . . ." would be the verbal equivalent of being taken into a lover's arms.

Nothing could cause the Victorian hostess more anxiety than the minute gradations of rank -- often so subtle that they evade the casual observer. Rank determined all social activities: Guests entered a room in order of precedence, titles required specific forms of address, and, most important, it dictated your behavior, depending on whether you were with your inferiors, superiors or equals. Mr. Pool lists and defines the various degrees of the social hierarchy from the sovereign to the now-extinct yeoman. He also defines that elusive term, "gentleman": the goal of Pip's great expectations. A gentleman, simply, is a man who does not work.

Mr. Pool evokes a vanished age, a world rich in rituals, of calling cards, the prescribed 15-minute visit and the liturgical formality of teatime. But he does not neglect the nether world of 19th-century life, either: those featureless clerks so memorably represented by Dickens' Bob Cratchit, sooty street urchins like Jo the crossing sweeper and the dreaded parish workhouse where Oliver Twist's mother suffered and died. Today we tend to envision Dickens' poor as picturesque waifs, but we need to understand the nightmare of his London if we are to grasp his breathtaking integrity.

The second part of the book is a glossary of terms commonly found in the novels; it includes everything from antimacassar to yellow fever. It would have been nice, however, if Mr. Pool had added some Sam Welleresque slang, such as "smell" or "guv'nor."

The novel lover, long accused of indifference to facts, will get a hefty dose here. But reading Mr. Pool's splendid book is like hearing a bit of gossip about one's favorite heroine.

Dr. Epstein is the author of "The Friendly Shakespeare" and the forthcoming "The Friendly Dickens." She lives in Baltimore.

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