I should have started a list some time back of books that authors should read if they are writing, or think they will eventually be writing, a historical fiction and want to get a feel for the particular period in which their story is set. For those writing “gaslight” or “steampunk” or “Victorian” lit, one of those books would assuredly by What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole. (By the way, I’ve always wondered if any feminists ever get upset that the title references Ms Austen’s table, but Mr Dickens’ brain).
Poole gives a good overview of the English culture of the 1800s, including: foods, holidays, money-types, and weights & measures. He also describes the different names that the common diseases of the day went under, as well as writing some about 19th century technology, such as the different types of horse-drawn carriages used.
Personally, I was glad to read his explanation of “the Season” (meaning the social season of the upper class). I had always wondered what characters were talking about when they mentioned doing this or that before “the Season” started.
Poole also goes into detail about the all the different titles and levels of the nobility, something I just can’t bring myself to care about enough to actually study and remember. There’s stuff on crime, the navy (important for an island nation), servants, and even fox hunting (yet another thing I knew next to nothing about).
I suppose I could go on, making a long list of the subjects of Victorian society which Poole elucidates, but suffice it to say, for a breezy, one-volume work, it’s fairly comprehensive.
I actually have a fictional story sketched-out that I hope to write one day, which is sorta steampunky, and so I took dozens of notes from Poole’s book. There are, of course, also plenty of novels written during the 1800s which go into great detail about the customs and speech of the day, and these are probably even a better source for learning about Victorian England. But What Jane Austen Ate And Charles Dickens Knew definitely helps to fill-in many gaps and clear-up many confusions about life in England during the century before World War One.