Written by an Austen scholar, Deirdre Le Faye, it covers food, society, housing, manners, clothes, money, travel, politics and paints a compelling picture of the way the landed gentry lived their lives in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
(entrance hall, Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire)
I have never been particularly passionate about Jane Austen. I know people say she is modern and fresh and funny, but I still find it hard to really bury myself in her books. But strangely, this book, a book about the world of her books, is very absorbing.
As we are all domestic warriors, upcycling, reusing and conserving like crazy today, this passage resonated:
'Jane Austen used simple cosmetics of Martha's making: hard pomatum, from beef and mutton suet, beeswax and scent essence; coral toothpowder, from prepared powdered coral and cuttlefish bone mixed with powdered cassia bark and coloured pink; cold cream from spemaceti*, white wax, oil of sweet almonds and rosewater; rose pomatum from roses, lard and white wax..... it was quite usual to make one's own writing ink and shoe-blacking at home; to clean silks and gauzes with a mixture of honey, soft soap and whisky or gin; to whiten silk stockings by hanging them up in the fumes of burning sulphur; to mix one's own varnish for small tables; and to whitewash rooms, tinting with indigo for a blue wash and with Dutch pink ... for a buff wash'.
(*Spermaceti is a white waxy substance from the oil of sperm whale).
But back to decor. Georgian interiors were characterised by their simple spare lines, except for rooms for show such as drawings rooms. This is the period where people had just begun to use curtains rather than folding wooden casement windows.
I think these Georgian kitchens actually have a lot in common with the spare simplicity we seek in many of our own kitchens:
This is how and when Jane Austen and her contemporaries ate:
"Once breakfast was finished at about 11 o'clock, the 'morning' by contemporary standards, lasted right through until about four o'clock in the afternoon or later, when a large and lengthy dinner was served. There was no fixed luncheon in the middle of the day but it was courteous to offer refreshment to morning callers.... any combination of cold meat, sandwiches, cake and seasonal fruit might be served on a tray.... The style of dining was a la francaise - that is, all the food was laid out on the table at the same time, to be ready as the diners walked in: the dishes would vary in number from 5 to 25.'
And think about how we work and write, in brightly lit rooms with large desks, huge computer screens and cushioned chairs.
My desk at home with cord chewing new kitten, Pepper, reading the Age on line.
And this is where Jane Austen occasionally wrote:
(Images: (3)-(5) from Georgian Style - Contemporary Living by Henrietta Spencer Churchill (6) Jasper Conran's kitchen in Walpole House (8) Jane Austen Museum)