|So Fine a Brush
All Things Austen: An Encyclopedia of Austen’s World (2 Vols.)
By Kristin Olsen.
Greenwood Press, 2005. xxii + 804 pages.
157 B/W illustrations, incl. 12 maps.
Reviewed by Carrie Bebris.
“Heaven forbid that I should ever offer such encouragement to explanations as to give a clear one on any occasion myself!” Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, in 1799. And in her fiction, Austen did not need to explain much. She wrote about the world she knew to an audience who knew it equally well. When she shows John Thorpe rattling on about his gig and Henry Crawford driving a barouche, her contemporaries understood that Thorpe boasts about the Regency equivalent of a used sports car, while Crawford owns avehicle as fair-weather as he is.
As readers two centuries removed from Austen, however, we don’t realize how much of her shorthand we’re missing. We might know or gather from context that gigs and barouches are types of carriages, but fail to catch the subtext. “One misses a great deal of what she says about character and fails to appreciate the truly elegant economy of her language without a full comprehension of the objects and ideas to which she refers,” writes author Kristen Olsen in the introduction to All Things Austen: An Encyclopedia of Austen’s World.
Other books, such as Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew, have attempted to fill in these gaps of knowledge for the modern reader. But while Poole’s book focuses more on the Victorian period, All Things Austen provides an impressive amount of well-researched information specific to Austen’s era, in a user-friendly format that enables readers easily to navigate not only the encyclopedia’s 800+ pages but also relevant references in Austen’s works themselves.
The bulk of the encyclopedia comprises alphabetized articles on more than 150 topics from Agriculture to Zephyr. These straightforward but engagingly written discussions place their subjects in both historical and Austenian context. Enhanced by numerous illustrations, they include entries on the details of daily life (clothing, food, money, and servants), political, cultural, and social institutions (government, marriage, law, medicine, and religion), major events (French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars), and more. Olsen covers the frivolous and the far-reaching (an article on “Pocketbooks and Reticules” is followed by “Politics and Government”), the seemly and the scandalous (etiquette, illegitimacy).
Article lengths vary widely, as appropriate; two sentences define “under-hung” (as uttered by Sir Walter Elliot), while the “Navy” discussion runs forty pages. Entries on subjects of large scope offer a basic overview and enough essentials to understand Austen’s references; readers who require additional information will appreciate the extensive bibliography.
Some articles go into great depth. “Cards” (20 pages) includes not only the rules for nearly every game Austen’s characters play, but also how Austen’s choice of games in particular scenes contribute to character delineation or dynamics. We learn, for example, that the game of lottery tickets suits the flighty Lydia Bennet because it is a game of pure luck (unlike the more cerebral whist), and how games that require a set number of players (as opposed to a “round” game), might lead to the inclusion or exclusion of individuals to make up a table. When Lady Catherine summons Mr. Collins to Rosings for an evening of quadrille, it is not for his conversation.
From Catherine Morland’s solo homecoming to the Austen family’s own journeys, the logistics of travel are often a subject of concern or discourse in Austen’s fiction and letters. The extensive “Carriages and Coaches” article demystifies the details, including subsections on parts of a carriage, staff, costs, and driving. The discussion continues in separate articles on specific vehicles, horses, and travel in general— altogether, fifty-one pages with sixteen illustrations explain how one got around in Regency England (not including the entry on walking). If you want to know more about where everyone was going, “Places” offers details, maps, and textual references for nearly all the real (and some imaginary) locations mentioned in Austen’s fiction, from Antigua to York to Timbuktu. Separate entries on Bath and London cover these cities in even more depth.
A twenty-eight-page timeline juxtaposes events in the Austen family with concurrent political, military, religious, cultural, medical, technological, and scientific happenings in the larger world. The “Guide to Related Topics” and internal cross-references link associated articles for efficient fact-finding, and citations embedded in the articles refer readers to relevant passages in Austen’s fiction, including specific Juvenilia works.
For the casual Austen reader, All Things Austen enhances one’s appreciation of her novels by illuminating nuances otherwise missed. For writers, scholars, and other professionals who need to understand the intricacies of life in Regency England as intimately as we know our own, this encyclopedia will no doubt become a favorite and much-used reference.
See more book reviews
Return to Home Page