Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 6 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen was a novelist, not an accountant, therapist, scientist, or priest. But you wouldn’t know it from the array of books recruiting her as an authority on, say, game theory, thrift, dating (for instance, here, here and here), and life itself.


Thus it came as no surprise last month to encounter a Philadelphia Inquirer headline posing the question, “Was Jane Austen a health and wellness guru?”


To which I would answer: No, obviously.


But here’s a shocker: Bryan Kozlowski, a chef whose forthcoming book is titled The Jane Austen Diet, disagrees with me. According to the Inquirer interview, Kozlowski sees “connections between the latest discoveries in the science of eating, exercise, and wellness and the somewhat similar holistic philosophies that Austen wrote about 200 years ago.”


It’s possible that the book, which won’t be published until March, treats these matters in a nuanced and useful way. But evidence from the interview isn’t promising: Kozlowski’s claims about Austen’swellness “philosophies” seem to amount to little more than observations about everyday life in the rural England of the Regency, dressed up as assertions about conscious life choices.


A person who walks everywhere because cars haven’t been invented yet and uses very little sugar because it’s a hugely expensive import isn’t a marvelous exemplar of healthy living with “a very relaxed attitude to working out.” She’s a person belonging to a not-yet-fully-industrialized age whose relative primitivism entailed some accidental health benefits, as well as encompassing a whole bunch of problematic practices (e.g., bleeding, leeching) and unavoidable technological gaps (no antibiotics, no anesthetic).


Indeed, Austen’s own untimely death – probably from an illness that would have been curable in our own time -- is surely an inconvenient data point for a writer holding her up as a model of wellness. Live like Jane Austen, and die at forty-one!


Perhaps I would feel more charitable if Kozlowski didn’t seem prone to sloppy use of Austen’s work, ripping a Sense and Sensibility quote out of context in order to recruit Elinor Dashwood to the cause of body positivity, and citing Austen’s use of the word “thin” to describe the sickly and depressed as evidence that she would have disapproved of the modern obsession with weight. (I will, however, cut him some slack on the article’s confusion of Miss Bates with Jane Fairfax: perhaps that was the reporter’s error and not his.)


Overall, though, color me skeptical. On the other hand, Kozlowski’s book apparently includes Regency recipes, including one for spruce beer. So that’s a plus.


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