Dear Healthy Readers: I welcome today Bryan Kozlowski, author of The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness – he joins us here to answer a few questions about his book, why he wrote it, how long he’s been a reader of Jane Austen, and when he discovered she had all these things to say about nutrition and health. Joceline Bury, the book reviewer for Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine calls it “a delectable salmagundy or culinary history, illuminating quotes, dietary science and intriguing recipes – it made this gourmand’s heart sing. Delicious in every way.”
When did you first start to realize that Austen’s work contained these words of wisdom about wellness?
Very unexpectedly. Looking back, Jane and I had always been in a very superficial relationship. Begging her polite pardon, I never viewed her beyond anything other than a pure romance writer, always good for a giggle over the newest rich gent in the neighborhood, but not exactly influential to everyday life. If anything, Austen was just a bosom buddy I turned to for distraction from modern life, never realizing she held one of its biggest solutions. Yet that all changed rather quickly two years ago. Nearing my 30th birthday and in the midst of a personal wellness quandary (wondering, among other things, whatever happened to the energy levels of my roaring twenties), I delved into the latest health books for answers. That’s when it happened. Reading the “newest” research on eating, exercise, and holistic living felt very familiar, like literary déjà vu. Hadn’t I come across these exact insights before in Austen’s novels? Hadn’t she said the same thing, espoused nearly identical lifestyle advice, over two-hundred years ago? It all looked amazingly similar to the way her healthiest characters eat, stay fit, and interact with nature. The discovery led me to health maxims in Austen’s writings I never knew existed, which revealed a side to this famous English spinster rarely, if ever, discussed. Here was a woman just as interested in persuading her readers to live a healthier life as she was inspiring them to fall in love. Plainly, Austen wanted to take my relationship with her to the next level. So I took the plunge, deciding to test out her unique health strategies for myself (rather secretly, at first – one doesn’t announce to the world that one is going on the Jane Austen “diet,” does one?) It was a personal guinea-pig project that – shockingly – was not only suitable to the 21st century, the elegance of embracing “health and happiness” like a true Austenite is one that I now heartily announce to anyone in sore need of adding back some civility and sense to their own modern health routine.
You’re not a health professional. Do you intend for people to actually follow this plan? Is it a serious contribution to the wellness space?
Quite right. It’s something I discuss upfront in the book: that neither am I nor was Austen a doctor (or apothecary, rather!). Austen was, however, one of the most brilliant observers of human nature, and devoted her literary life to finding out what makes people happier and healthier both in mind and body. For this reason, Austen is often considered one of the best “didactic” novelists, meaning she made it her mission to inspire us – no matter the century – to live a better life. And just like she didn’t need to get married herself to understand the nuances of love, she didn’t need a medical degree to accurately grasp what our bodies need to thrive – the evidence is all in her novels. In fact, the health advice scattered throughout her writing continues to be so timeless today because it was based on organic observation, not on shifting fashions or fads. She knew what naturally worked for our bodies and what didn’t, which is why her wellness philosophies find such resounding support from the latest health research. Moreover, it’s important to remember that Austen lived in an age that faced health challenges nearly identical to the ones we grapple with today. The Regency era had its own mini obesity epidemic, movement crises, and trendy starvation diets to contend with. Yet in her own clever way, Austen chose to respond (never bluntly) but with subtle, counterculture clues woven throughout her fiction: clues meant to gently motivate us to better alternatives. And I, for one, am so grateful she did.
Austen would probably get a merry kick out of my attempt to answer this, as her health code purposefully defies any attempt at tidy condensing. But if possible to boil down, you could say that it’s built on one refreshing reminder – that “health” is far more holistic than most of us have been conditioned to view it today (that is, as an isolated number on a scale, BMI chart, food plan, fitness strategy, or dress size). As a matter of fact, weight hardly mattered to Jane at all, who progressively considered excessive thinness, not fatness, as a much more serious risk to health. There are corpulent characters in her novels, of course, who could certainly loose a few pounds, but Austen chose to widen the lens and focus instead on what she calls the “complete” “picture of health” throughout her fiction. In short, Austen’s healthiest characters never have just one defining attribute that makes them “lovely, blooming, [and] healthful” but a sweeping range of interconnected lifestyle habits and patterns that keep them effortlessly “in health” from tip to toe: from their relationship to food and exercise, to their interactions with nature, to how they think and feel about their bodies. Your corset size mattered far less to Jane than how you laced up the rest of your life.
Which of Austen’s heroines lives the healthiest life, and why?
What I love about Austen’s approach to wellness is its firm footing in reality – that is, none of her heroines start their stories as perfect paradigms of health. Everybody has something to learn. Anne Elliot begins Persuasion “faded” and frumpy and Marianne Dashwood certainly has some hard health lessons ahead of her in Sense and Sensibility. But if any heroine could be said to have a head start on the rest, I believe it would be Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. If nothing more than the fact that she begins the novel completely comfortable in her own skin. So much so, she instantly laughs off Mr. Darcy’s infamous body-shaming snark (“he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form”). And that alone was incredibly important to Austen, an early promoter of body positivity. Because becoming healthy in Austenworld truly begins in your mind, where the quality of your relationship to food, fitness, and even your reflection in the mirror will greatly depend on how you think about those things. Still incredibly important today, these are the mental “exercises” that set apart the body healthy from the body harmful in Austen’s novels. As Fanny Price insists in Mansfield Park, “that would be exercise only to my body, and I must take care of my mind.”
What is the most surprising/useful habit that those living in Austen’s era abided by for health?
The most surprising aspect of Austen’s wellness program is her insistence that a healthy diet includes far more than just food – that it relies on a daily dose of nature, too. Things like fresh air, sunlight, trees, good clean dirt and sea breezes are practically treated like vitamins in her fiction, routinely prescribed to any character in need of a body reboot. And though I used to (shamefully) think Austen had gone a wee bit too far with her love for nature – note Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, at one point, prefers “rocks and mountains” to actual men – thanks to new and growing support from modern science, it is now an essential part of my own wellness walk with Jane, and one I cannot live without.
Bryan Kozlowski is a passionate champion of “lit wit” – bringing the wisdom of classic literature into everyday life. From Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to children’s cookbooks, his books celebrate the modern magic of living literarily. His works have appeared in Vogue, the New York Times and the Washington Post. He graduated valedictorian from The Culinary Institute of America in New York, where he fell in love with British food history, and interned at Saveur food magazine before setting off on the writing path.
About the book:
Bryan Kozlowski, The Jane Austen Diet: Austen’s Secrets to Food, Health, and Incandescent Happiness
Turner Publishing, 2019
Paperback: 304 pages
- On Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Jane-Austen-Diet-Incandescent-Happiness
- See this article at Cooking Light: https://www.cookinglight.com/news/jane-austen-diet
If you have any questions for Bryan, please comment below.
Thank you Bryan for sharing your new book with us! I am heading out now for my daily walk knowing Jane would heartily approve!