January 2015 meeting: Food in Jane Austen’s novels

Prepared by member Cheng, with help from Anna’s notes.

It would be reasonable to assume that after the indulgences of Christmas our interest in food would have staled. Not so. Our opening meeting for the year had all the enthusiasm and happy chaos of a night at the Musgroves.

First we swapped newsy items and discoveries such as the fact that the 1st edition of Persuasion & Northanger Abbey auctioned last December 6th in Sydney sold for just over $6,000. What a bargain! We examined, reverently, an 1837 5th edition of Sense & Sensibility which had been presented to one of our members on her recent retirement and we read about it in Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret Sullivan. Handling a book 178 years old and published only 20 years after Jane Austen’s death, looking at its engravings and remarking on the good condition of pre 1840’s rag based paper as opposed to later 19th c acidic wood based paper, was a rare treat.

The discussion opened with the statement that, as always, Jane Austen doesn’t waste a word – she uses food to illustrate character.

Maggie Lane was extensively quoted, from both Jane Austen in Context and Jane Austen and Food. Importantly, Lane argues, no hero or heroine or other character who enjoys the narrator’s approval ever willingly speaks about food. They merely refer to the mealtimes of breakfast, dinner or tea, etc. Any mention of a specific foodstuff in Austen is made by a character who is thereby condemned for being greedy, vulgar, selfish or trivial – Mrs Bennet boasting about her soup and her partridges, Dr. Grant salivating at the prospect of turkey are good examples of this, as is Mrs Jenkins kind-hearted concern over Elinor & Marianne’s preferences for salmon or cod and boiled fowls or veal cutlets.

However, even more nuances of social class can be read into this because Mrs Bennet is also letting it be known that she has access to a game park. Many of the subtleties of Jane Austen’s wit are lost on 21st c readers.

Emma contains the most references to food and they also have a deeper meaning. The heroine is part of an interdependent village community where some have more access to food than others. She is portrayed as caring and sharing – broth to a sick cottager, a whole hind-quarter of pork to the poor Bates’, arrow-root to Jane Fairfax. Food in Emma, its production, processing and distribution is a metaphor for neighbourly love.

However, the author also uses it as a background for some of the most amusing scenes in all her novels – the strawberry excursion to Donwell Abbey and Mr. Woodhouse’s digestive foibles.

Mr. Bingley’s white soup symbolises his wealth but at the same time his wit and generosity as he knows Mr. Hurst likes French food and Mr. Darcy can afford a French cook.

When Mr. Hurst scorns Lizzie for preferring a plain dish to a ragout he’s condemned and Elizabeth endorsed for their respective tastes by the narrator. French food was considered suspect and dishonest, just like the French, and unpatriotic.

The only meal specified in Sense & Sensibility is Willoughby’s snatched lunch at a coaching inn in Marlborough – cold beef and a pint of porter – this has a moral dimension because it shows he is behaving honourably and with feeling at last. He doesn’t foolishly starve himself in his haste to reach Marianne but neither does he waste time by ordering an elaborate dish. Some of the sterling character associated with the roast beef of old England attaches to Willoughby: he is reformed.

We strayed into related topics:

  • food adulteration, particularly in flour for bread (as possibly in the French-bread that Catherine Morland ate at General Tilney’s breakfast table), the changing size of a penny loaf and the political importance of bread to feed the people.
  • table etiquette: the extraordinary quantities of food consumed and the likelihood of actually being able to access every dish laid out.
  • mealtimes: breakfast was as yet elegant and light and consisted mainly of tea or coffee and a selection of breads, eaten on fine china. Even Henry Crawford faced a journey to London on a few boiled eggs whilst William Price ate some cold pork with mustard. Heavy hot dishes on a groaning sideboard came later, in Victorian times.

To add even more variety to the meeting, a member had brought a facsimile copy, made of hand forged steel with bone handles, of late 18th c to early 19th c cutlery of the type used in Royal Navy ward rooms. The knife was unusually large and had a very broad blade intended for carving up one’s portion of beef. We realised that eating peas with one’s knife could have been accomplished easily. However, the much smaller 2 pronged fork was intended primarily only for transferring the pieces of meat to the mouth.

In the second half of our meeting members had brought food for afternoon tea that had featured somewhere in her novels. Our task was to identify the novel and who ate the food. Apples, walnuts, olives, seed cake, strawberries, even ratafia biscuits – all had been carefully researched and the game was brisk and laughter laden.

Food from Jane Austen's novels

Food from the novels

Extremely interesting was the plate of “Stilton cheese, the North Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root” that had impressed Mr. Elton at the party at the socially aspiring Coles’. These cheeses were only made in certain small localities (the North Wiltshire being difficult to make), had been transported a long distance and hence were considered delicacies.

These expensive cheeses signalled that not only the Coles’ were rising financially and socially but that Mr. Elton, faced with the luxuries that the rich could command, was in raptures. Jane Austen’s readers would have known immediately that he would never marry Harriet Smith!

Our meeting rounded off with a devious quiz from our Machiavellian quiz mistress  – to see if we remembered what we had studied last year!!! We left feeling that we had had a particularly satisfying meeting.

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2 Responses to January 2015 meeting: Food in Jane Austen’s novels

  1. jagjoan says:

    Thank you for this post, the first since I signed up to you. What an immensely satisfying read with so much detail and information about the topic. I am interested to know how many members you have attending your meetings. Your posts will be followed with much interest and anticipation if this is the quality I am to expect every time. Regards, Joan Ting Adelaide group

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