Jane Austen never gave much detail to food and eating in her novels. Still, food is a very important part of her writing, since all references to food and eating, although indirect, suggests something about the character who refers to it. Maggie Lane, an English author of several books about Jane Austen and her time, has examined the books to find out Jane Austen’s attitude to food and how it affects the social sphere and customs of her characters. Maggie Lane starts:
“One of the characteristics of Jane Austen’s style is how sparing it is of physical detail. She never pauses in her narrative to give a lengthy description, whether of faces, clothes, rooms, meals or any other facet of material life. … Jane Austen pays us the compliment of letting us imagine for ourselves. …”
Jane Austen grew up in the countryside as one of eight children. Her father was a reverend, but also a gentleman farmer, so the household was more or less self sufficient during her early life. Her mother catered for this big family, and we can imagine the logistic of preparing things to eat every day, which must have been full time work. Although Jane Austen did not herself care to much about this duty (it was taken over by her sister Cassandra when her mother died) she nevertheless had an idea of how the food issue worked.
From domestic economy to mealtimes, menus and manners we enter a world of the better gentry in the 18th century. A world that seemed to consist of a leisurely life, with visits, walks, dinners and teas. Maggie Lane gives a general idea of the overall social customs of England and the different class traditions at the time, and compare it to Jane Austen’s writing. This shows us that Jane Austen really knew what she was writing about, and a lot of the references to food as based on real life scenarios.
“It now occurs to her that Mr Bingley might be the unexpected visitor, and she bursts out, 'But - good lord! how unlucky! there is not a bit of fish to be got today. Lydia, my love, ring the bell. I must speak to Hill, this moment.' We know from the text that this is Monday, when fish cannot be bought because there has been no catch the previous day. In such minor domestic detail the world of Pride and Prejudice is anchored in the real world. At the same time, and in such brief and apparently insignificant sentences, Jane Austen manages to convey a great deal of information about character. Mrs Bennet is so ill-judging that she imagines Mr Bingley's love for Jane will be affected by the presence or absence of fish on the table.”
You could tell where on the social ladder people were, just by knowing when they had their breakfast, dinner and tea. The higher up in society you were, the later you ate the various meals. Since there was no work to go to, the day started much later and thus the meals were shifted for later in the day. They idled through their days with visits, walks or other leisurely occupations.
The hospitality seems to have been great and there was a constant flow of visits, not always with prior notice. Any household with self-respect had to be prepared to offer something to satisfy the stomach of uninvited guest, whether it was dinner time or tea time. A man who could not afford a housekeeper had to look for a wife who could cook and be able to care for the household. It was expected that the women should be able to take up this duty, but as we see in this passage, it might not always be the case. The passage shows, once again, how Jane Austen’s writing always has its base in a realistic world.
“There are three things in which, as a housekeeper, Mrs Bennet prides herself, and which she is anxious that everybody should acknowledge. First, that her daughters have no household work to do. When Mr Collins comes to Longbourn, he admires the dinner and begs to know 'to which of his fair cousins, the excellence of its cookery was owing. But here he was set right by Mrs Bennet, who assured him with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.' (P&P, 65) Perhaps at this stage it has not crossed Mrs Bennet's mind that Mr Collins might be looking for a wife, and it would not be unreasonable for him to want one who can cook.”
It seems that in Jane Austen's world people did not overindulge in eating “with the exception of a few comfortable middle-aged women like Mrs Musgrave and Mrs Jennings, whose size does indeed reflect their usual ‘good cheer and good humour’, all the fatness and certainly all the epicurism and gluttony in the novels belong to men.” Most of the young girls seem to have little or no interest in food.
Jane Austen and Food is an original and very well-researched book. It is rather academic in its structure, and it has to be a must read for anyone studying English literature or Jane Austen specifically. Maggie Lane has managed to cover all references to food there are in the books, and for someone who does not indulge in food and eating, there are a lot. It is not only Jane Austen’s own experience and writing we meet here, but it is compared with the social customs at the time, which makes it a very rich book. If you are interested in food and its traditions, Jane Austen, social history, and customs during this era, this is a book for you.
Being a fan of Jane Austen, I must nevertheless admit that I have only read Pride and Prejudice (my absolute favourite) and Persuasion. I have tried two times with Emma, but cannot really stand this character, so it is laid aside for the moment. I think it is an advantage to have read all Jane Austen’s books before reading this book. Mainly because there are a lot of references to places and people and without knowing the books there might be some lost connections. However, after having read Maggie Lane’s book, I will approach Jane Austen’s books in the future in a totally different manner, which will be an interesting outcome of this book.
Jane Austen and Food
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2013)
This book was given to me by Endeavour Press for reviewing. The views put forward are my own, personal ones.