Austen Eats With Us

One reason we at JASNA-NJ are so excited for our February 19th meeting for Julienne Gehrer’s presentation of Mary Lloyd’s Household Book (you can register for the Zoom meeting here) is well, who doesn’t love food references in literature, especially British literature? Whether it’s the famous (or infamous) Turkish Delight of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, the poor porridge and forbidden seed cake of Jane Eyre’s Lowood School, or the epic picnics of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, food and books seem to go together.

A slightly more decadent seed cake than the one shared by Miss Temple with Helen Burns and Jane Eyre

Interestingly enough, however, although Austen’s Georgian/Regency era is so removed from our own, many of her most iconic meals are quite recognizable to us, with little need to Google.

“There was now employment for the whole party—for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches soon collected them round the table.” —Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 45

“The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell—some of Mr. Knightley’s most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple anywhere as one of his trees—I believe there is two of them.”
—Miss Bates, speaking in Emma, Chapter 27

“There, Fanny, you shall carry that parcel for me; take great care of it: do not let it fall; it is a cream cheese, just like the excellent one we had at dinner. Nothing would satisfy that good old Mrs. Whitaker, but my taking one of the cheeses.” —Mrs. Norris, Mansfield Park, Chapter 10

Mr. Knightley’s apples making a feast for Jane Fairfax

As can be seen in all of these examples, however, the emphasis is less upon extravagant and detailed descriptions of food, but rather what the use of food reveals about the characters in question, whether it is the bounty of Mr. Darcy’s household and its fruit (and Miss Darcy’s awkwardness in serving it), the Bates’s poverty and Mr. Knightley’s generosity, and Mrs. Norris’s sponging.

Of course, just like many fanfiction authors have speculated about the sexual lives of Austen’s characters, many cookbook authors have speculated about what her famous characters may have eaten. But perhaps the simplicity of Austen’s food descriptions (with some exceptions, like Netherfield Balls’s white soup) is actually yet another hidden strength of her writing. While many American children have endlessly speculated about what Turkish Delight or humbugs must be like, it’s far easier to have a mental image of the olives Mrs. Jennings was trying to tempt Marianne with, after the young girl was jilted by Willoughby. We can all dream about dining with Austen’s characters with our own food references, while still remaining true to the text.

If you can’t get your man, an olive is always some consolation—Mrs. Jennings

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