Jane Austen and Food by Maggie Lane is not a cookbook with recipes, but a well-researched, highly informative, and entertaining historical discussion about food, mealtimes, manners, and housekeeping in the age of Jane Austen. Lane examines Austen’s letters regarding food and drink, and how she uses both to define the characters in her novels.
Today, the Jane Austen and Food’s hardcover edition, which was first published in 1995, can be purchased on Amazon in hardcover or paperback for $85 to $129! But the kindle edition from Endeavor Press is available for a mere $2.99 – and it contains the same content as the hardcover and paperback editions. (Keep in mind that kindle apps are available for those who do not own kindles. I have downloaded the book on my iPad and android devices, for example.)
Let me explain what a bargain you will be getting with the kindle version of Maggie Lane’s thoroughly enjoyable and informative book. Jane Austen’s treatment of food yields new insights in which she creates character and establishes her moral values in her novels:
In Steventon, the glebe lands (which added to about 3 acres) supplied the Rectory with pork, mutton, wheat, peas, barley, hops, and oats and hay for the horses. The surplus in produce contributed up to £300 per year to the Austen’s income. They made their own mead and wines and preserved foods that were produced with foods in season. The only commodities that were purchased were expensive items like tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, spices, and dried fruits.
No gentleman, single or widowed, could run his own home. He depended upon a paid housekeeper to oversee his hearth for good dinners, or, like Mr Bingley, he required a sister to keep house for him. Mr. Rushworth depended upon his mother, while Mr. Collins was in need of a wife. When Mrs. Austen was kept away in 1770 for a month to look after her sister in childbirth, Mr. Austen wrote that “I must bear … [for] about three weeks longer, at which time I expect my housekeeper’s return.” Jane never took the responsibility of a household completely, although she assisted whenever she was needed. Composing for her was difficult during such times, and she wrote, “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.”
In terms of food and its purchase, the Austen’s move to Bath was a shock. Slow transportation changed the quality of the food that Jane and her family were accustomed to, and the very fact that they had to purchase all their produce made them anxious, for they had lost sources of revenue in the form of farm produce, pupils, and Reverend Austen’s clerical stipend. Milk was of a poor quality due to the cows being kept in unhygienic barns, and food, purchased at the bakers, grocers, butchers, poulterers, and fishmongers was quite expensive. In addition, its cost fluctuated.
Mrs. Austen in particular never lost her love for working in a garden. She did so at Steventon and later at Chawton Cottage, where she dug up her own potatoes and delighted in her flower borders. According to one of her great-grand-daughters: “She wore a green round frock like a day-laborer’s.”
At Chawton Cottage, the Austen women were able to find their footing again, growing their own fruit and vegetables, rearing poultry, keeping bees, baking bread, and making wine and brewing beer. Villagers recalled in later years that their dog, Link, would carry home a pail of milk in his mouth. It must be emphasized that, although Jane Austen worried about financial security, she and her sister and mother were comfortable enough to eat well and, like Emma Woodhouse, to dispense charity to those less fortunate than themselves. If Jane envied others, it was for their freedom from perpetual contrivance. In the sale of her novels, she found some relief from such worry.
In later chapters, Maggie Lane describes the history of tea, coffee, and chocolate, and how these fashionable drinks were imbibed before and during Jane Austen’s day. Austen herself only mentioned chocolate twice in her letters, but Mrs Austen during her visit to Stoneleigh Abbey wrote that their breakfast at her ancestral home consisted of “Chocolate Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, brad and Butter, and dry toast for me.”
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and supper are described, but Lane emphasizes that Jane barely mentions these daily events in her letters and novels. She gives scant details, especially as to the preferences of her heroines, most of whom are not concerned with the daily details of food. There are hints here and there in her novels: Willoughby takes porter at an inn during midday, and Frank Churchill imbibes spruce beer on a hot day at Donwell.
Dinner times are moved up as the Regency era progresses. In 1798, Jane writes to Cassandra that they dine at half after three, and by 1808, “we never dine now till five.” This was a gradual shift in dinner-time that took place with most families during this era, although dinner in town (London) was taken fashionably later. In addition, dinners in the early 19th century were far less splendid than those in the latter part of the century. Edward Austen-Leigh noted that there was a “far less splendid appearance than it does now.” By the time Jane wrote Mansfield Park, silver forks emerged, as well as napkins and finger glasses. In 1808 Jane wrote, “My mother has been lately adding to her possessions in plate – a whole tablespoon and a whole dessertspoon, and six whole teaspoons – which makes our sideboard border on the magnificent.”
I could go on and on describing the enormous amount of information in this ebook. Lane goes on to discuss in great detail the attitudes towards food and domesticity in Northanger Abbey, Emma, and Mansfield Park – all of which excited this reader. The characters of Emma Woodhouse, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Grant, Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Norris, Mr. Price, and General Tilney are elaborated in great detail in their obsession (or not) with food and general housekeeping details.
Is Jane Austen and Food worth the cost of $2.99? Oh, yes. Definitely.!I paid so much more for my hardback copy several years ago and do not regret its purchase. I give this ebook a rating of 5 out of 5 Regency teacups.