When Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra of the holiday visits they enjoyed (endured?) in 1808, she included a delightful word picture of one of their guests. As the letter is dated Tuesday, December 27, we can assume that Christmas was the previous Sunday and the visit occurred on December 22. It gives a glimpse into the Austen’s dining and entertaining menu while they lived in the Castle Square neighborhood of Southampton, before moving to Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, the following July.
Our evening party on Thursday produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too, though she had declined it absolutely in the morning, and sitting very ungracious and very silent with us from seven o’clock till half after eleven, for so late was it, owing to the chairmen, before we got rid of them.
The last hour, spent in yawning and shivering in a wide circle round the fire, was dull enough, but the tray had admirable success. The widgeon and the preserved ginger were as delicious as one could wish. But as to our black butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone. The first pot was opened when Frank and Mary were here, and proved not at all what it ought to be; it was neither solid nor entirely sweet, and on seeing it Eliza remembered that Miss Austen had said she did not think it had been boiled enough. It was made, you know, when we were absent. Such being the event of the first pot, I would not save the second, and we therefore ate it in unpretending privacy; and though not what it ought to be, part of it was very good.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
Castle Square, December 27, 1808