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Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane – A Review

unnamedJane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane – A Review by Sarah Emsley:

Is it easier or harder to write if you’re also responsible for feeding and looking after your family? “Composition seems to me impossible, with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in September 1816, after a period in which she managed the household at Chawton Cottage in Cassandra’s absence. Fortunately for Jane – and for us, as readers of her fiction – most of the time it was Cassandra who filled this role, freeing Jane to write. In her writing, she doesn’t mention food very often, yet Maggie Lane’s book Jane Austen and Food shows her references to it are significant because “she uses it to define character and illustrate moral worth.” Jane Austen and Food was first published in 1995 by The Hambledon Press, and it’s newly available as an inexpensive e-book from Endeavour Press. It isn’t a cookbook, but a discussion of food in Austen’s letters and fiction.

I’ve always loved that line from her letters about composition, and reading Jane Austen and Food helped me understand it better. I learned that “mutton” isn’t always just mutton, and that “rhubarb” isn’t what I think of as rhubarb. Mutton, says Lane, “seems to have become the generic word for meat – or for dinner itself.” She cites the example from Mansfield Park of Dr. Grant inviting Edmund Bertram “‘to eat his mutton with him the next day,’ without supposing, for a moment, that ‘the bill of fare’ as he calls it is actually mutton (in fact it’s turkey).” The rhubarb Austen refers to is “not the plant we think of, the stalks of which are eaten as fruit,” but “the medicinal rootstock of the species of rheum grown in China and Tibet,” imported in powdered form to be “used as a purgative by the overfed part of the population.” Lane points out that in Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland eventually realizes poisons are not as readily available as doses of rhubarb.

Jane Austen and Food begins with a discussion of “domestic economy” in Austen’s life and letters, outlining the historical context for subsequent analysis of meals, menus, manners, and morals in her novels. The book is full of entertaining facts, including the Austen family’s choice of turkey at Christmas (they reared their own turkeys at Steventon) while many other families ate beef; Jane Austen’s preference for the term “garden stuff,” instead of “vegetable,” a word she didn’t use in her writing until Sanditon in 1817; the rare appearance of similes in her work (“as White as a Whipt Syllabub” and “as cool as a cream-cheese” are both in Lesley Castle); and the importance of the hour at which a family had dinner.

Lane traces a progression from the “humble” Watsons, who dine at three, to the Dashwoods and the Woodhouses (four), to the Grants (half past four), to the Tilneys (five). Those who are fashionable or aspire to be considered fashionable dine late. At Netherfield, the hour is half past six, a full two hours after the dinner hour at Longbourn. Where characters eat is as important as when they eat and what they eat. Lane talks about why Mr. Knightley objects so strongly to eating outside – it’s thought to be “dangerous because of its tendency to break down those careful rules of behaviour which have been built up over generations to protect men and women from their baser selves.”

Who has control over food is also a key question in the novels, and Lane’s analysis is fascinating. We can learn a great deal, she says, about General Tilney and Dr. Grant from their obsessive focus on the quantity and quality of their food. While the former is “active and officious” and the latter is “idle,” Austen “shows how apparently very different styles of men can use food to manipulate and tyrannise over their immediate family.” Even characters with little or no control over the type of food or the time or place it is served find ways to exert control. Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Jane Fairfax all reject food at times of intense emotional distress. Lane writes that “the eating disorders of Marianne, Fanny and Jane may thus be said to mirror a degree of social disorder.” In contrast, Austen’s other heroines are indifferent to food. They “eat to keep themselves healthy, to be sociable, to conform. But not one of them ever anticipates or expresses pleasure in a meal, or admits to liking a particular food.” Whether a character is eating or not eating, talking about food or not talking about it, Austen’s choices are always telling.

The book concludes with not one but two interpretations of Emma, a novel “so replete with food that it requires a whole chapter to itself,” and a helpful index of food and drink in the novels, so you can look up references to cherries, chicken, and chocolate, for example, or parsnips, partridges, and pineapples. Food and housekeeping may be considered “mundane” by some, as Lane says in her introduction, but her excellent analysis demonstrates that both are central to the moral world of Austen’s novels. Writers must decide for themselves whether the care and feeding of a family distracts them from writing, or nourishes their creative lives. But food in fiction will continue to fascinate both readers and writers. Maggie Lane’s Jane Austen and Food entertains us with a wealth of information about historical context, and makes a compelling argument for the moral significance of food in art as well as in life.

Jane Austen and Food, by Maggie Lane
£1.99, Kindle Edition
Endeavour Press Ltd. (2013)
Digital eBook (218) pages
ASIN: B00GYJD9CC


Sarah Emsley is the author of Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues and the editor of  Edith Wharton’s novel The Custom of the Country. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is currently working on a novel. She spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Rothermere American Institute, University of Oxford, and later taught classes on Jane Austen in the Writing Program at Harvard University. She blogs about Austen and Wharton at www.sarahemsley.com, and to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mansfield Park in 2014, she’s hosting a conversation about the novel on her blog, with guest posts by Juliet McMaster, Laurel Ann Nattress, Syrie James, Lynn Shepherd, Margaret C. Sullivan, Deborah Yaffe, Devoney Looser, and many other wonderful writers. Follow Sarah on Twitter (@Sarah_Emsley), visit her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/sarahlbemsley), and subscribe to the blog to receive updates about this exciting celebration.

This review orginally appeared on Austenprose.com and is used here with permission.

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Christmas with Mr. Darcy, by Victoria Connelly – A Review

Christmas with Mr. Darcy A review by Jeffery Ward
I’m going to tell on myself.  I’m a sniveling, sentimental sucker for a good Christmas story.  It is only October and I’ve only devoured two of them so I’m way behind my normal seasonal curve.  Thank heavens for author Victoria Connelly, who sensing a good thing, has smartly thrown together ALL of the heroes and heroines from her Austen Addicts trilogy:  A Weekend with Mr. Darcy, Dreaming of Mr. Darcy, and Mr. Darcy Forever.

Thus, her follow-up novella, Christmas with Mr. Darcy, is like a recipe for a classic Christmas pudding:  combine growing romances, friends, family, a spectacularly decorated manor house, a sudden snow storm, mysterious criminal activity, full-throttle Jane Austen trivia, and then sit back and savor a large helping.  Catch up with Katherine and Warwick, Kay and Adam, Dan and Robyn, Mia and Gabe, Sarah and Lloyd, et al, as they are invited to hostess and distinguished actress Dame Pamela Harcourt’s inaugural Jane Austen Christmas conference.

Along the way, we meet Higgins, Dame Pamela’s endearing and watchful butler, Benedict, Dan’s ‘neer-do-well’ older brother, (who invites himself) Mrs. Soames, (“Oh dear, who invited her?”) sweet Doris Norris,  sisters Roberta and Rose, adorable Cassandra, (Dan and Robyn’s infant daughter) and a mustachioed gentleman who none of the invitees can seem to quite recognize.  The author even manages to insert references to her own brood of beloved hens!

Victoria Connelly paints the holiday-decorated splendor of Dame Pamela’s grand Purley Hall while she builds anticipation by bouncing from one guest to another as they excitedly prepare for the journey to the conference.

In spite of a blinding snow storm, all of the guests arrive safely at Purley Hall and Dame Pamela welcomes the crowd with her trademark warmth, charm, glittering jewels, and stunning gowns.  As the guests settle in, certain valuables begin to disappear without any trace.  At first, most who have suffered loss merely attribute it to forgetfulness or failing to pack correctly for the trip.

True to her dramatic personality, Dame Pamela announces the highlight of the entire conference:  her anonymous purchase at Sotheby’s of a rare 3-volume first edition of Pride and Prejudice for just under one hundred and eighty thousand pounds.   The assembled guest gasped as she holds the delicately unwrapped treasure aloft.   However, on Christmas morning, the unthinkable occurs.  “Think! Had she really put the first edition back in the safe as Higgins had expressly told her to do straight after or had she placed it on her desk or left it somewhere else?”

With that significant loss the fun really begins……Guest sisters Roberta and Rose think Roberta may inadvertently have the first edition but aren’t sure.  Roberta borrowed a three volume edition from Dame Pamela’s library and the books look ancient.  Needless to say the fumbled efforts of the two quaint sisters to secretly return the suspected books back to the library are beyond hilarious. The proceedings are reminiscent of the board game “Clue” where everyone becomes a ‘suspect.’ That’s as far as this reviewer intends to go into this mystery or we’ll be treading into spoiler territory.

While many Austen fan-fiction authors merely dip the reader’s toes into Jane’s special world, Victoria Connelly baptizes with full immersion.  I love her steadfastness because she may be limiting her readership in order to lavish on her Janeite fans their full measure.  Indeed, some of the trivia references even threw this Jane Austen addict for a loop!  Can the naïve’ reader, who may not fathom many of the references to Miss Austen’s works, still enjoy this story?  What’s there not to be delighted about in a romantic, festive, Christmas mystery?

Finally, the author teases us with hints of another sequel: there is a marriage proposal and wedding planned.  Somebody reveals she is pregnant. Is another seasonal conference in the works? Hush, mum’s the word on all of that.  Sophisticated readers may find the plot of Christmas with Mr. Darcy somewhat transparent and simplistic, but that’s not what this sentimental reader/reviewer seeks in a good Christmas story.  I’m looking for the warm-hearted joy, romance, friendship, and love that the season brings and the author delivers that in abundance.  If you’ve enjoyed any/all of Victoria Connelly’s Austen Addicts trilogy, it is never too early in the holiday season to catch up with your cherished friends.

Digital List Price: £1.79
Cuthland Press (2012)
e-book (110) pages
Kindle: ASIN: B009JTNIKC

Jeffrey Ward, AKA: The “Chik-Lit-Man-Fan” and incurable romantic. A late comer to literature but rapidly making up for lost time. Since he has no original ideas of his own, he especially loves writing about what other people are writing about.

  • Native San Franciscan; Vietnam Veteran;
  • Communications degree-University of Washington;
  • 44 years in the airline industry; Currently a Facilitator/Designer for the world’s largest regional airline;
  • Married 40 years, 2 adult children, 6 grandchildren.
  • Obsessions: reading, writing, cooking, cartooning, travel.

“It is appropriate that Jane Austen was the gateway through which this stone-cold empirical naysayer would finally enter into the promised land of fiction.  Here at Austenprose, I’m now expanding my horizons by enjoying the works of many talented contemporary authors who ply the rich legacy left to us by Miss Austen.  As I post, review, and opine throughout the blogosphere, I hope my love, enthusiasm, and gratitude for all things Austen shines forth.”
-From My Improbable Journey to Jane Austen