"Finding food for a rambling fancy:" Gastronomic Gentility and Symbolism in Jane Austen's Texts
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"Finding food for a rambling fancy:" Gastronomic Gentility and Symbolism in Jane Austen's Texts

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  • Good afternoon, my name is Katherine Hysmith and I’m a graduate student in the gastronomy program at Boston University. Today I’d like to share with you a very short expert of my ongoing research project involving Jane Austen and her use of gastronomic markers in her texts. Knowing that Austen drew from her everyday experiences and social observations to create the plots and characters of her novels, we can assume that many if not all of the little details, the minutiae of the text, represent and mimic the minutiae of Austen’s real life. In my research, I used a combination of primary sources, such as her personal correspondence, early 19th century library catalogs, numerous publications on English agricultural practices, import laws and taxes, and individual consumable inflation rates, as well as popular cookbooks of the era. This research points out time and again that Austen’s texts are as historical as they are fictional. An Austen scholar by the name of Edward Copeland makes a similar argument for Austen’s attention to detail using individual character’s financial situations. He explains Austen’s predilection for incorporating historically accurate details with a financial guide of the times and evaluates each character’s economic situation through their purchases, properties and forms of transportation.  Modeling his work on economics, my research similarly uses food to create an index of gentility.
  • But, in order to understand Austen’s texts, we must first do a quick review of the author’s own life and her personal foodscape.
  • Austen grew up at the Steventon Rectory in Hampshire where her clergy father doubled as a “gentleman farmer. Austen’s early letters describe distinct events on the farm such as the sale of sheep, the arrival of a new maid who knew nothing of the dairy process and had to be “taught all,” and how the farm was self-sufficient and “kept the Rectory supplied with pork, mutton, wheat, peas, barley and hops” and even bees to make honey.
  • Later in life the Austens moved to the bustling sea-side resort city of Bath, where their kitchen gardens and household dairying operations were replaced with local markets and specialty food shops
  • Bath was known for many things: parties, balls, feasts, fashion, as well as many other diversions. Two of Austen’s novels take place in Bath and any food or drink mentioned in connection with the resort are limited to the categories of sweets, ices, mineral waters from the ancient healing springs located in town, and all manner of alcoholic beverages.
  • After the death of her Father, Austen moved to the small village of Chawton along with her mother and sister. The first thing she inquired of her new home was the state of the “kitchen garden.”
  • Thanks to her letters we know the contents of that garden and what she did with its produce: a good crop of small Fruit,” ripe gooseberries, rhubarb, “Orleans plumbs,” peas, apricots, mulberries, and “strawberry roots.”
  • A short walk up the dirt road led to Godmersham Park, her brother Edward Austen Knight’s estate, which boasted flocks of sheep, organized orchards, and its own sizable garden.  
  • When we put all these little details together they create a rather accurate early 19th century foodscape, which Austen then uses to subtly differentiate the ranks of “gentry from non-gentry.” Throughout her novels, she uses real and timely examples of food, drink, and actions related to those objects as a way to show social status and the complexities of gentility in the Regency era.  And, today, I’ll give you just a taste of how she does that.  
  • So, one specific food example is the pineapple referenced in her first novel Northanger Abbey. The book’s antagonist is a very wealthy man named General Tilney, and he had gardens that were “unrivalled in the kingdom” in which he had a pinery, which is essentially a special green house for growing pineapples in non-native environments. This garden functions unlike other agricultural spaces mentioned throughout Austen’s fiction since it grows the one thing that does not belong in England: Thepineapple! A tropical fruit native to the South Americas, was brought to England over 120 years before the setting of the novel. Originally, the pineapple was only available to the monarchy, but later became a novelty fruit that many wealthy estates grew in green houses. By Austen’s time though, pineries were out of fashion, and considered the opposite of an agricultural success.  Since General Tilney grows pineapples, a non-native fruit, his affiliation with the agricultural world is based on artificiality. Nonetheless, the pineapple still symbolizes old money.
  • Another ingredient Austen uses to demonstrate social rank is milk. So the 18th century was known as “the age of cream” since cooks used it in many dishes, both savory and sweet, and it was a common staple for wealthy estate kitchens. However, in her novel Mansfield Park, Austen uses the opposite of cream, or rather what is left after the cream is skimmed off fresh milk, to articulate the poverty of the Price family. This family’s milk is described as “a mixture of motes floating in thin blue,” which alludes to a dairy inadequacy common to the era (MP, 3.15).  When fresh milk settles, a thin layer of cream forms on the top leaving the rest of the thinner milk underneath to turn a “blueish-white colour.” In large towns like Portsmouth, where the Prices live, “cows were kept in sheds and milk was supplied to the citizens by travelling dairy workers” which created an unsavory disconnect between the consumer and the dairy cow. Austen’s use of milk in its various forms shows that the same basic ingredient served both the gentry and non-gentry in creating their separate social statuses.
  • Like many authors of the era, Austen’s choice to give alcohol to certain characters holds many moral, social, and historical implications. In one instance,Austen uses mediocre wine to describe a male character’s mediocre life and a fine Constantia wine to indicate a limitless wealth and social network.
  • A pint of dark, dirty porter signifies a character’s inability to mature and shove off his rakish ways and a bowl of wedding punch, a way to stretch liquor and pantry resources, simultaneously suggested elegance and frugality.
  • One specific example she uses is rum, which had become a favorite drink of the British navy. Despite its popularity, it still remained the more “plebeian drink.” Sailors were often issued with rum, while their officers drank more expensive French brandy. Again in MansfieldPark, Austen is able to show the extent of the Price family poverty, since Mr. Price, a retired Naval officer, drank nothing save “rum and water.” Mr. Price’s inability to work and poor budgeting undoubtedly led to his alcoholic preferences, which ultimately illustrate his falling in rank both in the naval hierarchy and in landed society.  
  • So, In addition to mentions of specific foods and drink, Austen uses food-related actions to indicate a character’s gentility, social situation, and financial abilities.  It has been argued that “above all, people craved a title.” By eating foods outside their own consumable sphere, lower members of society might achieve a higher rank, if only for the duration of digestion. Food and food related actions present opportunities for what Gwen Hyman calls “sociocultural construction and revelation…in which class and gender behaviors are marked and remarked upon…and constructive and destructive ideas and actions are negotiated through manners and etiquette as well as through the food that is taken in or refused” (Gwen Hyman). This socio-cultural situation is made entirely apparent in Austen’s episodes of Charitable Giving and Regency Food Snobbery.
  • Numerous examples of charitable giving come from Austen’s food-filled novel Emma in which the affluent are morally and socially obligated to call upon and bestow edible gifts to those less fortunate. In this particular novel these gifts include sides of pork, bushels of apples, and baskets of produce, each pointing to a specific, and established, level of landed gentry. 
  • This expectation of charitable giving appears in her other novel, Sense and Sensibility, in which a wealthy land owner donates edible gifts to his newly bereaved, and homeless female cousins. Shortly after his cousins arrive, they receive “a large basket full of garden stuff and fruit…followed before the end of the day by a present of game” (S&S, 1.6).  We know this to a handsome gift since hunting during this time required an expensive permit and more importantly land large enough to support some sort of poachable wildlife. And, the produce probably came from the fruitful “new plantations” cultivated on the estate or nearby. The kind cousin’s ability to give his new tenants such gifts demonstrate his wealth, his agricultural abundance, and an aptitude towards husbandry, details which ultimately suggest a lofty social status.
  • On the other hand, eating certain foods, especially those outside one’s consumable sphere, demonstrates a desperate need for social mobility. One such episode occurs in Austen’s food-centric novel Emma, where the local clergy’s wife, Mrs. Elton, takes food very seriously, going so far as to claim expertise in various situations in which food or agriculture are present. While the main cast goes berry picking on a local estate, Mrs. Elton declares strawberries to be “the best fruit in England,” specifically indicating the “hautboy” or “hotboy” to be the infinitely superior strawberry.
  • This particular cultivar is a wild strawberry native to Central Europe with a “brownish, pale red, [or] sometimes greenish” fruit and a “strong musky” flavor.  Botanical reports from the era describe it as “not very attractive in appearance” and being “altogether inferior to the varieties of other species” with, most importantly, a “disagreeable flavor.”   In addition to her misinformed recitation, Mrs. Elton further demonstrates a desire to distance herself from the lower farming class by mocking their hard work and romanticizing the act of berry picking with special “rural attire” including a large bonnet and one of her “little baskets…with pink ribbon” (E, 3.6). Mrs. Elton’s desperate need to be perceived as both an informed eater and fashionable foodie shows that food does not always a gentlewoman make.
  • One of the most informative food-related actions Austen uses in her texts is the act of husbandry. In her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, Austen demonstrates the hero Mr. Darcy’s extreme wealth and situation through his sprawling estate, Pemberley.
  • The estate is described as no “place for which nature had done more” (P&P, 3.1). Unlike his fellow estate-owning gentlemen, Mr. Darcy shows an unorthodox preference for the natural state.  The descriptions of Pemberley never contain images of plantations or distantly tenanted farms, and instead, Austen lingers over the pleasantly uncultivated condition of the land.
  • However, these idyllic images were completely falsified. Landscaping tastes shifted over the eighteenth-century, moving away from the earlier French aesthetic of straight lines and compartmentalized gardens to the natural seeming garden, which is demonstrated here with the landscaping trick known as the “ha-ha” which provided an “uninterrupted view” of the estate.
  • In order for Pemberely to appear as natural as possible, Mr. Darcy must be aggressive about his landscaping. The mark of a true landed gentlemen was the complete control over the aesthetic of one’s estate, while simultaneously appearing as if not in control.
  • Contemporary though it may seem, the practice and support of sustainability existed and thrived during Austen’s time. We know this to be true through the Austen’s agricultural practices as well as through Mr. Darcy’s produce selections which are described as a “variety of all the finest fruits in season” (P&P, 3.3). Comparing these fruits, which include grapes, nectarines and peaches, to a seasonable foods chart supplied in a common cookbook of the era, one which Austen would have had access to, we find that the timeline within the novel accurately aligns with the seasonality of the produce.
  • So in conclusion, I argue that close readings of her text prove that Austen’s personal foodscape heavily influenced her literary one. After a closer gastronomic analysis, accomplished by comparing her novels to primary sources of various kinds, it is clear that the seemingly trivial mention of a pineapple or a bottle of rum, suggests so much more.
  • Thank you!

"Finding food for a rambling fancy:" Gastronomic Gentility and Symbolism in Jane Austen's Texts "Finding food for a rambling fancy:" Gastronomic Gentility and Symbolism in Jane Austen's Texts Presentation Transcript

  • “Finding Food for a rambling Fancy:” Katherine Hysmith MLA Candidate, Gastronomy Program Boston University Gastronomic Gentility and Symbolism in Jane Austen’s Texts Cassandra Austen’s portrait of Jane, 1804
  • Mapping Jane Austen’s Foodscape David Bennett, Jane Austen Map, 2012
  • Steventon (1775 – 1800) Figure from Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters, A Family Record, William Austen-Leigh
  • Bath (1800 – 1809) Map of 18th c. Bath, www.janeaustensworld.wordpress.com
  • The “Comforts of Bath” by Thomas Rowlandson (1798)
  • Chawton (1809 – 1817) Chawton Cottage, Katherine Hysmith, 2008
  • Kitchen Garden Chawton Cottage, Katherine Hysmith, 2008
  • Godmersham Park (modern day Chawton House Library) Godmersham Park, Katherine Hysmith, 2010
  • Jane Austen’s Literary Foodscape Separating “gentry” from “non-gentry”: • Food • Drink (particularly alcoholic beverages) • Food-related actions
  • Pineapples & the pinery Gold Pineapple, Etsy.com; Pinery plans, Loudon’s An Encyclopedia of Gardening; pineapple botany, http://cms.cnr.edu.bt
  • Blue Milk “a mixture of motes floating in thin blue” 18th c. Milkmaid, www.janeaustensworld.wordpress.com
  • Alcoholic Allusions A Midnight Modern Conversation by William Hogarth, 18th century
  • London Pub, Allen West, 1796; Elder Wine Stand in Holborne in Winter, by George
  • Rum, the “plebian drink” Pusser’s Navy Rum, www.examiner.com; sailors drinking, www.telegraph.co.uk; British Grog, The British Library, n.d.
  • Food-Related Actions Pastry making, www.photos1.blogger.com
  • Charitable GivingStill from film version of Emma, 2010
  • “present of game”
  • Mrs. Elton, strawberry snob Still from film version of Emma, 2010
  • “Hautboy” Cultivar Strawberry botany, http://delta-intkey.com/angio/
  • Regency Husbandry Workhouse, www.austenonly.wordpress.com
  • Pemberley “no place for which nature had done more” Pemberley, www.austenauthors.net
  • The “ha-ha” an uninterrupted view Ha-ha drawing, www.pemberley.com
  • How to be a gentleman farmer: • falsified aesthetic • natural seeming • aggressive landscaping • appear as if not in control Thomas Coke Inspecting Sheep, Thomas Weaver, n.d.
  • Mr. Darcy’s fruit selection “variety of all the finest fruits in season” • grapes • nectarines • peaches The Regency dessert course, www.janeausten.co.uk
  • closer literary and gastronomic analysis o by Katherine Hysmith, 2012
  • Thank you. Katherine Hysmith kchysmith@gmail.com www.youngaustinian.com @youngaustinian MLA Candidate, Gastronomy Program Boston University