From the desk of 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. Continue reading
From the desk of Sarah Emsley
“The closer you look, the more you see,” writes John Mullan in What Matters in Jane Austen? Elizabeth Bennet learns this lesson in Pride and Prejudice when she reads and rereads Mr. Darcy’s letter “with the closest attention” to understand why he separated Bingley from Jane and why he doesn’t trust Wickham. Mullan’s compelling analysis of detail in Jane Austen’s novels persuades us that “Little things matter.” In a series of chapters on what he calls “puzzles,” he asks questions about details and discusses how and why they matter. In the process, he demonstrates that the popular pastime of answering quizzes about the novels is not necessarily trivial, but can lead us to a deeper understanding of Jane Austen’s careful craftsmanship and her innovative contributions to the history of fiction.
Mullan pays attention to everything from the ages, names, looks, reading habits, sex lives, incomes, and deaths of Austen’s characters, to the narrative techniques she uses when she shows us their thoughts, when she breaks the pattern of narration to address her reader directly, and when she departs from the consciousness of her heroine to give the point of view of another character. Details about income, for example, show how in Mansfield Park “The reader truly attuned to the value of money should know that the Price family could live a more comfortable life than they do.” Mullan makes the excellent point that “Willoughby reads his way into the Dashwoods’ hearts”—and that while the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility shows Willoughby and Marianne reading Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, in the novel they read Hamlet, a choice of play that “testifies to the literary seriousness of the Dashwoods, and to the willingness of Marianne’s suitor to take on the most demanding parts.” When he asks “What Makes Characters Blush?” he shows how Austen uses blushes to signal guilt, which sets her apart from other contemporary novelists whose heroines blush virtuously, and he points out that the spontaneous “Austen blush” is nearly impossible to perform on screen or stage. Continue reading