As we move into the 19th century, novels begin to take more of an interest in childhood. Whilst Jane Austen touches on the childhood of some of her protagonists (Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland and Fanny Price), novelists writing slightly later develop the childhood of their protagonists as a key element in their plots. Such writers include Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre (1847), and Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist (1837), David Copperfield (1850) and Great Expectations (1860).
Food is a key element in childhood. When we look back on our childhoods we often remember what we ate and we associate events and places with food. We remember the food we loved as a child, and the food we hated but were forced to eat. So it is no surprise that food is a recurring feature in many of these novels about childhood.
The absence of food – and its consequence, hunger – is also a frequent occurrence. Perhaps that is no surprise with Bronte and Dickens whose child protagonists experience abuse and poverty: from Oliver Twist’s plea for more food in the workhouse, to David Copperfield having to sell his clothing in order to buy food, the scarcity of food is only one of many ways in which the children suffer. Critics have also argued that the preoccupation with food and hunger in Victorian novels reflects both contemporary changes in food production and distribution brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and moments of terrible food scarcity, such as the potato famine of the 1840s. A national obsession with food in the first half of the nineteenth century makes its way into the literature of the period.
Jane Eyre includes some of the most heartfelt writing about the horrors of hunger. The young orphaned Jane is sent to Lowood, a boarding school, because her guardian – Aunt Reed – considers her to not have “quite the character and disposition [she] could wish”. Presided over by the cruel Mr Brocklehurst, Lowood is a place of deprivation and torment. On her arrival at the school at night, Jane is too overwhelmed to eat so the next morning looks forward eagerly to breakfast. However, her hopes are cruelly dashed. Entering the refectory she smells odours “far from inviting”, signalling that “The porridge is burnt again”. Feeling “ravenous and … very faint”, Jane devours two spoonfuls not heeding the taste but, “the first edge of hunger blunted, [she] perceived [she] had got in hand a nauseous mess – burnt porridge is almost as bad as rotten potatoes; famine itself soon sickens over it”. Subsequent meals are little better. And on the rare occasions when the quality of the food is acceptable, the quantity is not and the children are left wanting more.
The hunger is felt most keenly during the cold winter months: “Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid.” The children’s desperation leads to episodes of abuse, when Jane describes how older girls coerce younger ones into giving up or sharing their portions of food: “Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at teatime, and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger“.
Hope comes in the figure of Miss Temple, the superintendent of Lowood. After the burnt porridge episode she orders a second breakfast of bread and cheese for all the girls. On another occasion, after Jane has been publicly humiliated by Mr Brocklehurst, she and her friend Helen Burns are taken to Miss Temple’s room where they are provided with cups of tea and slices of seed cake which Jane observes were cut “with a generous hand.” The episode is an important one for Jane, both because she is well-fed – she describes how they “feasted that evening as on nectar and ambrosia” – but also because it marks the beginning of an important relationship for Jane. When Miss Temple marries – a clergyman whom Jane describes as “almost worthy of such a wife” – Jane admits she has lost her “mother, governess, and latterly companion.” The loss to Jane is immense and triggers her decision to leave Lowood and embark on her own career as a governess.
And so to food. Thinking that burnt porridge would not be the ideal recipe to offer, I turned my attention to seed cake instead. Seed cakes – featuring caraway seeds – were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (published 1747) Hannah Glasse includes three recipes for seed cakes: a cheap seed cake; a fine seed or saffron cake; a rich seed cake, also called the nun’s cake. Glasse herself seems to be rather ambivalent about seeds, writing in her recipe for the fine seed or saffron cake, “You may leave out the seed, if you chuse it, and I think it rather better without it; but that you must do as you like.”
I wasn’t too sure about seed cake myself, but I was pleasantly surprised. Provided you do not overdo the caraway seeds, they impart a slightly musky scent to the cake and add a bit of texture. My ‘base recipe’ was “Mrs Sleightholme’s Seed Cake” in Jane Grigson’s The Enjoyment of Food; Dorothy Sleightholme used to present a cookery programme, Farmhouse Kitchen, on Yorkshire Television, so I felt the Northern setting was appropriate for Charlotte Bronte. However, I have used Hannah Glasse’s idea of adding saffron and borrowed Delia Smith’s idea of a flaked almond and demerara sugar topping.
MISS TEMPLE’S SEED CAKE
175g butter (softened)
175g caster sugar
2 teaspoons caraway seeds (this gives quite a subtle taste – add more if you wish)
1 pinch saffron (optional)
50g ground almonds
200g self-raising flour
A little milk
For the topping:
2 tablespoons demerara sugar
1 tablespoon flaked almonds
Grease and line a 1kg (2lb) loaf tin. Preheat the oven to 180C / Gas Mark 4.
Cream the butter and sugar until soft and pale. Stir in the caraway seeds and saffron, if using.
Separate the eggs. Whisk the egg whites until they are soft peaks. Beat the egg yolks and fold carefully into the whites, and add to the butter and sugar.
Finally stir in the ground almonds and flour, adding a little milk until the mixture falls off the spoon when you shake it.
Spoon the cake mixture into the tin and smooth down the top with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle the demerara sugar and flaked almonds on top.
Bake for 1 hour 5 minutes until the cake springs back when pressed lightly with a finger, and a skewer or cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 20 minutes before removing it to finish cooling on a wire rack.