The Cooking Protagonist

Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel Jane Eyre (published 1847), narrates in the first person the journey of the protagonist Jane Eyre to adulthood.  Following a miserable childhood, the orphaned Jane finds self-worth through her work as a governess, becomes independently wealthy following the death of a relative and finally – after a few obstacles along the way – marries the man she loves, her former employer, Mr Rochester.

Early on in her employment at Thornfield Hall, where she is governess to Mr Rochester’s ward, Adele, the daughter of his former mistress, Jane is called on to abandon her teaching duties and help with the cooking.  Mr Rochester has been absent from Thornfield for a while, when news comes that he will be returning in three days with a party of “fine people”.  All hands are put to work getting the house ready for this distinguished gathering, and Jane is no exception.  As she notes in chapter 17: “Mrs Fairfax (the housekeeper) had pressed me into her service, and I was all day in the storeroom, helping (or hindering) her and the cook; learning to make custards and cheese-cakes and French pastry, to truss game and garnish dessert-dishes.”

Mrs Fairfax and Jane Eyre in the 2011 film version of Bronte’s novel

Whilst Jane does not go into any detail about the actual processes of cooking and preparation, the fact that she, as the protagonist, cooks is unusual for literature of this period.  At a time when fictional heroes and heroines tended to occupy a fairly privileged place in society, cooking would have been beneath their dignity with all meals prepared by domestic staff.  None of Jane Austen’s heroines are ever described as cooking, and in fact Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is horrified at the suggestion that any of her five daughters might sully their hands in food preparation – see http://pagetoplate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/game-for-gentry.html
However, Jane Eyre is a different kind of protagonist.  Like Samuel Richardson who in Pamela elevates a maidservant by making her the centre of his novel – see http://pagetoplate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/food-and-social-status.html  – Charlotte Bronte, writing 100 years later imbues the role of governess with a new dignity.  She gives her a voice (making her the narrator of the novel) and makes her the romantic centre of the narrative: Mr Rochester breaks social conventions by choosing Jane to be his wife, rather than the genteel and snobbish Blanche Ingram.

But despite her inferior social status, Jane is also given great moral strength and integrity by Bronte.  When she discovers on her wedding day that Rochester has a living wife (hidden away in the attic because she is mad), she refuses his offer of running away with him to the South of France and becoming his mistress.  Despite her love for Rochester, she leaves Thornfield and eventually finds refuge with a brother and two sisters (the Rivers) who help her find a teaching post.  Unexpectedly inheriting a large bequest from an uncle, Jane is able to share her good fortune with the Rivers family (who turn out to be related to her).  However, when St John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane, she realizes she still loves Rochester.  Mysteriously hearing him calling to her, she sets out to return to Thornfield.  Arriving, she finds Thornfield burnt down (by the first Mrs Rochester who has also fallen to her death) and Rochester blinded (through injuries incurred in trying to save his wife).  Now Jane can accept Rochester’s marriage proposal but, in a revolutionary literary move, Bronte makes Jane the active subject of the marriage: she opens the final chapter of the novel with the statement, “Reader, I married him”.  It is a fitting end for a heroine who throughout the novel seeks to take control of her life, despite the constraints of the Victorian society in which she lives.

When helping Mrs Reed with the preparations for the arrival of the fine guests, which include Blanche Ingram, Jane notes that she learnt to make “cheese-cakes”.  As luck would have it, I found a recipe for a Yorkshire cheese cake – Jane Eyre is set in Yorkshire, the home of the Brontes – in a collection of historic Yorkshire recipes passed onto me by a family friend.  Jane Grigson also has a version in English Food.  They are made with curd cheese (which can be bought in big supermarkets) and the original version originates from the 17th century. This is my take on it: luckily I had my friend Ben around for lunch to act as my official taster and he gave it a thumbs-up (and a cheesy grin!)

JANE EYRE’S CHEESE-CAKE: 
Ingredients (makes 8 individual cheese-cakes or 1 large one)
For the pastry:
250g plain flour)
50g icing sugar
125g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1 large egg beaten
Milk

For the filling: 
400g curd cheese
200g caster sugar
100g currants
2 beaten eggs
Large pinch of nutmeg

Method:
Make the shortcrust pastry by rubbing the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs.  Stir in the sugar and then add the egg (and a small amount of milk if necessary) until the dough begins to come together into a ball.  Wrap the dough in cling-film and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

When the dough is ready, take it out of the fridge, roll out and line the tins or flan dish. Pre-heat the oven to 190C (Fan oven 170C, Gas mark 5).

Mix together all the filling ingredients except the currants and pass through a sieve to make the mixture smooth. Stir in the currants and then pour the mixture into the uncooked pastry cases.  Bake for 25-30 minutes until the mixture is set and beginning to brown.