Mr Glegg, being of a reflective turn, …had much wondering meditation on the peculiar constitution of the female mind as unfolded to him in his domestic life: and yet he thought Mrs Glegg’s household ways a model for her sex: it struck him as a pitiable irregularity in other women if they did not roll up their table-napkins with the same tightness and emphasis as Mrs Glegg did, if their pastry had a less leathery consistence, and their damson cheese a less venerable hardness than hers: nay, even the peculiar combination of grocery and drug-like odours in Mrs Glegg’s private cupboard impressed him as the only right thing in the way of cupboard smells.
(George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss)
Mrs Glegg is the aunt, on the maternal side, of Maggie Tulliver, the high-spirited, rebellious heroine of George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss. Mrs Glegg’s argument with her brother-in-law, Maggie’s father, about his son Tom’s education is a catalyst for a dispute over £500 that Mrs Glegg has lent the Tullivers, the first in a series of events that leads to Mr Tulliver’s financial downfall.
‘George Eliot at 30’ by Francois D’Albert Durade (1849)
Interested in the behaviour of others, simply so she can compare it unfavourably to her own, Mrs Glegg has ‘both a front and a back parlour in her excellent house … so that she had two points of view from which she could observe the weaknesses of her fellow-beings and reinforce her thankfulness for her own strength of mind.’ Even her husband is not free of her scrutiny: retired from his business as a wool-stapler he now takes delight in his garden, an activity Mrs Glegg regards as ‘folly’ for, as the narrator notes, one of a wife’s responsibilities is to be ‘a constituted check on her husband’s pleasures’.
For his part, Mr Glegg is described as fascinated by two things: the variety of insect and grub life he comes across as he gardens and ‘the contrariness of the female mind, as typically exhibited in Mrs Glegg’.
But Mr Glegg is, above all, of an affectionate and loyal disposition so that, whatever their marital difficulties, he is able to ‘persuade himself that no other woman would have suited him so well.’ And nowhere is his loyalty demonstrated more clearly than in his belief that in her household practices Mrs Glegg is an arch exponent, even when her cooking is clearly far from edible: ‘it struck [Mr Glegg] as a pitiable irregularity in other women … if their pastry had a less leathery consistence, and their damson cheese a less venerable hardness’.
Damson cheese was a completely new foodstuff to me – I hadn’t even eaten it, let alone made it, but with autumn approaching, the damson tree in the garden bowing down with the weight of these beautiful deep purple fruit and my landlady begging me to seek out their use in literature and cook with them, I was happy to oblige. And I was delighted to discover that, whilst a not inconsiderable effort is required in the making of damson cheese, it is an effort that reaps dividends Instead of Mrs Glegg’s ‘venerable hardness’, my damson cheese was a beautifully quivering deep-red jewelled jelly that, cut into thick slices, makes a delightful accompaniment to bread and cheese.
Recipe to follow.