Charlotte Bronte and food

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the eldest of the three novelist sisters.  Having previously blogged about food in Jane Eyre (published 1847), I thought that today would be a good opportunity to revisit these posts and what we learn about food in Bronte’s best-known novel.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte at the Bronte Parsonage Museum

As I reread these posts I noticed the way Jane’s relationship with food in the novel mirrors her journey to self-realization as a woman able to lead her life as she chooses.

In the novel’s early chapters describing her childhood, Jane is the recipient of food, the quality of which reflects her relationship with the giver.  At her harsh boarding school, Lowood, presided over by the cruel Mr Brocklehurst the food is dreadful and in limited supply .  The breakfast porridge is frequently burnt,  in the winter months the children grow faint through lack of food and bullying – over food – prevails:

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.
                                                                                                                  (Chapter 7)

But hope comes in the figure of Miss Temple, the school superintendent.  As well as providing Jane with warmth and guidance – she is the nearest to a mother figure Jane will have – she also provides her with better food.  When the porridge is burnt, Miss Temple sees to it that the pupils receive bread and cheese for lunch as compensation.  And when Jane is upset after a public reprimand by Mr Brocklehurst, Miss Temple comforts her and her friend Helen Burns giving them tea and slices of seed cake cut ‘with a generous hand’: see this post.

When Jane leaves Lowood School following Miss Temple’s marriage, she takes up the position of governess to Mr Rochester’s ward at Thornfield Hall.  Whilst she has some independence in that she is working and earning her own living, she is still dependent on an employer to pay her salary.  And whilst a governess was socially superior to other household occupations such as cook and housekeeper, since it demanded education and a certain level of gentility, it was nonetheless a paid position rendering the occupant inferior to other women who did not need to earn a living.  Jane’s awkward, and difficult to categorise, position in society is then reflected in her relationship with food.  Whilst for the most part she eats food cooked for her by the kitchen staff at Thornfield Hall, she is called on to help with the cooking when Mr Rochester brings a party of “fine people” to stay.   Jane notes:

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. 
                                                                                                      (Chapter 17)

Whilst Jane’s higher social status means she is not used to cooking, and certainly does not know how to cook the more complicated dishes required,  her position as governess means she is expected to ‘muck in’ when the situation requires it: see this post.

After her departure from Thornfield Hall – in the wake of her discovery (on the day of her marriage) of Mr Rochester’s living wife  – Jane seeks refuge with the Rivers family who turn out to be her relations.  When she comes into an unexpected fortune, following the death of an uncle in Madeira, the newly independent Jane thanks her new-found family by spending some of her fortune on them and on the Christmas arrangements, including the making of the Christmas cake, promising that she and Hannah (the housekeeper) will devote two days to “such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites...” (Chapter 34) .  Free at last to live her life as she wishes, Jane can now choose to cook what she wants for the people she loves: see this post.

Eating Out

I love eating out almost as much as I love cooking.  And living in London as I do, I’m lucky enough to have an amazing array of restaurants within easy reach offering me all types of food.  
And it’s not just dining in fine establishments – which to be honest I hardly ever do – which I enjoy.  I love cafes, pub food, pizza chains and so on.  It’s partly the social element – since my eating out in London is always with friends or family – but also the enjoyment of having someone cook (and perhaps more importantly wash up and tidy away!) for me.

Thinking back over the posts I have written I realise there have been very references to eating out.  Shakespeare’s comic creation Falstaff, whom I wrote about here, eats and drinks regularly at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap and, although I did not blog about it, in Pride and Prejudice Jane and Elizabeth Bennet break a journey from London to Hertfordshire at an inn and dine at ‘a table set out with such cold meat as an inn larder usually affords’.

But references to characters eating out increase in Charles Dickens’ novels.  His most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield (1849-50), features a number of cases of the protagonist eating out, perhaps reflecting Dickens’ own experiences.  As I wrote in an earlier post, on his way to a school in London the young David stops at an inn in Yarmouth where his meal of ‘chops and vegetables’ followed by ‘batter pudding’ is mainly eaten by the charming but unscrupulous waiter.  But David’s ability to consume his own food improves as he grows older.  Following the death of his mother David is taken out of school by his cruel stepfather, Mr Murdstone, and sent to work at his wine warehouse in the city of London.  Lodging with the Micawber family, who are frequently in debt, David often eats out:

When I dined regularly and handsomely, I had a saveloy and a penny loaf, or a fourpenny plate of red beef from a cook’s shop, or a plate of bread and cheese and a glass of beer, from a miserable old public-house opposite our place of business, called the Lion or the Lion and something else that I have forgotten.  Once, I remember carrying my own bread (which I had brought from home in the morning) under my arm, wrapped in a piece of paper… and going to a famous alamode beef-house near Drury Lane, and ordering a ‘small plate’ of that delicacy to eat with it. …

‘My magnificent order at the public-house’ by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne) an etching from the original edition of David Copperfield (1849).  Image scan and text by Philip V. Allingham (

Fine dining it most certainly is not.  What we have instead is good basic cheap food for workers that can be consumed on site, reflecting the situation of many 19th century Londoners who people Dickens’ novels.  Characters like Mr Wemmick in Great Expectations ‘commute’ to work in the City from Walworth (near Elephant and Castle in South London), making it impossible to pop home at lunchtime.  Others like Pip and Herbert Pocket in the same novel are unmarried and live in accommodation which is not geared up for cooking, making eating out a necessity rather than a luxury.
And this is the case with David Copperfield.  His dining is not done in restaurants but in a ‘public-house’ and ‘a cook’s shop’.  The first reference to a cook shop is found in a Latin description of London by William FitzStephen, a trusted clerk of Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury, who wrote in the late 12th century:

Besides there is in London on the river bank, among the wines in ships and cellars sold by the vintners, a public cook shop; there eatables are to be found every day, according to the season, dishes of meat, roast, fried and boiled, great and small fish, coarser meats for the poor, more delicate for the rich, of game, fowls and small birds. … However great the multitude of soldiers or travellers entering the city, or preparing to go out of it, at any hour of the day or night, – that these may fast not too long and those may not go out supperless, – they turn hither, if they please, where every man can refresh himself in his own way; (from the English translation in John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London)

The cook shop seems to be providing a 24 hour convenience food service, but with a bit more finesse than today’s McDonald’s: FitzStephen noted that those who so desired could dine ‘luxuriously’.  By the 18th century there were a number of cook shops in London, often occupying the ground floors of standard terraced houses and with many, as I will write about it in my next post, providing a take-away service that we are all too familiar with nowadays.

But back to David Copperfield, and his handsome dining of a ‘saveloy and a penny loaf’.  Realising that there was potentially little cooking involved here – saveloys can be bought ready cooked from the deli counters of big supermarkets – I discovered that a traditional accompaniment to saveloys was (and still is in the North of England) pease pudding.  In fact, staying with the Dickensian theme, in Lionel Bart’s Oliver, the musical based on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the orphan boys in the workhouse in the song ‘Food Glorious Food’ express their desire for ‘pease pudding and saveloy’: see
So, here is my recipe:

SAVELOYS AND PEASE-PUDDING (serves 2 – or 1 very hungry orphan)

200g yellow split peas (check on the packet if they need pre-soaking overnight)
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 potato, peeled and chopped finely
1 clove garlic, chopped finely
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
1 knob butter
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley

To serve:  4 saveloys (heated through in the oven) and bread and butter

Rinse the split peas thoroughly in fresh cold water.  Place them in a medium-sized saucepan and add enough cold water to cover by about 1 cm.  Bring to the boil and boil briskly for 10 minutes, spooning off any scum that rises to the surface.  Turn down the heat and add the finely chopped potato, onion and garlic, bay leaf and thyme.  Season generously, cover with a lid and cook gently for 45 minutes.  Keep a close eye on it and if it starts to get dry add more water.  When the peas and potato are very tender, remove the bay leaf and thyme, and mash with the butter.  Add more seasoning if need be and stir through some chopped parsley before serving with the saveloys and bread and butter.