A Jane Austen Summer Party

The idea was to host a summer picnic party in my North London garden – a 21st century version of the Box Hill party in Jane Austen’s Emma, but hopefully minus the ‘downright dullness’ that Emma feels and recklessly seeks to overcome by participating in Frank Churchill’s cruel games which lead to the humiliation of the annoying, but harmless, Miss Bates and Emma being soundly reprimanded by Mr Knightley.  The food –  like all the food in my blog – would be inspired by food and meals referenced in Austen novels, though with a 21st century twist on them and an adaptation for vegetarians, whose needs are not recognized in early 19th century novels!

The picnic at Box Hill (from the 1996 film version directed by Douglas McGrath). 

However, whilst my guests behaved impeccably, the weather was not so obliging.  Instead of the “very fine day” that Emma and her fellow characters enjoy, we had non-stop rain like that which Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice rides through on her way to Netherfield to dine with Mr Bingley’s sisters.  Whilst Jane’s soaking leads to illness and an enforced stay at Mr Bingley’s house – all part of Mrs Bennet’s plan to encourage their relationship – my guests dried off quickly and no-one had succumbed to a fever by the end of the evening.

So, whilst we could not enjoy a summer picnic, and were instead squeezed into my front room with barely sufficient floor-space to dance a quadrille, we ate and drank to our heart’s content:


Cheese on toast:  “Fanny was … thankful to accept the first invitation of going to bed … leaving all below in confusion and noise again, the boys begging for toasted cheese.” (Mansfield Park)

Mock-pigeon pie (vegetarian): “Mrs Elton was growing impatient to name the day and settle with Mr Weston as to pigeon-pies” (Emma)

Salmon: “Mrs Jennings … was … only disturbed that she could not .. extort a confession of [Elinor and Marianne] preferring salmon to cod” (Sense and Sensibility)

Cold chicken and ham: “in summer [Sir John Middleton] was for ever forming parties to eat cold ham and chicken out of doors…” (Sense and Sensibility)

Rout cakes: “[Mrs Elton] was a little shocked …at the poor attempt at rout-cakes” (Emma)

Gooseberry tart: “vain was even the sight of a gooseberry tart towards giving [Fanny] comfort: she could scarcely swallow two mouthfuls before tears interrupted her.” (Mansfield Park)

Strawberries (both as a dessert and in strawberry champagne): “The best fruit in England – everybody’s favourite – always wholesome” (Emma).

The Denial of Food

When food is referred to in literature, it is usually – not surprisingly – because characters are eating it.  And when characters don’t eat, it is usually because they have been deprived of food or the food is inedible, as is the case with Jane Eyre at boarding school – see http://pagetoplate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/the-hungry-child.html

However, there are also literary characters who refuse to eat the food that is set before them, deliberately starving themselves and making themselves ill.  In Jane Austen’s Emma, Jane Fairfax, orphaned niece of the impoverished Miss Bates, has a poor appetite which Miss Bates comments on at any opportunity:  ‘they had to listen to the description of exactly how little bread and butter [Jane] ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner’ (ch. 20).

Jane Fairfax at the picnic at Box Hill (from the 2009 BBC dramatization)

In the course of the novel Jane’s appetite diminishes further, and as she prepares to leave and take up the post of a governess she becomes quite seriously ill: in addition to having ‘severe headachs [sic], and a nervous fever’, her appetite is ‘quite gone’.  When Emma sends her ‘arrow-root’, an expensive food starch that was used to make a jelly for invalids, Jane rebuffs her act of generosity, sending back the arrow root with a ‘thousand thanks’ but saying ‘it was a thing she could not take – and, moreover, …she was not at all in want of any thing’ (ch. 45).  Shortly after this it is revealed that Jane has been secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, and it seems likely that the pressures of keeping this secret, coupled with Frank’s often cruel and thoughtless treatment of her, have led to her illness and her refusal to eat.

The denial of food owing to emotional distress also features in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847.  In this novel which charts the stormy relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, both characters refuse food when they are upset.  Early on in the novel, when Catherine comes home after spending time with a neighbouring family (the genteel Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, who provide a dramatic contrast to the unruly Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights, and into which family Catherine will subsequently marry), Heathcliff sulks and goes to bed without eating his ‘cake and cheese’ which the narrator notes ‘remained on the table all night, for the fairies’ (vol. 1, ch. 7).  At the end of the novel, Nelly Dean, the narrator and housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, reports how as Heathcliff approaches death he takes so little interest in daily life he barely remembers ‘to eat and drink’ (vol. 2, ch. 19).

But more marked than Heathcliff’s refusal to eat is Catherine’s.  When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, following an absence of three years, Catherine, who is now married to Edgar Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange ‘could neither eat nor drink’ (vol. 1, ch. 10), so excited as she is to see him again.  A short while later, following a violent argument between Edgar and Heathcliff, at the end of which Edgar tries to make Catherine choose between himself and Heathcliff, Catherine works herself into a frenzy and begins refusing food, as Nelly reports:
As she never offered to descend to breakfast next morning, I went to ask whether she would have some carried up.
‘No!’ she replied, peremptorily.
The same question was repeated at dinner, and tea; and again on the morrow after, and received the same answer.  (vol. 1, ch. 11)

Catherine watches as Edgar and Heathcliff fight it out (from the 2009 ITV dramatization)

Nelly is convinced that Catherine starves herself to punish her husband: ‘…she fasted pertinaciously, under the idea, probably, that at every meal, Edgar was ready to choke for her absence, and pride alone held him from running to cast himself at her feet; (vol. 1, ch. 12).

There may well be some truth in Nelly’s rather dismissive comments, but as Nelly herself acknowledges she would not have been so dismissive had ‘she known [Catherine’s] true condition’ (vol. 1, ch. 12).  For Catherine is subsequently diagnosed with a ‘brain fever’ (vol. 1, ch. 13) and whilst she does recover, her recovery is only partial: she is permanently weakened and dies a few months later in childbirth.

It might seem rather paradoxical to come up with a recipe at the end of a post about characters refusing to eat, but I was intrigued by the ‘cake and cheese’ that Heathcliff shuns.  Assuming it could not be what we call cake nowadays, I did some research and think it is possibly a reference to havercake, the Yorkshire term for a thick oatcake. One website I consulted – http://www.davidkidd.net/Yorkshire_Oatcake_Recipe.html – notes that children were brought up on havercake and cheese, which they ate for supper.  Heathcliff’s ‘cake and cheese’ is an evening snack and, at this stage in the book, he is still a child, so it seems to fit.  So, here it is – Heathcliff’s havercakes – too good to be left for the fairies.


Ingredients (makes approximately 12): 
150g fine or medium oatmeal
One pinch salt
One pinch bicarbonate of soda
50g plain flour
Boiling water
Knob of butter
(optional: Sesame seeds)

Mix together the dry ingredients and then add the butter with enough boiling water to make a pliable dough.  Knead briefly and roll out thinly.  Cut into rounds or triangles and place on a greased baking sheet.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.  Bake for about 25 minutes at 180C (fan 170C) or gas mark 4 until brown and crisp. Serve buttered with cheese.  


What Do Hypochondriacs Eat?

From Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who complains constantly about her “nerves” and is “taken ill immediately” when she is informed of Lydia’s elopement with Mr Wickham, to the never present but much discussed Mrs Churchill in Emma, whose illnesses the narrator notes “never occurred but for her own convenience”, hypochondriacs frequently appear in Jane Austen’s novels.  Continue reading “What Do Hypochondriacs Eat?”