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Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Food

Dear friends and readers,

I've just reread Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Food and find I was not thinking when I read it, mostly because I had not read the letters with any care or thought for real about the women's lives in the novels, especially vis-a-vis what we see in Austen's letters. From reading the letters, the conversations I've had online with others, and my recent study of Austen criticism and the readings of the novels found in her films, I've realized how odd Lane's book really is.  It's basis is a peculiarly hagiographic outlook on women's lives and an assumption that everything the Austens did and thought was exemplary in the piously normative ways.

This elegant shop in London (which Austen did visit twice, 1811 and again 1813) is the one Lane chooses to exemplify women's experience of food in the 18th century:



One of my aims in close-reading the letters was to get past the JA biographies:  and the first fruits for me has been this rereading of Maggie Lane's JA and Food.  I did remember it improved enormously towards the end when she moved into the novels and especially the chapter on Emma, but I had not recognized the continual tone of muted hagiography running through the rest of the book.  Details of what the Austens ate and literal accuracy over household details there are galore, but when it comes to describing the attitudes of the people involved, the book is unreal. One example:  Mrs Austen is presented as continually stoutly cheerful in the face of continual hard work, pregnancies. The evidence for this comes down to the two poems which do indeed project a sort of stout cheer; but one is in the capacity of didactic teacher to controlling difficult boys, the other one of these recipes.  (Cooking anything took hours and there was one hot meal a day with all dishes put on the table at once.  A third is about neighborhood news and yes the stance is that of dog-trot cheer. Three poems do not a life make nor is one on oath.

Lane is too clever to quote these too often, rather the discourse in the vein of "doubtless," and "As we would expect"  once a "who can doubt?" that Mrs Austen was an exemplary housekeeper in love with her job, all her tasks, on top of that doing each in a super exemplary way. Never a waste dime, never a wasted bit of food. An efficiency machine.  I'm tempted to quote Mr Knightley at Emma's portrait of Frank Churchill (sight unseen) as a wonderful flexible gentleman, that were he this way Emma he'd be a monster.  At each turn of the book we are given a portrait of Mrs Austen which has no documents to back it up and work to celebrate each phase of these people's often meager and strained lives.

From the letters a very different pictures emerges, one Austen does not mean us to take away but is there.  A woman who has become (or at least thinks she is) nervously ill from her life of daily struggle.  Jane does not want to see this at all -- nor did anyone else in print.  I become devil's advocate when reading Lane over Mrs Austen.  I keep looking for Austen's complaints about her mother's health.   None anywhere in Lane's book.  The evidence has to be her sceptical reaction and an interpretation of them, "doubtless" Lane would say, but I'll go for a perhaps in an effort to protect Jane's own time, space, sanity.  A toothless mouth too.  Each child a tooth, 9 children the whole mouth.   Lane does notice her losing all her teeth relatively early.

Like most women Mrs Austen left hardly anything in print. She is funneled for her through her relatives. We hear of Mr Austen's cheer at the birth of this and that child, of how happy he is she's home and now must settle down (now he's saddled her with these babies). Then it's Austen who is protecting her own space against being preyed upon, understandable but obtuse. Perhaps in life Mrs Austen was not sympathetic to her daughter. She might have been the type, well see what I endured and "who do you think you are?"  The attitude towards older women and mothers in the book do not show any great adherence or admiration or even fond affection. So the two of them did not support one another; they competed and jarred.


This recreation of a fringe genteel woman's kitchen (the 1996 Poldark film) is more like what Austen's servants and she and her sister knew.

While in the second half she was often spot on about the novels at the end of many paragraphs without sufficient support form the text she derives normative and establishment upholding lessons. We learn from Austen's texts  like resignation, silence (her Austen women model discreet behavior in kitchen as well as drawing room), never a peep of complaint openly; she ceaselessly reads the books as pious upbeat didacticism. Only the closing reading of Emma (an alternative) where she suddenly presents the novel as a kind of proto-Gissing text showing us the abysmal poverty of much of the Highbury, the desperate circumstances of central characters (Miss Bates, Harriet and Jane potentially) give another point of view. And here too there is convention because the values or norms she assumes are still the same as the rest of the book. All she is saying is Austen objects to or exposes the economic system.

But does she? I am not sure.

What Austen is is not this complacent regurgitator and creator of patient Griselda turned 18th century wife and mother or poorer woman's salon (with no intellectuals about) hostess. Which is what Lane's exegeses of the novels continually turn her into.  The real strangeness of Lane's book is its hagiographical outlook on women's lives.  What makes the strangeness not seem so odd is that it is published within the nimbus of unexamined cosy Janeism.

Not to end on too harsh a note, Lane's book is enormously useful.  The details from the letters are indexed in the back and alphabetized by food. So you can look up all the asparagus quotations in Lane and the find them either in the novels or letters. Her general historical background is as far as I can tell impeccable and her readings of the novels's specific scenes or passages (once again) before she reaches for grand generalizations persuasive.

Ellen

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