, , , , , , , , , , ,

Catherine MorleyCatherine Morley describes her research as the study of “people and their relationships with and through food.” Like Dan Macey, who wrote about “Discovering Mutton” for my Emma in the Snow series earlier this week, she’s interested in what Jane Austen says about food in her novels. Ever since Catherine read Emma for the first time, she has, she says, “been intrigued with Mr. Woodhouse’s beliefs about food, beliefs so strong that he tries to influence the food intakes of others.” It’s a pleasure to introduce her guest post on the way Mr. Woodhouse understands food in relation to the four humours.

Catherine is registered as a Professional Dietitian in Nova Scotia and she holds the Fellow of Dietitians of Canada designation. She’s an Assistant Professor in the School of Nutrition and Dietetics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and an Adjunct Professor in Applied Human Nutrition at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax. Before moving to Nova Scotia in 2011 and joining our local JASNA group, she was a member of JASNA Vancouver for several years. Prior to that, she was a founding member of the JASNA Calgary Region.

Apple cake

Catherine’s photo of apple cake

I have heard Mr. Woodhouse described as a hypochondriac, and have on several occasions been asked by JASNA members about what sort of digestive disorder I thought Jane Austen might have attributed to Mr. Woodhouse (such as, did he have an ulcer or irritable bowel syndrome?). I do not think of Mr. Woodhouse as hypochondriacal; rather, I think that it is through his character that Jane Austen conveyed what would have been common beliefs about diet and the potential of diet to influence health, and that she was poking fun at a type of person that most everyone would have known.

Exploring the invalid’s dietary

As a Visiting Fellow (2010) and Visiting Researcher (2012) at Chawton House Library I studied the collection of cookery books and books related to medicine and health for insights into feeding the sick in the time of Jane Austen. I furthered this research by collecting and studying early dietetics reference texts (1875 to 1910) that preceded the origins of the profession of dietetics. Through to 1910-1920 or so, dieticians were physicians who specialized in diet therapy (hence the spelling variant using a “c”  in the final syllable—as in the spelling of physician—that is carried over in the UK spelling today). Dietetics as a profession separate from medicine developed in Canada in the late 1910s; university programs were established in the 1920s and 1930s in each province. This history is important when one considers that therapies for ailments during Austen’s time (and more or less through to the 1940s) generally consisted of the administration of alcohol, opioids, herbs, and food.

Mr. Woodhouse (as with Jane Austen and her contemporary readers) would have been familiar with beliefs about food choices to balance the humours. Foods were considered cooling or heating, and drying or moistening (see the table below). Thus, there were four categories of food: cool/dry; cool/moist; hot/dry; and hot/moist. This categorization (hot/cool/dry/moist) had nothing to do with the physical properties of foods, but rather with effects they were believed to have on the humours.

The four humours

The four humours (simplified) (adapted from Keirsey D. [1998])

Recipes contained descriptors of foods, ingredients, or the dish overall (e.g., “this is cooling” or “this is dessicating [drying]”). The use of these descriptors without providing definitions of the terms implies that this knowledge was commonly held and needed no explanation.

The food Mr. Woodhouse offers his guests

In Volume 1, Chapter 3 of Emma, the Woodhouses are entertaining guests including Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, and Mrs. Goddard. Mr. Woodhouse demonstrates concern for the health of his guests through the attention he pays to the foods he offers and to whom. There is much more meant by these offers than merely being hospitable. We no longer hold the same beliefs about foods or about how to balance the humours (or even believe that there are such things as humours), which makes it harder to understand what Mr. Woodhouse means by his offers of food and drink for his guests.

The passage reads,

Upon such occasions poor Mr. Woodhouse’s feelings were in sad warfare. He loved to have the cloth laid, because it had been the fashion of his youth, but his conviction of suppers being very unwholesome made him rather sorry to see any thing put on it; and while his hospitality would have welcomed his visitors to every thing, his care for their health made him grieve that they would eat.

Such another small basin of thin gruel as his own was all that he could, with thorough self-approbation, recommend; though he might constrain himself, while the ladies were comfortably clearing the nicer things, to say: “Mrs. Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else; but you need not be afraid, they are very small, you see—one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart—a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard. Mrs. Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine? A small half-glass, put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.”


The foods that Jane Austen selected for Mr. Woodhouse’s offers were not random—she carefully chose them based on well-understood beliefs about ordering the humours. Here are some excerpts from The Family Magazine (1792) related to the foods Mr. Woodhouse mentions, and my thoughts on what he might have meant by offering the foods he did.

Food item: Gruel (I presume this is oatmeal gruel, though it can be made from any grain)

For whom: Himself (an elderly man with a fear of illness)

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “Oatmeal is the wholesomest of all grain. It is a light opening diet, and passes thro’ all the capillaries or small vessels without stopping ’em up. ’Tis good for asthmatical and phthisical [wasting] people because it brings up their phlegm. ’Tis also good in vaporous constitutions, because it smooths and licks up the sharp humour in the bowels of such. Oatmeal and butter dry the scab on the head. Outwardly applied” (II, 6).

My comment: Oatmeal was considered to have valuable qualities and was seen as useful in balancing the humours for those with lung conditions, gut disorders (“vaporous” refers to gas producing), and wasting or consumptive disorders. Consumption was any condition where there was fast and extreme weight loss, not limited to pulmonary tuberculosis, and might have included cancers, diabetes, renal failure, liver failure, and lung disorders. Given this inventory of benefits, it is no wonder Mr. Woodhouse places such value on gruel.

Food item: Eggs (one egg, actually)

For whom: Mrs. Bates (an elderly woman)

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “Eggs are said to be the most nourishing and exalted of all animal food” (II, 4).

My comment: Eggs were considered neutral; not heating. A risk-free, sensible choice for an elderly woman.

Food item: Apple

For whom: Miss Bates (a middle-aged woman)

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “Apples cool and loosen, and help the appetite, but are not good for cold stomachs. They have given more help to scorbutick or splenetick patients (especially such that were of a hot, dry constitution, and apt to be costive), than anything else the shops or field could furnish out” (II, 9).

My comment: Perhaps Mr. Woodhouse thinks she is costive (constipated) and that consuming some apple would be of benefit? Perhaps he thinks her humours are too hot and need cooling. Likely the apples come from Donwell Abbey and are highly trusted.

Scorbutick means: scurvy/vitamin C deficiency (although vitamins were not yet known in the 1800s).

Spenetick means: might mean to have a disorder of the spleen (see the table above), or to be spiteful, irritable, or bad tempered. If the former, this explains why apples would “not be good for cold stomachs” (a humoural reference, not a physical state).

Food item: Pye (pie or tart)

For whom: Miss Bates

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “Greasy and doughy pye crust seems to be no very digestible food, especially to weak stomachs” (II, 6).

“Pyes made of any kind of Flesh-meats are strong food; and by reason of the seasoning, generally too pernicious to health to be indulged to valetudinary constitutions” (II, 3).

My comment: Pastry was dangerous—made moreso when filled with meat. Mr. Woodhouse perhaps balances the benefits of apples with the potential harm from pastry such that he can safely recommend a little bit of apple tart to Miss Bates (not too much as that would not be safe), her constitution being strong enough to deal with the potential harm from piecrust.

Food item: Wine

For whom: Mrs. Goddard

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “The usual draught for ailing people, when the case forbids it not, may be ripe red French-wine, thrice or four times a day, to the quantity of half an ounce” (II, 4).

“Wine of all sorts will heat and inflame, some are pectoral, some heady, some griping. All new wines are laxative and windy. White wines are generally more inflaming than red. Old wines are warmest and most comforting. Rhenish wine is the least heating, but most dangerous with us, being adulterated by drugs of pernicious qualities, to restore it when eager. Sweet wines nourish most, but affect the head and stomach, and occasion viscosities. Small wines hurt the membranous parts and nerves. But after all, good wine, moderately taken, and used discreetly as to its relative qualities with the subjects taking it, is a cordial. But it is so difficult to meet with it unadulterated, that the less generally it is drank, the better” (II, 4).

My comment: What sort of wine is Mr. Woodhouse offering? Regardless of the type, it would be heating and perhaps dangerous to the balance of Mrs. Goddard’s humours, unless he thinks she is too cool and would benefit from more balance. Perhaps he suggests diluting the wine with water so he won’t alarm Mrs. Goddard or anyone else listening in—so they won’t think he is worried about her humours being out of balance. He definitely thinks she could benefit from the stimulating effects of the wine.

“I do not think it would disagree with you” would refer to the wine producing too much heat and therefore presenting a different kind of danger.

Food item: Custard

For whom: Not recommended for any of the guests

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): No description of the benefits or risk of custard are given. Here, though, is a recipe:

“A quart of cream or new milk, and a stick of cinnamon, four laurel leaves, and some large mace, boil them altogether, take twelve eggs, beat them well together, and mix them with sugar and canary, till a white scum arises, skim it off. Then, the coffins [pastry shells] being first dried in the oven, fill them” (I, 63).

My comment: The value Mr. Woodhouse puts on eggs and the warning about custard have always puzzled me, given that eggs were considered “an exalted animal food.” Why would he not recommend the custard? None of the custard ingredients were risky, according to The Family Magazine. Perhaps he knows something about the milk used to make it; that is, it is not from his or Mr. Knightley’s dairy and therefore cannot be trusted. Perhaps the custard has not been made by Serle. Or perhaps the custard is leftover and no longer considered safe. As an egg-based dish, it would normally be considered “wholesome” (that is, something that contributes to balancing the humours).

Food item: Cream, butter, and marrow (the first two, as custard ingredients. It’s curious that marrow is grouped with cream and butter)

For whom: Not recommended

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): “Are all lenient and nourishing” (II, 4).

My comment: There is nothing worrisome here about these ingredients. Cream or butter might have been ingredients in the custard Mr. Woodhouse does not recommend. Also, perhaps, in the tart? So it seems not to have been the eggs, cream, or butter that Mr. Woodhouse did not trust—perhaps, then, it is something about who has made it. Concern about how long it has been in the house seems unlikely since food safety, as we think of it today, was of little concern, given the practice of painting old meat with fresh blood in markets or of adding chalk to flour to make bread appear whiter, or to watered-down milk to make it go further, and so on.

“Lenient” refers to adding moisture, so recommended where dry humours were concerned.

Food item: Milk (as an ingredient in custard)

For whom: No one; the custard is not recommended

Information taken from The Family Magazine (1792): Aliment categories listed in order are Meats, Drinks (waters, whey, coffee, tea, chocolate, wine, cyder, perry, brandy), Grain, Pulse, Nuts, Roots, Herbs, Fruits, Aromatrick Herbs, Plants, and Spices (II).

My comment: Milk is not included in the section on aliments (food) in The Family Magazine. I wonder if this means that milk was not considered a food or thought of as offering any nourishment. It is curious that it is absent, and equally curious that cream, with its origins from milk, is grouped with butter and marrow (which were considered cooking fats or spreads).

Given what people thought at the end of the 18th century about food and its effects on the humours, two observations can be made:

  1. When reading the novels, we can’t connect the foods that Jane Austen included in her novels with anything we know or believe about foods today. There was, at the time, no knowledge of nutrients, of humans’ nutrient needs, or of the nutrient composition of foods (how much of what food is sufficient to meet nutritional requirements).
  1. Jane Austen may have been poking fun at people who had “old-fashioned” ideas about the effect of food on the humours. My rationale for this statement relates to newer ideas emerging in the late 18th century about applying scientific thought to considerations of health. One of these new ideas was that of “rational cookery” or “the rational diet.”

What Jane Austen might have known about the rational diet

The Cook Not Mad; or Rational Cookery, published by James Macfarlane in 1831 in Kingston, Upper Canada, was the first cookbook published in Canada, a “Canadianized” version of an American book by the same name. The entire title was:

The Cook Not Mad; or Rational Cookery: Being A Collection of Original and Selected Receipts, Embracing not only the art of curing various kinds of Meats and Vegetables for future use, but of Cooking in its general acceptation, to the taste, habits, and degrees of luxury, prevalent with the Canadian Public, To Which Are Added, Directions for preparing comforts for the SICK ROOM—together with sundry miscellaneous kinds of information of importance to housekeepers in general, nearly all tested by experience.

The Canadian version was a near reprint of the American version, which itself was likely composed of material from cookery books originating in England. Roy Abrahamson, the editor of the 1972 reprint of the 1831 version, claims that “While most cook or household books of the period were derived from English works, The Cook Not Mad breaks with this tradition and is definitely a North American cookbook.” Abrahamson’s assertion was owing to the use of what he refers to as “indigenous ingredients” (turkey, oysters, cod, pidgeons, cranberries, corn, pumpkin, molasses, watermelon). However, given that plants, seeds, food, drink, and livestock had been crisscrossing the Atlantic Ocean for over 300 years when the book was published in 1831, these “indigenous foods” would have been known in England. In addition, cod, oysters, pidgeons, and molasses did not have to be introduced to Europe. While the fish, shellfish, and bird were native to Northern Europe, including England, molasses had been available in Europe since 1582. The second point to refute this claim is that the receipts (recipes) contained in The Cook Not Mad, especially those relating to care of the sick, are consistent with those in English cookery books dating from 1641 that I studied at Chawton House Library. Thus, the idea of “rational cookery” likely had its origin in Europe or England, and it was an idea that I think was familiar to Jane Austen. Here’s why.

Jane Austen and the rational diet 

In The Cook Not Mad, the intent of rational cookery is described as:

… a system of Cookery which has for its main object the health of its friends. Temperance in the quality and quantity of our diet contributes more to our health and comfort than we are aware of. It was the remark of an eminent physician upon the inquiries of a patient, “that it was of less importance what kind of food we ate, than the quantity and the mode of its preparation, for the stomach.” … The health of a family, in fact, greatly depends upon its cookery. The most wholesome viands may be converted into corroding poisons. (Preface)

Important here is the use of the word “health,” with no mention of the humours or efforts to bring them into balance. This was the beginning of what has become known as the science of nutrition (where the nutritional properties of foodstuffs are known and these are recommended relative to the nutrient needs of a person or population defined by age and, for some nutrients, by sex, and these are considered in terms of the composition of and amount of foodstuffs taken). I believe Jane Austen was aware of and attended to the precepts of rational cookery owing to three sentences written in her letters between January and May of 1817, the latter written less than two months before her death. It seems that while she may have viewed dietary manipulations in a more scientific way, she retained some belief in the categorization of diseases relative to the humours. Her diagnostics appear to be rooted in traditional thinking about disease while she looked to new ways of thinking about diet in composing her treatment plans.

The first of these excerpts is from 24 January 1817 to her friend, Alethea Bigg:

I have certainly gained strength through the Winter & am not far from being well; & I think I understand my own case now so much better than I did, as to be able by care to keep off any serious return of illness. I am more and more convinced that Bile is at the bottom of all I have suffered, which makes it easy to know how to treat myself. (Italics added)

In this letter, Austen identifies problems with bile at the root of her problems. Which did she mean, yellow bile or black bile? (See the table above.) I think she meant yellow bile, owing to her letter of 6 April 1817 to her brother, Charles Austen: “I have been suffering from a Bilious attack, attended with a good deal of fever.”

In the Glossary of Medical Terms Used in the 18th and 19th Centuries, biliousness is defined as “nausea, abdominal pains, headache, and constipation.  Also jaundice associated with liver disease.”

An imbalance of yellow bile made a person choleric; a person with this condition was considered to be hot and dry, and their illness involved the gall bladder. (This is not the way we think of the gall bladder and its function in 2016.) Black bile imbalance was considered to be melancholia with problems with the spleen (cool and dry). Since Austen refers to fever (therefore “hot”), of the two types of bile, I conclude hers was a problem of yellow bile (black bile does not actually exist). These two ideas together would indicate Jane Austen had digestive complaints. What we do not know is whether by fever she meant elevated body temperature, that she thought her humours were too hot, or something else. Fever was a catch-all term for a variety of complaints, and meant that the humours were too hot. About fever:

And as it is a distemper of the utmost consequence, and such as ought to be critically attended to, we shall trace it as briefly as possible from its beginning, whether it proceeds from cold (as is generally the case), or from heat, and incautious drinking to quench the thirst occasion’d thereby, whereby dangerous inflammations, etc. proceed. And, above all, shall be careful to give no direction, but what is the result of experience practice in so hazardous a case, that so such as have not an opportunity to consult a skilful physician, may not be lead into mistakes, where the consequence may be so fatal. (Family Magazine, Part II)

Interesting in the letter from 24 January 1817 is the phrase, “which makes it easy to know how to treat myself.” This idea indicates either that Austen had knowledge of foods to eat to balance humours and to treat or prevent biliousness, or that she was applying emerging scientific principles about diet to treat her condition. It is in her letter of 27 May 1817 to her nephew, James Edward Austen, where she reveals her familiarity with the idea of rational cookery; that is, that she was applying early ideas about the science of nutrition to what and how she ate. She writes,

I will not boast of my handwriting; neither that, nor my face have yet recovered their proper beauty, but in other respects I am gaining strength very fast. I am now out of bed from 9 in the morng to 10 at nightUpon the Sopha ’tis truebut I eat my meals with Aunt Cass; in a rational way, & can employ myself, & walk from one room to another. (Italics added)

In using the phrase, “in a rational way,” Austen reveals that she and her nephew (and presumably her sister, Cassandra) were familiar with the ideas of the rational diet or rational cookery. Curiously, the receipts given in The Cook Not Mad (1831) are exactly those given in cookery books that predate it. Even more curiously, these same recipes were included in The American Woman’s Cookbook (1956). My interpretation is that the language used to describe ideas about diet changed but the foods actually recommended and consumed did not.

Returning to Mr. Woodhouse

To return to Jane Austen’s use of Mr. Woodhouse’s food suggestions for his guests: when I read the novels, I do so with the idea that the author was very familiar with traditional humour-based ideas about diet, as she was aware of emerging ideas about the science of nutrition. Further, I think she would have known that many of her readers would likewise feel caught between older and newer ways of thinking about food and diet, and could relate to the confusion about what to believe about diet—something we continue to experience (which has been termed “dietary cacophony” by food sociologist Claude Fischler). Lastly, I think her inclusion of this passage was for comedic effect. I suspect she recognized that many of her readers would recognize themselves and their own worries about how food intakes affected the balance of the humours, as well as this concern in others among their friends and family. Perhaps she was even thinking of her own health.

Two important considerations related to food, diet, nutrition, and health when reading Austen’s novels (or any novels written before about 1920): we need to keep the idea of “balancing the humours” in mind, recalling that illness was ever-present during Austen’s time and remembering not to think about food and nutrition using today’s notions of diet and health, and we need to remember that people did not yet know how to treat even simple maladies according to today’s standards. Thus, a common cold, the measles, or food poisoning could have been fatal. People had good reason to think constantly about minimizing any harm that might arise from food consumption that could disorder the harmony of the humours, and about how to bring the humours back into balance.


Austen, Jane. (1995). Emma. New York: Oxford.

Anonymous. (1831). The Cook Not Mad, or Rational Cookery; Being A Collection of Original and Selected Receipts, Embracing Not Only the Art of Curing Various Kinds of Meats and Vegetables for Future Use, but of Cooking in its General Acceptation, to the Taste, Habits, and Degrees of Luxury, Prevalent with the American Publick, in Town and Country. To Which are Added, Directions for Preparing Comforts for the SICKROOM; Together with Sundry Miscellaneous Kinds of Information, of Importance to Housekeepers in General, Nearly All Tested by Experience. Watertown, NY: Knowlton & Rice.

Berolzheimer, R. (1956). The American woman’s cook book. Chicago, IL: Culinary Arts Institute.

Kiersey, D. (1998). Please understand me ii: temperament, character, intelligence. Toronto, ON: Prometheus Nemesis Book Co. and the University of Toronto Press.

Le Faye, D. (Ed.) (1995). Jane Austen’s Letters (3rd edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

Macfarlane, J. (1831). The cook not mad; or rational cookery. Kingston, Upper Canada.

The Family Magazine: in two parts. I. Containing useful directions in all the branches of house-keeping and cookery. II. Containing a compendious body of physic; explaining the virtues of all sorts of meats. The second edition. (1792). London: J Osborn at the Golden-Ball in Pater-noster Row.

Sixth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Maggie Arnold, Mary C.M. Phillips, and Diana Birchall.

Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the celebrations! And/or follow along by connecting with me on FacebookPinterest, or Twitter (@Sarah_Emsley).

Emma in the Snow