Kim Wilson is the author of At Home with Jane Austen, Tea with Jane Austen, and In the Garden with Jane Austen. She’s a writer, speaker, editor, tea lover, and gardening enthusiast, a life member of JASNA, and the Regional Coordinator for JASNA Wisconsin. She lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and she often travels to give lectures on Jane Austen for the Road Scholars and other organizations. Her website is KimWilsonAuthor.com and she’s on Twitter @KimWilsonAuthor. She also has some Pinterest boards featuring Jane Austen, Regency, and Georgian pins. At Home with Jane Austen, “an enchanting biographical sketch” (Library Journal), was named the #1 Non-Fiction Austen-Inspired Title of 2014 by Austenprose.
When I hosted a celebration of Jane Austen’s Emma, Kim contributed a guest post on “Emma’s Accomplishments and Mrs. Elton’s Resources,” and I’m happy to welcome her back with today’s guest post on Henry Tilney’s housekeeper.
In Northanger Abbey, General Tilney proposes that he, his daughter, Eleanor, and Catherine Morland visit his son Henry’s parsonage for dinner, perhaps trying to impress Catherine with her future home if she marries Henry. “You are not to put yourself at all out of your way. Whatever you may happen to have in the house will be enough,” he tells Henry, claiming that Eleanor and Catherine will make allowance for “a bachelor’s table.” Henry knows his father, however, and returns that very day to the parsonage, telling Catherine that “no time is to be lost in frightening my old housekeeper out of her wits, because I must go and prepare a dinner for you” (Volume 2, Chapter 11). Why will the poor woman be so frightened of arranging for a dinner that includes only her master and three guests? The answer, of course, lies with the overbearing General Tilney himself.
Catherine has already observed that the general is “very particular in his eating” (Volume 2, Chapter 11). When she breakfasted with the Tilneys before leaving Bath, “never in her life before had she beheld half such variety on a breakfast‑table” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). At Northanger Abbey the same abundance prevails. The general, who loves good fruit, boasts to Catherine (in his indirect way) of the “valuable fruits” grown on his estate, especially pineapples, expensive to grow and worth as much as a guinea ($100 or more) each in London (Volume 2, Chapter 7). He drinks cocoa and coffee, both expensive articles, and at his table serves French bread, a fine, enriched bread made expensive by the inclusion of milk and eggs. The meals served to the Tilney family are obviously plentiful, varied, and expensive, and are no doubt the product of an excellent cook.
General Tilney almost certainly employs a “man-cook” rather than a woman, though perhaps not the “two or three French cooks at least” that Mrs. Bennet thinks Mr. Darcy must have in Pride and Prejudice (Volume 3, Chapter 12). A man-cook, said Sarah and Samuel Adams (who were “Fifty years Servants in different Families”), was “in all respects the same as that of a female Cook,” but was nevertheless “a requisite member in the establishment of a man of fashion,” and was thought to possess “a peculiar tact in manufacturing many fashionable foreign delicacies, or of introducing certain seasonings and flavours in his dishes.” Supported by “several female assistants . . . employed in roasting, boiling, and all the ordinary manual operations of the kitchen,” the man-cook’s attention was “chiefly directed to the stew-pan, in the manufacture of stews, fricassees, fricandeaux, &c.” He was frequently paid “twice or thrice the sum given to the most experienced female English Cook” (The Complete Servant ).
The Northanger Abbey kitchen is as efficient and modern a kitchen as any chef could wish. The general has done “every thing that money and taste could do, to give comfort and elegance” to his residence; in the kitchen the “General’s improving hand had not loitered [and] every modern invention to facilitate the labour of the cooks, had been adopted” (Volume 2, Chapter 8). Among the features of the abbey’s kitchen are modern stoves and “hot closets,” which are heated cabinets with shelves to keep cooked dishes hot, “a great acquisition in Kitchens, where the Dinner waits after it is dressed,” according to the famous Regency gourmet William Kitchiner (The Cook’s Oracle [1822 edition]).
Jane Austen paints an appealing picture of hero Henry Tilney’s parsonage, a “new-built substantial stone house” standing “among fine meadows” in the “pretty” village of Woodston. General Tilney, who believes “there are few country parsonages in England half so good,” has taken care to make it a residence worthy of his son. There are such elegant modern features as a “semi-circular sweep” driveway and “windows reaching to the ground” in the “prettily-shaped” drawing room, which smitten Catherine Morland thinks is “the prettiest room in the world.” The dining parlour is “of a commodious, well proportioned size, and handsomely fitted up,” and there is “an excellent kitchen-garden,” stocked by the general himself (Volume 2, Chapters 7 and 11). No doubt the general has also outfitted the parsonage kitchen with conveniences, so Henry’s cook is able to prepare meals on the best modern equipment.
Henry’s “old housekeeper” may hold the office of cook as well as housekeeper, a likely occurrence, said John Perkins (“Cook to Earl Gower, Sir Matthew Lamb, and Lord Viscount Melbourn”). “The station of house-keeper is so frequently joined with other employments in the family . . . as for instance, house-keeper and lady’s maid, or house-keeper and cook” (Every Woman Her Own House-keeper ). But as Henry has an income of “independence and comfort” (Volume 2, Chapter 16), he possibly employs a cook as well as a housekeeper, though she may be only a respectable woman from the village who is not highly trained. The Austens were well aware of the difficulty of finding a cook who was competent in all aspects of cookery. At their Southampton house, Molly sent up a boiled leg of mutton “underdone even for James,” Jane reported to her and James’s sister, Cassandra. “Our dinners have certainly suffered not a little by having only Molly’s head and Molly’s hands to conduct them; she fries better than she did, but not like Jenny” (7-8 January 1807). At Chawton they had better luck, Jane thought. “I continue to like our old Cook quite as well as ever. . . . Her Cookery is at least tolerable;—her pastry is the only deficiency” (31 May 1811). Indeed, as William Kitchiner noted, “such is the endless variety of culinary preparations, it would be . . . vain . . . to expect to find a cook who was equally perfect in all the operations of the spit, the stewpan, and the rolling-pin” (The Cook’s Oracle [1817 edition]).
Henry’s housekeeper has a great deal expected of her, even if she is not also the cook. John Perkins wrote that “she must be well acquainted with the business of a cook and confectioner.” In addition to shopping for food and other household commodities,
a house-keeper must be able also to form the plan of an entertainment, to draw up a bill of fare, and to order the courses for every different table; she should know what is most liked of all sorts of entries, soups, roast dishes, and side ones. . . . When an entertainment is to be made . . . she ought to form a regular plan of the whole entertainment, and make a draught of each course, as well as the dessert; ranging every one in its proper place, observing well the sizes of the dishes, and what they are to contain (Every Woman Her Own House-Keeper ).
Samuel and Sarah Adams pointed out that a housekeeper was not only responsible for such planning and for directing the cook (unless she also happened to occupy that office herself), but also for “the elegant and tasteful arrangement of the table” and to see that the butler or footman had placed the dishes properly on the table to “form a pleasing, inviting, and well-grouped picture” (The Complete Servant ).
Henry and his housekeeper must necessarily plan the menu according to the season. The day of the Woodston Parsonage dinner, April 8 (Jane Austen Society of North America – Wisconsin Region “A Year with Jane Austen 2018” calendar), occurs at “such a dead time of year, no wild fowl, no game,” complains General Tilney (Volume 2, Chapter 11). There is also little fresh fruit and produce available in the spring. Henry knows his father’s tastes, but John Simpson (“Cook to the late Marquis of Buckingham”) noted that “Young Men and Women Cooks are frequently at a loss in writing Bills of Fare” (A Complete System of Cookery ). To assist, cookbook authors such as Simpson and Duncan MacDonald (“Late Head Cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel, Covent Garden”) provided sample bills of fare and “Lists of the various Articles in Season—Fish, Flesh, Fowl, Fruit, &c. for every Month in the Year” (The New London Family Cook ). See accompanying figures.
General Tilney expects dinner to be on the table at 4:00 sharp. As the time of dinner approaches, the housekeeper, cook, and other servants would grow more anxious. The Adamses describe the nerve-wracking scene:
It requires not only great skill but the utmost attention and exertion to send up the whole of a great dinner, with all its accompaniments, in perfect order. . . . A scene of activity now commences, in which you must necessarily be cool, collected, and attentive.—Have an eye to the roast meat, and an ear to the boils,—and let your thoughts continually recur to the rudiments of your art, which at this moment must be called into practical requisition. You will endeavour that every kind of vegetable, and of sauce, be made to keep pace with the dishes to which they respectively belong—so that all may go up stairs smoking hot together, and in due order. (The Complete Servant )
With so many dishes to cook and coordinate, it’s no wonder that Henry’s cook becomes distracted at one point and ruins one dish, the melted butter. Melted butter is actually melted butter sauce, a base sauce that can be flavored in many ways. How to make it properly to avoid its “oiling” (breaking down and losing its emulsion) was the subject of much debate and distress for Georgian and Regency cooks. Still, Henry and his staff must be quite relieved by how well most of the dishes turn out. Catherine sees that the dinner is a success: “She could not but observe that the abundance of the dinner did not seem to create the smallest astonishment in the general; nay, that he was even looking at the side table for cold meat which was not there. His son and daughter’s observations were of a different kind. They had seldom seen him eat so heartily at any table but his own, and never before known him so little disconcerted by the melted butter’s being oiled” (Volume 2, Chapter 11).
Quotations are from the Oxford editions of Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice, edited and with an introduction by R.W. Chapman (3rd edition, reprinted 1988) and the Oxford edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (4th edition, 2011).
Twenty-seventh in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit “Youth and Experience.” Coming soon: guest posts on Persuasion by Susannah Fullerton, Rohan Maitzen, and Sheila Johnson Kindred.