Jane Austen (1775-1817)
“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife”
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another fall spectacularly to pieces.”
Helen Fielding – ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ – (1996)
This week marks the bicentenary of its publication, the second of the four major novels published in her lifetime, following her first release ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (1811) and preceding ‘Mansfield Park’ (1814) and ‘Emma’ (1816). Two further novels, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ were published posthumously in 1818, while another, ‘Sanditon’, remained unfinished at the time of her death.
Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is famously scarce. Although a prolific writer of letters, as few as 160 of around 3,000 she penned, remain. The vast majority were destroyed by her heirs, who in the half century after her death were responsible for memoirs that presented the author as a quiet and kindly figure.
She is for ever associated with rural Hampshire, where she was born into a family that lived on the lower fringes of the landed gentry (not unlike the Bennetts in ‘P&P’), her father being an Anglican clergyman who supplemented his income by farming and tutoring.
Jane, who contracted a recurrent form of typhus as a child which in later adulthood would be the cause of her demise, lived most of her life in relative obscurity, within the close confines of her family. She enjoyed an upbringing and education commensurate with her family’s standing in society. She was schooled, in the main, at home where she had access to a wide-ranging library, and developed the many skills expected of young ladies in the Georgian and Regency eras – drawing, needlework, music and dance amongst them.
She attended Sunday church with the family, while socialising revolved largely around receiving and visiting neighbours, and dances at the local assembly rooms. This is the world which Jane drew upon so assiduously for her writing.
It is believed that she lived in a home, with an easy and open atmosphere, in which conflicting ideas of a political and social nature could be exchanged and where Jane’s, sometimes risqué early experiments with writing were tolerated and encouraged.
We know that during the early 1800s Jane’s family moved to Bath. Amongst the places where they lived, was 4 Sydney Place. During this time, on Sunday after church, Jane would frequently promenade along the Royal Crescent, and at other times would no doubt have been a visitor at the famous Pump Rooms, and attended balls at the Assembly rooms. Although Bath tourism cashes in on the Austen connection, it is thought that Jane was unsettled by the upheaval of move from the family home, and her time in the Georgian city was largely unproductive
It wasn’t until the Austen family returned to Hampshire, taking up residence at ‘Chawton House’, now the ‘Jane Austen’s House Museum’, where Jane lived for the last eight years of her life, her writing career began to take off.
It was here that she would die. Despite having received considerable acclaim as an author, during her lifetime, no mention was made of her books on the original memorial stone, when she was buried in the nave of Winchester Cathedral. However, by 1872 her fame had escalated to such an extent that it was considered that a brass plaque should be erected to rectify the situation
So what of her writing? Well here I have to hold my hand up and admit that despite Austen’s revered status amongst scholars, critics and an ever burgeoning world-wide ‘Janeite’ fan base, I’ve simply never had the pleasure.
Her celebrated romantic fiction, set amongst the landed classes of Regency England, for all its realism and biting social commentary, has simply passed me by. During my literary A level studies, it had been another female novelist, by George, George Eliot that is, whose mighty tome ‘Middlemarch’, had demanded my attention. Magnificent though it is, by the time I’d waded through nigh on a thousand pages, I’d had my fill of the country house set and studies of 19th century provincial life…
But it’s never too late, and a couple of weeks ago, I decided that I really should redress the omission of Austen from my reading list. According to my Kindle I am currently 65% of the way through ‘P&P’, having just returned to it following a brief and humorous sojourn with Jeeves and Wooster – to ease the tedium and recharge the batteries for a final push.
I guess a large part of my problem is that I have taken an easy option of choosing to read Austen’s best known work. And although experiencing the story through its original narrative form is an altogether different proposition from watching the various film versions, and I do concede much of the written dialogue is pretty witty, there’s not much I don’t know about where the plot is headed.
It’s my hunch that despite considerable angst and prevarication, handsome, brooding, aloof, but morally upright Fitzwilliam Darcy will overcome his rectitude and pride, while lively, attractive, opinionated Elizabeth Bennett will mend her tendency towards prejudice born out of first impressions and they’ll finally surrender to their love for each other and tie the matrimonal knot.
Excuse me if I’m wrong but that’s pretty much what happened to Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in the benchmark 1995 BBC series, Keira Knightley (too stunning and sexy for Lizzie in my opinion) and Matthew MacFadyen in the latest (2005) film version, and even for, heaven’s sake, in the all singing all dancing, Bollywood meets Pemberley movie, ‘Bride and Prejudice’.
The characters and storyline are so familiar that chic-lit author Helen Fielding, famously drew on Austen for the opening line of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ and named her ‘true love’, Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth in the film version – who else?
PD James, the highly regarded and much decorated crime writer, even saw fit to cross-pollinate her passion for Austen with the genre for which she is renowned and came up with ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ a murder mystery set six years after Elizabeth and Darcy have been happily married together. I haven’t read it but understand it was very well received.
Dining with neighbours is a fairly common occurrence in Austen’s novels but, if ‘P&P’ is anything to go by, there is scant description of what was actually served up. But that didn’t stand in the way of Maggie Black and Deirdre le Faye when they came up with their ‘Jane Austen Cookbook’ – literally recipes inspired by her novels.
I’m not sure how familiar Jane Austen was with the kitchen, but the authors have clearly done their homework with regard to ingredients, and, interestingly, more than half the recipes call for anchovies – seldom seen these days other than in pizza toppings, but apparently used a great deal in Regency times to add saltiness to dishes.
I have been trying to undertake more of the cooking recently – an informal, off the record New Year resolution. Wednesday is my regular slot – Chris is continuing with her Italian course so I have time to mess around on the culinary front.
Yesterday, in celebration of the Austen anniversary, and the increasingly anonymous anchovy, I came up with a Nigel Slater ‘Observer Food Magazine’ recipe that had been hiding away in my cookery cuttings book.
Tomatoes with anchovy crumb crust:
Serve 4 as a main dish or 5/6 as an accompaniment…
- 4 x tbsp olive oil
- 1kg tomatoes
- 6 x large spring onions
- a handful of basil leaves
- a handful of coriander leaves
For the crumb crust:
- 150g of white bread
- A handful of parsley leaves
- 5 x anchovy fillets
- Pre-heat the oven to 180˚C
- Put the oil into a deep-sided frying pan over a moderate heat
- Slice the spring onions and add to the warm oil
- Cut the tomatoes in half – horizontally and add to the pan
- Cover the pan with a lid
- Leave the tomatoes & onions to cook for approx. 10 minutes – or until the tomatoes have softened, but are still holding their shape
- Add the basil and coriander, with a grinding of black pepper, then remove from the heat and allow to sit for a few minutes, while preparing the crust
- Blitz the bread in a food processor – to form soft coarse crumbs
- Add the parsley, anchovies, and a little black pepper
- Process briefly
- Transfer the tomatoes and their cooking juices to an ovenproof dish
- Scatter the crumb crust over the top
- Bake for approx. 30 minutes until the tomatoes are sizzling and the crust is a deep gold.
I also diced and added a medium-sized aubergine, that needed using up, to the tomato/onion mix, and a mixed a generous portion of grated parmesan cheese into the crumb crust – it worked for me!
Today, Chris went for a pilates taster session. Fishing around for more brownie points, in the wake of last night’s Austentacious anchovy dish, I volunteered for catering duty once more. This time I knocked up a simple, low-calorie, ‘Hairy Dieters’ recipe from Dave Myers & Si King, two guys with whom I enjoy a palpable commonality – and before you ask, it’s more to do with scales than motorbikes!
Minted Pea and Feta Omelette:
- 30g frozen peas
- 40g feta cheese – drained
- ½ tsp dried mint
- 3 medium eggs
- flaked sea salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- Place peas in a heatproof bowl and cover with just boiled water
- Leave for 1 minute, and then drain, before returning to the bowl
- Crumble the feta cheese on top
- Sprinkle with mint
- Season with black pepper
- Break the eggs into a bowl and whisk
- Season with salt and black pepper
- Lightly oil a small non-stick frying pan
- Place over a medium heat
- Add the eggs
- Cook the egg, constantly using a spatula to draw cooked egg from the edge towards the centre
- When the egg is almost set, scatter the peas and feta over the omelette
- Continue cooking until the egg is just set – approx. 3 minutes
- Loosen the sides with a spatula and slide on to a warmed plate – folding it over
And that, dear reader, is that…