‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’
It’s a rollicking good first line and sets the reader up wonderfully so that we really want to know who the young man is, and who is to be the wife he wants.
But of course what Jane Austen really means is: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of no fortune must be in want of a husband.’
Single women in possession of no fortune like Jane herself had very few alternatives to marriage. I’ve always felt such sympathy for the twenty seven year old Charlotte Lucas, who faced with the choice between spinsterhood and marriage, chooses the oleaginous Mr Collins and then has to encourage him to spend his days in the garden whilst she retreats to her own sitting room.
Here's Lawrence Olivier and Greer Garson as Darcy and Elizabeth in the 1940 MGM film version of P & P.
When you think about it in the context of the time, Mrs Bennett is being very sensible in her desire to see her five daughters well married. She doesn’t want any of them to become a spinster like Miss Bates in ‘Emma’ where Jane shows her sympathy for unmarried women by making such a point of Mr Knightley's courtesy to her.
But what of Jane Austen and food? There is quite a lot of food in the novels when you dig deep. It is often used to give us some indication of the character of the person eating; think of Mr Woodhouse and his not-unwholesome lightly boiled egg or Mrs Elton picking 'Knightley's' strawberries. In ‘Mansfield Park’, by describing the horrible Aunt Norris as sponging off the housekeeper and returning with a cream cheese and pheasants' eggs, Austen is telling us that Aunt Norris is a hanger on of the worst sort. In striking contrast when she is homesick, poor Fanny Price cannot be comforted even by gooseberry tart.
Anyway, today is the 199th anniversary of the publication of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, although Jane actually wrote it in the late 1790s. After the publication and success of ‘Sense and Sensibility’ she revised ‘First Impressions’ renamed it and sold the copyright to her publisher for £110. Not quite riches but a great success for a single woman of the time.
I’ve been reading the letters Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra which are wonderfully witty and ironic. In them Jane sounds just like Eliza Bennett and we can read about fashions, parties, gossip and about food – and drink – she mentions on one occasion that her hand is shaking because she drank too much the night before - not at all the sort of behaviour Lady Catherine de Burgh would have approved of!
This is an extract from a letter of September 1813 – Jane is in London:
‘Mde. Bigion was below, dressing us a most comfortable dinner of soup, fish, bouillée, (sic) partridges and an apple tart, which we sat down to soon after five, after cleaning and dressing ourselves and feeling that we were most commodiously disposed of.’
And in another letter she writes about a new cook, who has begun well because she can make apple pies and 'good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness.'
Apple tart it is then.
Apple Curd Tart
This is my version of a Jane Grigson version of a traditional recipe for a 'transparent' tart.
Make half a pound of sweet pastry and line an 8” flan tin
2oz lightly salted butter
2oz caster sugar
½tsp vanilla extract or a little grated lemon peel
I large egg
I large cooking apple
Fan oven 200c
Melt the butter and sugar together over a very low heat; the mixture must be no more than tepid, so test with your finger. Remove from the heat and beat in the egg. Quickly peel, core and grate the apple and add to the egg/butter mixture.
Put the tart case onto a baking tray and pour the apple mixture into it. Bake for 15 minutes at 200c then lower the heat to 180c and cook for a further 15 minutes. Serve lukewarm with cream.
Look on yonder earth:
The golden harvests spring; the unfailing sun
Sheds light and life; the fruits, the flowers, the trees,
Arise in due succession; all things speak
Peace, harmony and love.
From 'Queen Mab' by Percy Shelley (1792-1822) also published in 1813.