Dec 162015


Today is the birthday (1775) of Jane Austen, an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary as well as her acclaimed plots have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics.


Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, but died before completing it.

Austen’s works critique the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th century realism. Her plots, though lightly comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Her works, relatively popular in her lifetime, were first published anonymously and brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews. But the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become widely accepted in academia as a great English writer.


Biographical information concerning Jane Austen is “famously scarce”, according to one biographer. Only some personal and family letters remain (by one estimate only 160 out of Austen’s 3,000 letters are extant), and her sister Cassandra (to whom most of the letters were originally addressed) burned “the greater part” of the ones she kept and censored those she did not destroy. Other letters were destroyed by the heirs of Admiral Francis Austen, Jane’s brother. Most of the biographical material produced for fifty years after Austen’s death was written by her relatives and reflects the family’s biases in favor of “good quiet Aunt Jane”. Scholars have unearthed little information since. One suspects a rather more torrid life than is known about in available material.


Austen’s parents, George Austen (1731–1805) and his wife Cassandra (1739–1827), were members of substantial gentry families. George was descended from a family of woollen manufacturers, which had risen through the professions to the lower ranks of the landed gentry. Cassandra was a member of the prominent Leigh family. They married on 26 April 1764 at Walcot Church in Bath. From 1765 until 1801, that is, for much of Jane’s life, George Austen served as the rector of the Anglican parishes at Steventon, Hampshire, and a nearby village. From 1773 until 1796, he supplemented this income by farming and by teaching three or four boys at a time who boarded at his home.

Austen’s immediate family was large: six brothers — James (1765–1819), George (1766–1838), Edward (1768–1852), Henry Thomas (1771–1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774–1865), Charles John (1779–1852) — and one sister, Cassandra Elizabeth (Steventon, Hampshire, 9 January 1773 – 1845), who, like Jane, died unmarried. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. Of her brothers, Austen felt closest to Henry, who became a banker and, after his bank failed, an Anglican clergyman. Henry was also his sister’s literary agent. His large circle of friends and acquaintances in London included bankers, merchants, publishers, painters, and actors: he provided Austen with a view of social worlds not normally visible from a small parish in rural Hampshire.

George was sent to live with a local family at a young age because, as Austen biographer Le Faye describes it, he was “mentally abnormal and subject to fits”. He may also have been deaf and mute. Charles and Frank served in the navy, both rising to the rank of admiral. Edward was adopted by his fourth cousin, Thomas Knight, inheriting Knight’s estate and taking his name in 1812.


As Austen grew into adulthood, she continued to live at her parents’ home, carrying out those activities normal for women of her age and social standing: she practiced the fortepiano, assisted her sister and mother with supervising servants, and attended female relatives during childbirth and older relatives on their deathbeds. She sent short pieces of writing to her newborn nieces Fanny Catherine and Jane Anna Elizabeth. Austen was particularly proud of her accomplishments as a seamstress. She also attended church regularly, socialized frequently with friends and neighbors, and read novels—often of her own composition—aloud with her family in the evenings. Socializing with the neighbors often meant dancing, either impromptu in someone’s home after supper or at the balls held regularly at the assembly rooms in the town hall. Her brother Henry later said that “Jane was fond of dancing, and excelled in it”.

When Austen was twenty, Tom Lefroy, a nephew of neighbors, visited Steventon from December 1795 to January 1796. He had just finished a university degree and was moving to London to train as a barrister. Lefroy and Austen would have been introduced at a ball or other neighborhood social gathering, and it is clear from Austen’s letters to Cassandra that they spent considerable time together: “I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The Lefroy family intervened and sent him away at the end of January. Marriage was impractical, as both Lefroy and Austen must have known. Neither had any money, and he was dependent on a great-uncle in Ireland to finance his education and establish his legal career. If Tom Lefroy later visited Hampshire, he was carefully kept away from the Austens, and Jane Austen never saw him again.


In December 1800, Austen’s father unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the ministry, leave Steventon, and move the family to Bath. While retirement and travel were good for the elder Austens, Jane was shocked to be told she was moving from the only home she had ever known (ultimately a main theme in Persuasion). An indication of Austen’s state of mind is her lack of productivity as a writer during the time she lived at Bath. She was able to make some revisions to Susan, and she began and then abandoned a new novel, The Watsons, but there was nothing like the productivity of the years 1795–1799.


In December 1802, Austen received her only known proposal of marriage. She and her sister visited Alethea and Catherine Bigg, old friends who lived near Basingstoke. Their younger brother, Harris Bigg-Wither, had recently finished his education at Oxford and was also at home. Bigg-Wither proposed and Austen accepted. As described by Caroline Austen, Jane’s niece, and Reginald Bigg-Wither, a descendant, Harris was not attractive—he was a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless. However, Austen had known him since both were young and the marriage offered many practical advantages to Austen and her family. He was the heir to extensive family estates located in the area where the sisters had grown up. With these resources, Austen could provide her parents a comfortable old age, give Cassandra a permanent home and, perhaps, assist her brothers in their careers. By the next morning, Austen realized she had made a mistake and withdrew her acceptance. No contemporary letters or diaries describe how Austen felt about this proposal, but in 1814, Austen wrote a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, who had asked for advice about a serious relationship, telling her that “having written so much on one side of the question, I shall now turn around & entreat you not to commit yourself farther, & not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection”.


This terse biographical resume is my way of introducing the backdrop of Austen’s novels, which focus largely on the problems that women in Regency England on the lower rungs of the landed gentry faced in maintaining their status in society. Upward marriage was their primary recourse. So here comes my usual disclaimer. The travails of people who don’t work for a living do not interest me. This “poor me” attitude cuts no ice with me. If you feel hard done by because you rely on the work or wealth of others, go live in a Yorkshire coal mining slum picking coal from slag heaps for starvation wages and long hours and then tell me how put upon you are.


Austen’s novels do indeed document the lives of “poor” women in Regency England – “poor” meaning that they can’t host (but can attend) charming balls, and have very few servants. Marriage to well-to-do men is their ticket out. So we are all supposed to cheer for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice because she finally sees how wrong she was about Mr Darcy, who is fabulously rich, and marries him, whilst her elder sister Jane, marries the equally rich Mr Bingley despite problems at the outset. Yawn. This is the stuff of expensive modern movies that devotees fawn over because of their rich sets, lavish costumes, and (generally poor) attempts at recreating elite society in England at the turn of the 19th century, with obligatory dance and dining scenes and other such nonsense as the context for dialogues concerning intrigue and ambition.


Persuasion was the first book I taught as a shiny new professor of 29 teaching a Freshman Studies course, newly designed as a cross between “great books” and college writing. Half the books were set by existing faculty, and half I could choose for myself. Other set books included Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, The Communist Manifesto, and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. The course was an unmitigated disaster, as is any course designed by committee. I had no idea what to do with Persuasion. It did not resonate with me nor with any of my students. I could talk quite knowledgeably about the lives of retired sea captains and admirals featured in the novel because, as a teen, I had avidly studied the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. But the daily lives of the English elite of the period was foreign to me (I grew up in Australia), and of zero interest, except inasmuch as they spoke of the ills and abuses of the class system that doggedly lingers to this day. You would have to pay me an awful lot of money to teach Austen again, and even then I would simply rail against the world that they portray.


We don’t have any recipes directly from Austen’s pen, but there are a number of them extant from close relatives that are typically brief, but easy enough to follow if you are a cook. Here’s her sister-in-law’s trifle recipe (Martha Lloyd’s Household Book):

A Trifle

Take three Naple biscuits. Cut them in slices. Dip them in sack. Lay them on the bottom of your dish. Then make a custard of a pint of cream and five eggs and put over them. Them make a whipt syllabub as light as possible to cover the whole. The higher it is piled, the handsomer it looks.

Here, too, is a contemporary recipe for syllabub, which is a froth of eggs and cream folded with citrus flavoring and sweetened wine. I’d add fruit such as raspberries or strawberries for a little more variety.

A Whipt Syllabub

Take a pt of cream with a spoonfull of orange flower water 2 or 3 ounces of fine sugar ye juice of a lemon ye white of 3 eggs wisk these up together & having in your glasses rhennish wine & sugar & clarret & sugar lay on ye broth with a spoon heapt up as leight as you can.

Jun 072014


Today is the birthday (1778) of George Bryan “Beau” Brummell  an iconic figure in Regency England, the arbiter of men’s fashion, and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. He established a mode of dress for men that rejected overly ornate fashions for one of understated, but perfectly fitted and tailored garments. This look was based on dark coats, full-length trousers rather than knee breeches and stockings, and, above all, immaculate shirt linen and an elaborately knotted cravat. Brummell is credited with introducing, and establishing as fashion, the forerunner of the modern men’s suit, worn with a tie. He claimed he took five hours a day to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. His general lifestyle became known as “dandyism.”

Brummell was born in London, the younger son of William Brummell, a politician, of Donnington Grove in Berkshire. The family was middle class, but the elder Brummell was ambitious for his son to become a gentleman, and young George was raised with that understanding. Brummell was educated at Eton and made his precocious mark on fashion there when he not only modernized the white stock, or cravat, that was the mark of the Eton boy, but added a gold buckle to it. He went from Eton to Oxford University, where, by his own example, he made cotton stockings and dingy cravats a thing of the past. While an undergraduate at Oriel College in 1793, he competed for the Chancellor’s Prize for Latin Verse, coming second to Edward Copleston, who was later to become provost of his college. He left the university after only a year at the age of sixteen.

In June 1794 Brummell joined the illustrious Tenth Royal Hussars as a cornet, or lowest rank of commissioned officer, and soon after had his nose broken by a kick from a horse. His father died in 1795, by which time George had been promoted to lieutenant. His father had left an inheritance of £65,000, of which Brummell was entitled to a third. Although under normal circumstances this would be a substantial sum, it was inadequate for the expenses of an aspiring officer in the personal regiment of the Prince of Wales. The officers, many of whom would be inheriting noble titles and lands “wore their estates upon their backs – some of them before they had inherited the paternal acres.” Officers in any cavalry regiment were required to provide their own mounts and uniforms and be responsible for mess bills, but the 10th in particular had elaborate and almost unending variations of uniform. In addition, their mess expenses were enormous as the regiment did not stint itself on either banquets or entertainment.


Although a junior officer, Brummell took the regiment by storm, fascinating the prince by the force of his personality. He was allowed to miss parade, shirk his duties, and in essence, do exactly as he pleased. Within three years, by 1796, he was made a captain, to the combined envy and disgust of the older officers, who felt that: “our general’s friend was now the general.” When his regiment was sent from London to Manchester he immediately resigned his commission, citing the city’s poor reputation, lack of atmosphere, and an absence of culture and civility.

Although he was now a civilian, Brummell’s friendship with, and influence over, the Prince continued. His simple yet elegant and understated manner of dress, coupled with his natural wit, gained him entry to the Regent’s royal society. The life and the daily routine of most aristocratic men of the time included making one’s toilette and shopping in the morning; riding in Hyde Park or making the round of gentlemen’s clubs in the afternoon; followed by the theater, gambling at Almack’s or a private party, or visiting the brothels in the evening. He took a house on Chesterfield Street in Mayfair and for a time managed to avoid the nightly gaming and other extravagances needed to move in such elevated circles. Where he refused to economize was on his dress: When asked how much it would cost to keep a single man in clothes, he was said to have replied: “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” That amount is approximately £103,000 ($173,000) in today’s currency; the average wage for a craftsman at that time was £1 a week.

Brummell put into practice the principles of harmony of shape and contrast of colors with such a pleasing result that men of superior rank sought his professional opinion on their dress. The Duke of Bedford once did this concerning a coat. Brummell examined his Grace with his accustomed cool impertinence, turned him about, scanned him with scrutinizing, contemptuous eye, and then taking the lapel between his dainty finger and thumb, he exclaimed in a tone of pitying wonder, “Bedford do you call this thing a coat?”


His personal habits, such as a fastidious attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted an influence on the upper echelons of polite society, who began to do likewise. Previously people bathed only a few times per year, and used heavy colognes and perfumes to hide body odors. He also insisted upon freshly laundered shirts and linens. Enthralled, the Prince would spend hours in Brummell’s dressing room, witnessing the progress of his friend’s lengthy morning toilette.

Unfortunately, Brummell’s wealthy friends had a less than commendable influence on him. He soon began spending and gambling as though his fortunes were as extensive as theirs. Such liberal outlay began to deplete his capital rapidly, and he found it increasingly difficult to maintain his prestige, although he could still float a line of credit on account of his connexions. This changed on July 1813 at a masquerade ball at Watier’s private club, when Brummell, who was one of the hosts, openly antagonized the Prince Regent, thereby forcing society to choose between them.

Brummell, Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Henry Pierrepoint were considered the prime movers of Watier’s, dubbed “the Dandy Club” by Byron. All four were hosts at a ball where the Prince Regent greeted Alvanley and Pierrepoint but then “cut” Brummell and Mildmay by staring them in the face without speaking to them. This provoked Brummell’s most famous remark, “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” The incident, finalizing the long-developing rift between them, is generally dated to 1811, the year the Prince became Regent and began abandoning all his old Whig friends. Normally, the loss of royal favor was doom, but Brummell ran as much on the approval and friendship of other rulers of the several fashion circles. He became the anomaly of a society favorite flourishing without a patron, still in charge of fashion and courted by large segments of society.


In 1816 Brummell fled to France to escape debtor’s prison, owing thousands of pounds. Usually Brummell’s gambling obligations, as “debts of honor,” were paid immediately. The one exception to this was the final wager, dated March 1815 in White’s betting book, which was marked “not paid, 20th January, 1816”

He lived the remainder of his life in French exile, spending ten years in Calais without an official passport before acquiring an appointment to the consulate at Caen via the influence of Lord Alvanley and the Marquess of Worcester, only in the reign of William IV. This provided him with a small annuity. This appointment lasted for two years before Brummell recommended that the Foreign Office abolish the consulate at Caen in the hope of being moved to a more profitable position elsewhere. The consulate was abolished but no new position was granted. Brummell rapidly ran out of money and was forced into debtors’ prison by his creditors. It was only after the charitable intervention of his friends in England that he was able to secure release. Brummell died penniless and mentally impaired from syphilis at Le Bon Sauveur Asylum on the outskirts of Caen in 1840 (sadly, I note, on my birthday).

In literature, Brummell left a mark. Scarcely had he left England than a collection of witticisms ascribed to him and of anecdotes about him appeared under the title “Brummelliana” and was republished many times in the following decades. This began with the notorious story of his enquiring the identity of his companion’s ‘fat friend.’ William Hazlitt borrowed the same title of “Brummelliana” for an unsympathetic essay published in 1828, referring to some of these stories and repeating others uncollected there. Dandyism also came under attack in George Robert Wythen Baxter’s satirical essay “Kiddyism,” published in humorous journals from 1832 onwards, which culminates in a set of satirical aphorisms purporting to be yet more “Brummelliana”.

Further fictitious aphorisms were published in France by Honoré de Balzac in the course of a series of articles published under the title “Traité de la vie élégante” (1830). These sayings were supposed to have arisen during an interview with Brummell in Bologna, rather than Calais, and epitomize his view of ‘the elegant life’. In the following decade two more books were dedicated to confirming Brummell as a cult figure. In England there was Captain Jesse’s two volume Life of George Brummell (1844), the first biography devoted to him. In France there was the influential essay of Barbey d’Aurevilly, “Du dandysme et de George Brummell” (1845), which seeks to define the essence of dandyism through a study of his career and opinions.

Brummell was to appear as a character in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1896 historical novel Rodney Stone. In this, the title character’s uncle, Charles Tregellis, is the center of the London fashion world, until Brummell ultimately supplants him. Tregellis’s subsequent death from mortification serves as a deus ex machina in that it resolves Rodney Stone’s family poverty.


In the United States, Brummell’s life was dramatized in an 1890 stage play in four acts by Clyde Fitch with Richard Mansfield as the ‘Beau’. This in turn was adapted for the 1924 silent movie with John Barrymore and Mary Astor. Another play about him, authored by Bertram P Matthews, is only remembered because it had incidental music written for it by Edward Elgar. It was staged at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham in November 1928, with Elgar himself conducting the orchestra on its first night. Only the minuet from this is now performed. Brummell’s later years were the setting for Ron Hutchinson’s 2001 two-handed play The Beau (originally Beau Brummell), which following a UK national tour played for one month at Theatre Royal Haymarket, starring Peter Bowles as Brummell.


Earlier films included a 10-minute movie by the Vitagraph Company of America (1913), based on a Booth Tarkington story, and the 1913 “Beau Brummell and his Bride,” a short comedy made by the Edison Company. Brummell’s life was also made the subject of a 1931 three-act operetta by Reynaldo Hahn, later broadcast by Radio-Lille (1963). In 1937 there was a radio drama on Lux Radio Theater with Robert Montgomery as Brummell. Another film, “Beau Brummell,” was made in 1954 with Stewart Granger playing the title role and Elizabeth Taylor as Lady Patricia Belham. There were also two television dramas: the sixty-minute “So war Herr Brummell” (Süddeutscher Rundfunk, 1967) and the UK “Beau Brummell: This Charming Man” (2006).

Georgette Heyer, author of a number of Regency romance novels, included Brummell as a character in her 1935 novel Regency Buck. He is also referred to, or figures as a minor character, in the work of later writers of this genre. More recently, Brummell was made the detective-hero of a series of period mysteries by Californian novelist Rosemary Stevens, starting with Death on a Silver Tray in 2000. These are written as if related by their hero. Another American reinterpretation of his character appears in Cecilia Ryan’s homoerotic novella The Sartorialist (2012).


Brummell’s name became associated with style and good looks and was therefore borrowed for a variety of products or alluded to in songs and poetry. One example was the paint color Beau Brummel Brown, used exclusively on the 1931 Oldsmobile. In 1934 a rhododendron hybridized by Lionel de Rothschild was named after the dandy. Then during the 1940s and 1950s watchmaker LeCoultre marketed a Beau Brummel watch with a minimalist design and no numbers.


T. S. Eliot’s poem about “Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town” refers to him as the “Brummell of Cats,” an allusion taken up in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, the 1981 musical based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Around that time other allusions to Brummell appeared in pop and rock lyrics, such as Billy Joel’s 1980 hit, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” but the name had already been adopted by rock bands in the 1960s: the faux-British Invasion band The Beau Brummels, and Beau Brummell Esquire and His Noble Men, the name used by South African born Michael Bush for his English rock group.

“Fashions come and go; bad taste is timeless.” — Beau Brummel

Hannah Glasse’s 1747 volume The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy is the classic Georgian cookbook. I note that she appears to be the first cookbook author to include a recipe for “something in a hole” – now usually toad in a hole (sausages baked in an egg batter). I have already dealt with Isabella Beeton’s kidneys in a hole and mutton in a hole ( Glasse’s recipe is for pigeons in a hole — not a huge difference.

A lady at dinner, observing that Brummel did not take any vegetables, asked him whether such was his general habit, and if he never ate any. He replied, “Yes, madam, I once ate a pea.” Brummell was once asked why a matrimonial prospect had failed. “Why what could I do, my good fellow, but cut the connexion? I discovered that Lady Mary actually ate cabbage!” So, I won’t give you a recipe with vegetables.

Here is a recipe for ragout of oysters. I don’t think you need a modern interpretation. You just need to know that “ʃ” is not an “f” as many people now mistakenly believe, but the so-called “long s” – it has no cross bar. It was eventually replaced by the short “s” in typography (which was originally used only as a final — as seen here), to avoid the confusion especially in blotchy printing. Raʃpings are toasted breadcrumbs.


A ragoo of oyʃters

OPEN twenty large oyʃters, take them out of their liquor, ʃave the liquor, and dip the oyʃters in a batter made thus: take two eggs, beat them well, a little lemon-peel grated, a little nutmeg grated, a blade of mace pounded fine, a little parʃley chopped fine ; beat all together with a little flour, have ready ʃome butter or dripping in a ʃtew-pan ; when it boils, dip in your oyʃters, one by one, into the batter, and fry them of a fine brown; then with an egg-ʃlice take them out, and lay them in a diʃh before the fire. Pour the fat out of the pan, and ʃhake a little flour over the bottom of the pan, then rub a little piece of butter, as big as a ʃmall wallnut, all over with your knife, whilʃt it is over the fire; then pour in three ʃpoonfuls of the oyʃter liquor ʃtrained, one ʃpoonful of white wine, and a quarter of a pint of gravy ; grate a little nutmeg, ʃtir all together, throw in the oyʃters, give the pan a toʃs round, and when the ʃauce is of a good thickneʃs; pour all into the diʃh, and garniʃh with raʃpings.