My favourite novel was born with an iffy financial transaction in January 1813. To get Pride and Prejudice published, Jane Austen had to sell the copyright to London publisher Thomas Egerton for only £110.

Pride and Prejudice was an instant success among England’s literary circles and was loved by critics. The first print run of 1500 copies sold out in six months, so Egerton actually put out a second edition later that same year. Over the next 20 years, Pride and Prejudice was printed in five countries and multiple languages.

In other words, Egerton did pretty well.

Austen’s secret sauce

Unlike other Georgian novels, Pride and Prejudice has endured. By its 200th anniversary in 2013, the novel had sold 20 million copies, inspired around 20 film and television adaptations, seven theatre productions and more than 100 literary spinoffs. In contrast, how many copies of Frances Burney’s Evelina sell right now? Not a lot…

But what truly sets Pride and Prejudice apart from other Georgian novels is Austen’s deep understanding of her character’s (and coincidentally her own) wider social and economic situation. The novel’s famous opening line is imbued with the complex social structure of the Regency period: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

In truth, women of small fortune needed to secure a husband in possession of a better one.

Even women of considerable means often had family estates entailed to brothers or more distant male relations and were left only a dowry. Women were, for the most part, dependent on the means and status of their husbands for financial and social survival.

In other words, status was everything, and marriage could make or break you.

So when the handsome and wealthy bachelor Charles Bingley moves into the neighbouring Netherfield Park in the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice, the Bennett sisters (and their mother) take notice. Jane Bennett, the eldest, prettiest and most agreeable daughter, catches Mr Bingley’s eye, and a romance is born.

Which brings me to the dish.

Posh soup

White soup graced the tables of lords, ladies, kings and queens for centuries, when Austen immortalised it as the dish of choice at the Netherfield Ball. When Bingley’s snobbish sister, Caroline, declares a ball with the country neighbours ‘would be rather a punishment than a pleasure,’ Bingley, with a loveable lack of pretension, replies ‘as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough I shall send round my cards.’

Nicholls, the cook, sorts out the white soup and the ball goes ahead. Bingley and Jane begin their blossoming love over a bowl of posh white soup, and literary history is made.

But what exactly is white soup?

A large knuckle of veal

Enjoyed by the Georgians, it actually has medieval origins in Europe dating back to the 13th century. It appears in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and had several different versions, some sweet but most savoury. It has also gone by many names, including the French blancmange, Italian biancomangiare, Dutch Koninginnesoep, and then later Potage à la Reine or Lorraine soup.

Medieval versions were a bit bland, using strained and sweetened shredded chicken and stock. But early modern recipes were elaborately conceived with two types of stock, often veal and chicken, and almonds. The long list of ingredients required to make white soup made it a high-status party dish. For one, it included several white ingredients (which had famously high costs due to the processing), like almond milk, cream, flour or even sugar.

Recipes for the white soup that would have been eaten at Netherfield were published in a few popular cookbooks of the time. William Verral published a recipe for the quirkily titled ‘Potage à la reine – What Queen I Know Not’ in 1759. Elizabeth Raffald’s well-known book, The Experienced English Housekeeper included ‘Soup á-la-reine’ in 1769. And finally John Farley’s white soup from The London Art of Cookery (1783), Sarah Martin’s version in The New Experienced English Housekeeper (1795) and Maria Rundell’s two recipes in A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed upon the Principles of Economy and adapted to the use of Private Families (1806) all start with a large knuckle of veal, which is what first inspired Eric.

If anyone wants to see these recipes, just drop me a line – I have even more than I listed here, including some earlier and some 19th-century American versions. They’re really interesting, though a lot harder to follow than Eric’s recipe, which he’ll post next week!

The featured image used for this post on the homepage is part of the National Portrait Gallery Collection: Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810.

The Pickering & Greatbatch engraving above is one of the first illustrations of Pride and Prejudice. It was included in the 1833 edition published in London by Richard Bentley.