Before we post the last recipes of the Yuletide season, just in time for Old Twelfth Night, I want to share a few brief but interesting similarities between food in Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

Twelfth Night celebrates the Epiphany, which is now commonly celebrated on the 5th or 6th of January. In some parts of England, however, the earlier feast date of January 17th is still observed, based on the pre-Gregorian calendar. Since we’re in denial that the Christmas season is over, we’re sticking with the later date too.

British Library’s first edition of Emma.

‘A basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin…’

As we’ve seen in both Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, gruel plays quite a large role in Dickens’ novels as a criticism of the New Poor Laws, poverty and miserliness. But these are not the first important uses of gruel in literature. Jane Austen utilized the dish to develop one of the most famous hypochondriacs in literary history – Mr. Woodhouse, who waxes lyrical on the benefits of gruel as a restorative.

Emma in December of 1815, after the success of Pride and Prejudice (1813)Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Mansfield Park (1814). Austen learned from previous experience and published the novel at her own expense in order to retain the copyright. She gave publisher John Murray II a 10% commission and produced 2,000 copies.

Austen references gruel in three different chapters in Emma, allowing for a more detailed discussion of the dish in Chapter 12 of Volume I. As Mr. Woodhouse fears illness and eschews rich food, he insists on a very bland diet for himself and often tries to force it upon his daughters and close friends. After Isabella’s journey from London to Highbury, he recommends she join him in a thin gruel and vexation prevails:

“‘My poor dear Isabella,’ said he, fondly taking her hand, and interrupting, for a few moments, her busy labours for some one of her five children—‘How long it is, how terribly long since you were here! And how tired you must be after your journey! You must go to bed early, my dear—and I recommend a little gruel to you before you go. —You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together. My dear Emma, suppose we all have a little gruel.’

Emma could not suppose any such thing, knowing as she did, that both the Mr. Knightleys were as unpersuadable on that article as herself; — and two basins only were ordered. After a little more discourse in praise of gruel, with some wondering at its not being taken every evening by every body…

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said—much praise and many comments—undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerably;—but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin.”

Many academics believe that the prominence of this scene, and the resulting importance Austen places on Mr. Woodhouse’s preference for the insipid daily staple, makes gruel a wider symbol in the novel. This scene becomes a warning of Emma’s possible future should she stay at Hartfield. Emma’s failure to marry, travel and to socialize in more sophisticated circles could condemn her to a life of tedium and boredom.

British Library’s first edition of Mansfield Park.

‘Fresh negus for the happy dancers…’

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens serves negus at Mr. Fezziwig’s Christmas ball. And as I mentioned previously, during the Regency period, it was a staple of balls, served alongside such favorites as white soup. So it’s no surprise that the drink appears twice in Austen’s novels, both in her unfinished work, The Watsons, and also in Mansfield Park.

The Watsons wasn’t published during Austen’s lifetime but in Dickens’. In 1871, the text was included as a part of the second edition of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of his aunt Jane. Although we’re not sure why the novel was never finished, we do know that it was written sometime between 1804 and 1807.

While it may seem like a disadvantage not to have the complete story, it’s one of the few surviving examples of an English novel in its very earliest stage of composition. And what this draft shows us is that, in a very loose sense, The Watsons reflects Austen’s life at the time of her writing. Emma Watson and her three sisters are the daughters of an ailing, poor clergyman who need to marry well for their financial and social survival.

Negus appears in this beginning part of the novel, when Emma, returned home after living with a wealthy aunt for 14 years, attends a ball with her family. There she is introduced to the charming, handsome, social-climbing gentleman flirt, Tom Musgrave. Being popular with ladies, he is unsettled when Emma doesn’t accept his invitation to dance immediately, instead keeping her promise to dance with Mr. Howard. Tom Musgrave quickly covers his embarrassment by saying he has no intention to stay long at the ball, preferring to eat oysters and drink on his own. By the time Emma leaves, he is already gone, and she notes,

“As Tom Musgrave was seen no more, we may suppose his plan to have succeeded, and imagine him mortifying with his barrel of oysters in dreary solitude, or gladly assisting the landlady in her bar to make fresh negus for the happy dancers above…”

Famously, The Watsons was the last major Austen manuscript to be held in private hands before selling at Sotheby’s in 2011 to Oxford’s Bodleian Library for £993,250.

The Mansfield Park ball

Mansfield Park is Austen’s third novel, published in 1814 by Thomas Egerton who also published Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. There are plot similarities to The Watsons, in particular that of the heroines. Fanny Price, like Emma Watson, is sent away from her family to be raised by wealthy relatives.

Fanny is treated much like a second-class citizen for much of the novel, but there is a turning point at the end of the second part of the novel when her uncle, Sir Thomas, begins to recognize Fanny’s beauty and gentle nature. She is finally rewarded for her virtues and properly brought into society by opening the Mansfield Park ball.

The ball marks a significant change in Fanny’s status and circumstances. She overcomes her shyness and manages to enjoy herself. When Fanny is finally sent to bed by her uncle that evening, she takes a moment to reflect on her experience,

‘…stopping at the entrance-door, like the Lady of Branxholm Hall, “one moment and no more,” to view the happy scene, and take a last look at the five or six determined couple who were still hard at work; and then, creeping slowly up the principal staircase, pursued by the ceaseless country-dance, feverish with hopes and fears, soup and negus, sore-footed and fatigued, restless and agitated, yet feeling, in spite of everything, that a ball was indeed delightful.’

Thomas Rowlandson, published in London by SW Fores in 1790. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Regency masquerade balls

During the Regency period, Christmas was a time of celebration focused religious observation. Twelfth Night represented the end of this religious solemnity and was therefore the biggest celebration not just of the Christmas season but of the entire year.

The Georgians took Twelfth Night as an opportunity to let loose and held huge masked balls lasting all day and night. Despite the riotous nature of these Twelfth Night celebrations, they were often family affairs, sometimes even called the Children’s Ball or the Family Ball. We know that Austen and her siblings attended such events through their correspondence Jane wrote of one such Twelfth Night celebration at Manydown to her sister, Cassandra in 1808.

Since negus was such a staple in Jane’s novels, I can’t help but wonder if she enjoyed it herself that night…