The Austen household (Jane, Cassanandra, her mother and her friend Martha Lloyd) relied heavily on what was in season and the kitchen garden was crucial to a healthy life. Like many of the middling people of the time who were neither rich, nor the working poor, they were able to live comfortably on very good home produced food with only the staples of tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, spices and citrus fruits that had to be bought. Cassandra kept bees while Mrs Austen kept a poultry yard. Often presents of game would be sent from their brothers, Edward and James.
Growing and cooking your own food was like breathing and is so different from the world of today where many of us have lost the art of cooking let alone growing and catching our own food. The Chawton women enjoyed their household; they delighted in their recipes and Martha kept her household book with a leather binder indexed including household tips as well. The Chawton women took pleasure in the everyday and the simple lifestyle. Naturally, they also enjoyed visits to the more sophisticated Godmersham where, ‘vulgar economy’ was absent but they obviously also relished their independence and the simple life that Chawton provided. In a letter to Cassandra, Jane writes, “Good apple pies are a considerable part of our domestic happiness”. (Jamie Oliver and our own Australian Stephanie Alexander would be impressed.)
The women lived an almost Epicurian lifestyle sharing their food, friendship and family. Why is it that some of the greatest writers have also been keen gardeners too? It is as if the spirit of Sissinghurst and the Bloomsbury group live on at Chawton too. This is of course very far-fetched given the Bloomsbury group’s predilection for free love but Austen was in her own way a radical, rejecting ‘sensible’ proposals for marriage for her writing.
The Spring has just arrived here in the southern hemisphere. The blossom is sharing its promise of the fruit to come and the chill has left the gentle breeze. Hopefully the new seedlings in the garden will bring produce and apple pies will be the nature of the day connecting us with delights that have been enjoyed for generations.
- Jane Austen’s Ring (blueridgevintage.wordpress.com)