Thursday, August 28, 2008

1815 Food

Soused pig's face!

It's Captain Jack Aubrey's favorite dish. In one of her letters, Jane Austen describes having just eaten some. But what is it, actually? Obviously there are pigs involved. My initial guess would have been that alcohol was somehow involved in the cooking process, like the 1815 equivalent of drunken chicken, but my limited Internet research, which led me to this fascinating book, suggests this is not the case:


Clean them extremely well, and boil them; take for sauce part of the liquor, and add vinegar, lime or lemon juice, salt, cayenne, black and Jamaica pepper; put in, either cut down or whole, the head and feet; boil all together for an hour, and pour it into a deep dish. It is eaten cold with mustard and vinegar.

In fact, the first definitions listed of souse as a verb are "to pickle, or to plunge or steep in a liquid, or to make wet." The slang sense of "to make or become intoxicated," which is the one I thought of first, is only No. 4.

I've been thinking a lot about food in 1815 lately, having been writing a chapter in which my time-traveling characters go to dinner at Henry Austen's house. In general, they find the food of 1815 hard to get used to, particularly since in their world of 2089 nearly everyone is a vegetarian, and meat-eaters are regarded with the kind of pitying disdain that cigarette smokers face today. (I am imagining the world of 2089 with certain politically correct, eco-friendly trends of today taken to ridiculous extremes.)

In 1815 everyone was a locavore; there was no choice in the matter. My characters probably approve of this, but not so much Mrs. Dalgairns's merciless way with overcooking vegetables, i.e.:


Wash and clean them thoroughly; if large, cut them into quarters, or divide them; put them on in boiling water, and throw in a little salt; boil them for nearly two hours.


Wash and clean them well; put them on in boiling water with a little salt in it, and let them boil quickly from three quarters to nearly an hour; serve with melted butter.

Quickly boil for nearly an hour? How is that quick? More proof of what we already suspected, that the 19th century had a different sense of time. Or maybe it just means a rapid boil?

Another fascinating difference: The Practice of Cookery has, in addition to a chapter about pork, a chapter about pigs: How to care for them and what to feed them, how to handle them after they are killed. (There are no instruction for actually killing the pig, making me wonder whether the potential readers of the cookbook outsourced this job, or it was something so obvious as to need no explaining.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Taking the Name of Jane in Vain

I have also, I failed to mention yesterday, taken a break from Samuel Richardson (which is itself a break what I actually ought to be doing, writing TJAP) by reading some of the many Jane Austen-themed books that have been published in recent years. They shall remain nameless here for reasons that will soon be clear.

I read them strictly in the interests of market research, you might say. It was work, for it certainly could not be called pleasure. Horrible dictu, there is some really bad writing going on out there under the name of homage to Jane Austen. In part it goes back to the question of Whose Jane Austen? The Harlequin-infused chick-lit writers have claimed her as a kindred spirit, but to write a romance that invokes Jane Austen is to play a very dangerous game, by inviting comparisons that one is sure to lose. The only person I can think of who has really managed it is Helen Fielding in Bridget Jones's Diary, who not coincidentally has a firm grasp of irony, goes light on the Austen allusions and is very, very funny. If Jane Austen were alive today it is not difficult to imagine her writing a book like BJD. It is harder to imagine her writing something like --- no names, never mind. The usual suspects -- you know who they are. Some have even been made into movies. They all have "Jane Austen" somewhere in their titles, which might serve as a lighthouse, warning readers of rocky shoals of bad writing ahead.

But wait, my book has "Jane Austen" in the title! And there is, no doubt, some very bad writing in it, at least in the first draft I am positive there is. And since I haven't even finished the first draft, isn't a wee bit presumptuous to be criticizing writers who not only finished their (however dreadfully written) books, but actually found publishers for them? And so who, exactly, do I think I am?

You might well ask. All right, back to work.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Still Reading Clarissa

Yes. Sigh. I have passed the 800-page mark, which means I am more than halfway there.

Clarissa has fled the bawdy house where Lovelace had installed her and sought refuge in Hampstead Heath. (Which, according to the London public transport web site, she could have reached in about an hour from Convent Garden (I'm imagining her in CG because the neighborhood was a nest of vice in the mid 18th century) by subway, were she alive today. But I digress. If she were alive today, none of this would be happening, unless she had the misfortune to be born, say, in Afghanistan.) Lovelace, being as diabolical as he is clever as Clarissa is good, promptly finds her. He is intercepting the letters she and her only remaining friend, Anna Howe, are exchanging, substituting his words for theirs. This will not end well.

For all that I cannot seem to get through it, this is an astonishing book, like nothing I have ever read or imagined, both in the way it is told and what it has to say. If Penguin Classics had only published it in two volumes, I think I would be done by now. Frequently in the last month I found myself reluctant to take it on the subway -- if I had any other single thing to carry in addition to the usual essentials, or had to run any errand on the way to work, it just seemed too heavy.

I took a break and read Northanger Abbey -- the one Austen work I had not yet reread in the last year or so, finding it delightfully light, in both senses of the term, by comparison. Though it is definitely the slightest of her novels, and the most amateurish, if one can use a word like that in connection with Jane Austen. The early part in Bath is very funny, showing a mastery of irony astonishing in an author so young. It seems to drag a bit when Catherine gets to Northanger Abbey, with the awkward mix of the disparate elements that refuse to merge (faux-Gothic, more irony). Austen describes things, like rooms, much more than in any later work.

Henry is hilarious, utterly droll, but that he falls in love with Catherine seems unconvincing. He is so funny; she's so naive and prone to taking everything at face value that is hard to imagine that he finds her a particularly interesting companion. Or was this merely Jane Austen's subtle swipe at the preference of even intelligent men for air-headed women? Catherine is a dear creature, but she is no Elizabeth Bennet, no Emma Woodhouse or Anne Elliot.

Now I am back in the dark, relentless, claustrophobic world of Clarissa and Lovelace, there to remain for some time.