Toasted cheese and mead: a peek into Jane Austen's kitchen

  • Martha Lloyd's Household Book - The Original Manuscript from Jane Austen's Kitchen, edited by Julienne Gehrer. Bodleian Library, $59.

Just in time for Christmas, Martha Lloyd's Household Book is a gem of a present for lovers of all things Jane Austen.

Martha Lloyd was a close friend of Jane and Cassandra Austen, who came to live with them, and the widowed Mrs Austen, in Southampton in 1808, after Martha's mother died. The three spinster women formed such a close bond that in a letter to Cassandra in 1808 Jane Austen described Martha as "the friend and sister under every circumstance".

The Bodleian Library, Oxford, in association with Jane Austen's House, has reproduced Martha Lloyd's book, a manuscript cookbook featuring recipes and remedies, as a colour facsimile, with a complete transcription and introduction by Julienne Gehrer.

Gehrer, in her biographical chapter, acknowledges that "there are no great headlines in Martha's life story other then that she was Jane Austen's closest friend". However, from Jane Austen's references to Martha in her letters, a picture emerges of a dutiful, empathetic, kind woman. Jane wrote to Martha, "You are made for doing good, and have quite as a great a turn for it I think as for physicking little children".

Martha moved with the Austens to Chawton in 1809 and took on the duties of housekeeper. Her Household Book provides an invaluable insight into life at Chawton and the responsibilities of running a household. It first came to the notice of the Jane Austen Memorial Trust in 1953, when Rosa Mary Mowell, the great-granddaughter of Austen's brother Frank, wrote to RW Chapman about a discoloured and worn book "which has Martha Lloyd's name inside and is inscribed "Cookery Interest".

Chapman forwarded the letter to a fellow trustee, T Edward Carpenter, telling him that the book had "no actual Austen in it - Lady (Francis) Austen hardly qualifies - it is of little commercial value". Chapman didn't realise the Austens' contributions to the recipes, nor that Mrs Austen had written a poem, "A receipt for a pudding", for Martha's book.

Fortunately, Mrs Mowell persisted because she believed Martha's book "should be at Chawton which must be the home of all such relics", and even threatened Carpenter with the possibility of interest from America. In 1956, Martha's Household Book became part of the collection in Chawton.

It's a small quarto notebook bound in dark-brown sheep parchment and it originally contained 126 pages. Unfortunately, six pages are missing, and Gehrer speculates that the missing pages simply detached as a result of normal wear and tear, especially since they appeared in the first section of the recipes.

Most of the entries are in Martha's own hand, although family and friends contributed to the recipes, including four from Mrs Austen, as well as her entertaining poem, which begins, "If the Vicar you treat/ You must give him to eat / A Pudding to hit his affection".

Of the 196 recipes, 45 were contributed either by members of the Austen and Lloyd families, or their friends and acquaintances.

The real delight of this publication is the colour facsimile, which is as close as most of us will ever get to hold something Jane Austen must have held. Turning the pages of this small stained, blotched, much used little book transports the reader back in time to the cottage in Chawton. Deidre Le Faye, in her foreword, describes it as opening an "extra window - a kitchen window, in fact - into life in Chawton cottage during those years when Jane was busy publishing her three earlier novels and composing her last three works".

The obvious reaction to Martha's book is to search for connections to Austen, but there are no annotations nor entries that refer to her. However, we do know from her letters that Cassandra kept bees and Jane's favourite drink was mead, for which Martha has a recipe. Equally, her favourite food was toasted cheese, and Martha has a recipe for that too.

It's also possible to find connections in the novels. Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice promises to hold a ball at Netherfield "as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough". There's a recipe for white soup in Martha's book, leading to the question - was this Austen's favourite version? In the same novel, although Elizabeth Bennet is scorned by Mr Hurst when she says she preferred "a plain dish to a ragout", Austen herself wrote in a letter, "I have had some ragout veal and I mean to have some haricot mutton tomorrow". There's a recipe for haricot mutton in Martha's book.

All of the recipes are transcribed for easy reading, but there's a word of warning from Gehrer: "Many of the original recipes . . . contain ingredients now known to be toxic and are not advised for consumption or use". However, Maggie Black and Deidre Le Faye, in Jane Austen's Cookbook (British Museum Press, 1995), have adapted many of Martha's recipes for the modern cook. Jane Austen would approve of her friend being remembered through a book that reflects her care for others.

This story Time-travelling to Jane's kitchen first appeared on The Canberra Times.