Friday, July 31, 2009

The Fanny Price Principals of Household Management

Jane Austen indirectly chronicled the difficulty of finding good kitchen help in her novel Mansfield Park. The heroine, Fanny Price is sent home to her parent's house to find that is in chaos: too many people living in a confined space, not enough money and only one servant, the infamous Rebeca, to wait on everyone. Yet, the real problem in the Price Household wasn't any of these things. It was poor management. Mrs. Price is overwhelmed, unable to cope and does little but yell at Rebeca in hopes that this will improve the situation. When Fanny arrives she begins to quietly pitch in. Her management by example (i.e. leadership) inspires her younger sister and even the formerly shiftless Rebeca to pitch in as well. Before long the meals are at least palatable if not up to Mansfield standards, there is a greater degree of calm (helped largely by the removal to the Navy of several of the more boisterous boys) and life is tolerable if not terrific for Fanny.

Fanny's management style has no effect on her alcoholic, spendthrift father, but perhaps given a few more years of her example Mr. Price will have either drunk himself to death or reformed. Rebeca is still lackluster and Mrs. Price still unable to cope with her. Fanny's experiment is cut short when she returns to Mansfield Park to help Manage by Example her Aunt and Uncle's family. There she proceeds to be quietly useful to everyone, helping to save one cousin from illness and another from heartbreak.

I've been thinking this week about embarking on My Jane Austen Diet and the difficulty of following the maxim "What Would Jane Eat" without servants. I made one recipe for preserved oranges and it took hours and hours of back-aching labor, and yielded exactly one jar of semi-edible marmalade. Of course in Jane Austen's day even moderately genteel families had several servants. The impoverished Dashwood girls are reduced to only having three servants to attend them. Almost every family in her novels has a cook. The exceptions are the Prices and the Bates in Emma.

So I thought I'd see if I could solve some of my kitchen labor problems with some Fanny Price Management Principals.

1)Fewer mouths to feed means less work for everyone. Send as many spare children as possible into the Royal Navy: this is really feasible or desirable as Robert is only three. Even the Navy in Austen's time had it's limits.
When this is not practical, attempt to co-opt the children into being kitchen help by simply working in the kitchen and espousing the principal that being useful is very comforting to one's soul. I have had the experience of neighborhood children wandering into my kitchen and pulling a Susan. (In reference to Fanny's younger sister who one day decides to pitch in with the tea.) One neighbor child helped me with the afore-mentioned marmalade, though he didn't want to eat it when it was finished. Robert will be many years before he's much help in the kitchen. He's very good at washing vegetables even though I mostly let him do it because he enjoys it and it's fun to be with him. Certainly the amount of work it takes to keep him out of harm's way in the kitchen far outweighs having to wash those dirty spuds myself.

3) A quiet, relaxing atmosphere is more important than a fancy or skillfully prepared meal. Fanny Price was a loner who liked to sit by herself in her room and read books. Going back to her parent's house was a huge shock mostly because of the noise and disruption. What if you walked into a four star restaurant and were greeted by howling infants, prancing toddlers, a blaring television and teenagers talking on cell phones? No matter how good the food was you'd probably try to get out of there as soon as possible. Unfortunately that's more or less the state of the average person's dinner table. One option is to feed the babies and toddlers separately from the adults. My husband and I have had great success doing this with our son. He has a few meals a week with us, but they are a privilege which can be revoked if he doesn't behave. The importance of being a good dinner companion is stressed above even nutrition. We feel that the harm imparted by allowing loutish behavior to rule at mealtime far outweighs the harm of missed meal. He can have crackers and milk in his room if he's going to be like that.

4) Keep your larder stocked with good, simple foods that take little preparation or that can be prepared well in advance. Something small and good is better than nothing or something fancy that arrives too late. When Fanny and her brother William first arrive home, in the late afternoon, their mother greets them thusly, "Poor dears! how tired you must both be! and now, what will you have? I began to think you would never come. Betsey and I have been watching for you this half–hour. And when did you get anything to eat? And what would you like to have now? I could not tell whether you would be for some meat, or only a dish of tea, after your journey, or else I would have got something ready. And now I am afraid Campbell will be here before there is time to dress a steak, and we have no butcher at hand. It is very inconvenient to have no butcher in the street. We were better off in our last house. Perhaps you would like some tea as soon as it can be got.”

Mrs. Price, afraid of doing too much or too little opts to do nothing at all! How often have I paid the price for this type of waffling with my toddler. If I don't have a meal plan in my head, and ready to begin prep the minute we walk in the door, he simply throws open the fridge and begins foraging for himself. This is how he once happened to eat half a pint of sour cream with a spoon. One can't blame the little lad. He is hungry and tired from his daily travels. He deserves some meat and a dish of tea or at least a nice piece of cheese and fruit.

Sadly by the end of Fanny's tenure at her Portsmouth home, her mother still has not learned this principal. On her final morning in her parent's house, Fanny is forced to skip breakfast because it is not ready in time for her to leave. This probably owing mostly to the fact that Fanny and Susan were busy readying their things for the journey and had no time to help with the preparations, which leads me to the next principal:

5) If you really want something done right, you probably will have to do it yourself. In the last chapter of the Portsmouth section of the novel, Fanny sits and meditates on the state of her mother's house, "She sat in a blaze of oppressive heat, in a cloud of moving dust, and her eyes could only wander from the walls, marked by her father’s head, to the table cut and notched by her brothers, where stood the tea–board never thoroughly cleaned, the cups and saucers wiped in streaks, the milk a mixture of motes floating in thin blue, and the bread and butter growing every minute more greasy than even Rebeca’s hands had first produced it. Her father read his newspaper, and her mother lamented over the ragged carpet as usual, while the tea was in preparation, and wished Rebecca would mend it; ..."

I actually did consider trying to hire a teenager to come in and help a few hours a day, while I worked in the kitchen. I decided instead that, although I'm going to try my best to eat like Jane Austen, I'd be mad to try to cook like someone from her era. A good food processor, a good set of kitchen gadgets, an excellent gas range and grill and most-importantly, a refrigerator will take the place of at least one servant. When one considers the amount of time saved at a modern market, where one can shop for a whole week in one place, it must add up to at least half a servant. Modern ingredients will also save me time as well. How long do you reckon it took to beat a pound of loaf sugar into two cups of the granulated stuff? Must be at least a quarter of a servant saved by using modern sugar. No wonder people wer boycotting the stuff.


  1. Excellent blog. I want Fanny to come organize my life. So capable. Marmalade is a tricky preserve. It takes 3 days and does not always set well. I love it though. So addicted. After several hits and misses on making it, I have resorted to the store bought version. Not as good, but less painful. Cheers, Laurel Ann

  2. I found a way to use up the marmalade that I made: it makes a great chutney on pork chops and thick cut bacon. Raspberries are coming into season here, so I think I'll try to pick up some at a market and preserve those. I've done that before and I know it works!

  3. Your "We feel that the harm imparted by allowing loutish behavior to rule at mealtime far outweighs the harm of missed meal" gets a rousing chorus of Amens from me! I don't allow texting and phoning at my table, for example. Not even from guests. I announce that I have a policy of confiscating annoying electronic devices!

  4. There is something about Austen's description of the Price household that repels me. It seemed to reek of class bigotry.