I suspect I’m not the only man in the world whose wife loves Jane Austen. And I further would not be surprised to learn that I’m not alone in not feeling quite the same level of joy at every new film or television adaptation of one of her works. (Is that enough “nots” in one sentence?) Oh, I’ve enjoyed a few of the costume dramas, I confess. I thought “Clueless” was quite enjoyable. So I don’t want you to think I’m an irredeemable boor. I’ve suffered through — ahem, I mean seen — most of them, and it’s not been as horrible as, say, “Dallas” or “Knot’s Landing” or any of a number of similar dreck.
But my interest in Jane Austen just shot up 99%, thanks to an article posted by BBC Magazine yesterday, Beer: The Women Taking Over the World of Brewing. It’s a great article all on it’s own, one of the few to treat the subject of women in beer with a decent amount of respect, for a change. But what caught my attention was a sidebar about Jane Austen by alcohol historian Jane Peyton.
It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged — Jane Austen not only drank beer but brewed it too.
As a teenager she would have learned how to make beer by helping her mother in the Hampshire vicarage where she grew up.
Brewing was part of household duties and even the women of genteel 18th Century families such as the Austens would know how to do it, even if the chores were sometimes delegated to domestic staff.
In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane wrote “and I that have the great cask, for we are brewing spruce beer again….”
As in most houses small beer (low alcohol) was served at the Austen dining table as a safe source of drinking water for all members of the family — children too — so Jane would certainly have tasted the results of her labour.
It certainly makes sense, though I’d never really stopped to think about it before. Austen apparently mentioned her brewing efforts in letters to her sister Cassandra. In one of them she mentions small beer while in two others she talks about her spruce beer.
Austen also mentions spruce beer in her 1815 novel, “Emma.”
“But one morning — I forget exactly the day — but perhaps it was the Tuesday or Wednesday before that evening, he wanted to make a memorandum in his pocket-book: it was about spruce-beer. Mr. Knightley had been telling him something about brewing spruce-beer, and he wanted to put it down….”
And according to “Cooking with Jane Austen,” when the Austen family lived at Stoneleigh, her mother wrote about the “mansions ‘strong beer’ and ‘small beer’ cellars.” And Mrs. Austen also “brewed beer at Steventon in the last years of the eighteenth century and at Chawton cottage many years later.”
It almost makes me want to read her again … nah. Still, she’s now a bit more interesting.