Author Archive for The Governess

Weird animal heads fine; cheese too smelly.

Weird animal heads fine; cheese too smelly.

I’ve been reading a fair bit of Victorian literature lately, mostly Mrs Gaskell. I started with Cranford, inspired by the first season of the BBC series (the second series is pants, unfortunately), and have currently moved on to Wives and Daughters, which handily has the full text available online for anyone inspired to follow up.

Anyway, one of the recurring motifs in the book is that chaps like to eat cheese. Bread and cheese, usually, even if they are lords, and their wives find this vulgar.

There is one character in particular (the widowed Mrs Kirkpatrick) who is concerned about the gentility of cheese-eating, and eating in general. She is horrified to learn that her fiance, Dr Gibson, likes nothing better than a bit of bread and cheese, when she asks his daughter Molly what his preferences are.

‘Papa doesn’t care what he has, if it’s only ready. He would take bread-and- cheese, if cook would only send it in instead of dinner.’
‘Bread-and-cheese! Does Mr Gibson eat cheese?’
‘Yes; he’s very fond of it,’ said Molly, innocently. ‘I’ve known him eat toasted cheese when he has been too tired to fancy anything else.’
‘Oh! but, my dear, we must change all that. I shouldn’t like to think of your father eating cheese; it’s such a strong-smelling, coarse kind of thing. We must get him a cook who can toss him up an omelette, or something elegant. Cheese is only fit for the kitchen.’
‘Papa is very fond of it,’ persevered Molly.
‘Oh! but we will cure him of that. I couldn’t bear the smell of cheese; and I’m sure he would be sorry to annoy me.’

When she marries, she upsets her new household by moving dinner from mid-day to evening, and then she starts in on her husband (who is a busy doctor) and his habit of snatching a snack in the kitchen. The new Mrs Gibson is constantly worried about the smell of food permeating the dining room, but it’s cheese that really agitates her.

Of course, this made me wonder if Mrs Beeton condoned recipes for cheese (toasted or otherwise). Actually, as it turns out, Mrs Beeton is credited with popularizing cheese on toast (aka Scotch Rare-bit), and macaroni cheese, according to some sources. Her recipes include an putting mustard or anchovy paste in cheese sandwiches, and there’s a rather dashing Brillat Savarin fondue recipe replicated verbatim.

Although apparently free from anti-cheese prejudices, given that she does present a number of cheese-based recipes, Mrs Beeton does have a few cautionary words to say:

CHEESE.– It is well known that some persons like cheese in a state of decay, and even “alive.” There is no accounting for tastes, and it maybe hard to show why mould, which is vegetation, should not be eaten as well as salad, or maggots as well as eels. But, generally speaking, decomposing bodies are not wholesome eating, and the line must be drawn somewhere.

That’s a no to casu marzu, then.

The cheese course Mrs Beeton describes seems to be designed for a rather fancy dinner, with little bits of cheese cut up and accompanied by “Rusks, cheese-biscuits, pats or slices of butter, and salad, cucumber, or water-cresses”. This fiddly method of serving would seem to be right up Mrs Gibson’s alley, since she insists on serving a “dessert” of nuts and dried fruit, whether anyone wants to eat it or not.

So, although Molly knew full well, and her stepmother knew full well, and Maria knew full well, that neither Mrs Gibson nor Molly touched dessert, it was set on the table with as much form as if Cynthia had been at home, who delighted in almonds and raisins; or Mr Gibson been there, who never could resist dates, although he always protested against ‘persons in their station of life having a formal dessert set out before them every day.’ And Mrs Gibson herself apologized as it were to Molly to-day, in the same words she had often used to Mr Gibson, – ‘It’s no extravagance, for we need not eat it – I never do. But it looks well, and makes Maria understand what is required in the daily life of every family of position.’

Mrs Beeton does allude to bread and cheese as being filling and thus popular with labourers, in her recipe for cheese sandwiches, which is perhaps the source of Mrs Gibson’s horror at the doctor’s overt enjoyment of such a meal.

Mrs Gaskell seems quite fond of using food and food preferences as a way of giving an insight into her characters’ social and economic status. The ladies in Cranford, for instance, have a hilarious pretense of being surprised by the contents of meals they have cooked themselves. Here, she’s clearly building up what eventually becomes a very unflattering portrait of a shallow and materialistic woman in Mrs Gibson, who is desperately trying to appear of a higher status than she is, while her husband, confident in his own character and merits, sends her into conniptions by eating bread and cheese in the kitchen.

First Foot Forward: New Year’s customs and manners

First Foot Forward: New Year's customs and manners

Unlike in the current day, when New Year’s Eve has developed into an occasion to test the properties of alcohol as an emetic, in the Victorian era, New Year’s Eve celebrations tended to be more musical than alcoholic in nature, although as the century progressed, there is evidence of rather less genteel behaviour being exhibited at public gatherings. The fact that Church authorities at St Paul’s in London decided against continuing the tradition of bell-ringing at midnight suggests that the crowds had become less interested in quiet enjoyment than in raucous entertainments.

It should be noted that crowds continued to gather, perhaps replacing the sound of the bells with musical entertainments of their own, although whether they featured traditional New Year’s carols, or versions of Eskimo Nell, history does not divulge. Let us imagine hearty and wholesome folk tunes, then, like the following:

To-night it is the New Year’s night, to-morrow is the day
And we have come for our right and for our ray
As we used to do in King Henry’s day
Sing, fellows, sing Hagmen heigh!

New Year’s (charmingly known as Hogmanay, or even more charmingly as Hegmena, in Scotland) was a quintessentially Scottish celebration; the passion for all things Scottish (including, but not limited to Mr Brown) cultivated by the Queen and passed on as a fashion to her subjects, is suggested as one of the reasons for the rise in popularity in New Year’s celebrations across the Empire. In earlier eras, New Year’s was the time for gift giving and the payment and rewarding of loyal servants and subjects. Court records as far back as Edward III document New Years gifts both given and received by the sovereign.

This custom of New Year’s gifts was still common in Victorian times; tied to it is the idea that something must enter the house on New Year’s Day before anything leaves it. Traditional gifts were often symbolic of prosperity in the coming year – bread, salt and coal, perhaps a green branch or plant (perhaps symbolising health and growth), and whiskey.

The first person across the threshold on that day should bring a such a gift, and no cheating, such as having a party guest go outside and then come in again after the stroke of midnight. The identity (or perhaps more accurately, the characteristics) of the first person across the threshold were the subject of a number of folk customs, or superstitions.

Victorians, keen navel-gazers and collectors of folk trivia, wrote, in response to a call for information about First Foot customs and superstitions in Folklore, and the results of the correspondence were summarized in a table by John Rhys and T.W.E Higgins in the June 1892 edition. Although customs do vary widely from region to region, it is safe to say that a flat-footed bearded red-headed woman would be unlikely to receive any invitations for January 1.

In some rural areas, this tradition was taken so seriously that newspapers reported women wandering the streets at all hours after midnight, being forced to wait until their fathers or brothers came home before they were allowed to cross the threshold.

Interestingly, while the table and the strict observance of the custom of the First Foot might lead readers to infer it was a medieval or ancient tradition, it is actually traceable only to 1850 or so, making it an authentically Victorian practice.

New Year’s gifts traditionally exchanged after the first foot were often symbolic of wealth: gilded nutmegs, oranges stuck with cloves, and papers of pins all have clear connections to money and coins. Another tradition tied to the idea of promoting prosperity in the coming year included the belief that a person, no matter how young, should have money in his or her pocket on New Year’s day, or risk poverty.

Among the things that were unlucky on the first day of the year were throwing out ashes (the hearth should be cleaned before midnight on the 31st, so that a new fire could be laid), doing laundry specifically (presumably because this required the throwing out of dirty water), or any kind of work in general. Also unlucky was having the fire leave the house, either in the form of a lantern or candle being carried out, or having the fire in the stove or hearth go out.

The idea of one’s actions at the turn of the year setting the course for the next 12 months seems to be deeply ingrained into many of these traditions and beliefs. It is interesting to think about how they appear to have evolved into a practice of determining one’s own actions by making resolutions. Victorians focussed more on predicting events to come than resolving to shape them. Divination games, like reading ashes or tea leaves, were popular, as was the practice of “dipping” into the Bible to find a verse that would predict the course of the new year.

Another predictive tradition is that whatever one is doing at the time the bells chime midnight, is what one will be doing for the most part of the new year; this is no doubt in part responsible for the tradition of staying up at least until midnight – lying in bed might predict illness or incapacity.

So, perhaps rather than resolving to read more improving literature, drink less and exercise more, one should ring in the new year while simultaneously reading and riding an exercise bicycle and drinking water.