Throughout her novels, Jane Austen presents many a banquet of “food for a rambling fancy” to her readers (MP 206). While Austen’s descriptions are frequently minimalistic, her attention to foodstuff provides a quality of verisimilitude to her texts, bridging fiction and reality. Nevertheless, while food, as a shared commonality, does ascribe realism to her texts, it also transcends its mundane role of mere nourishment, functioning as an important pillar in the social foundations of Austen’s world. It is through food-based interactions that Austen illustrates living conditions and establishes cultural values which shape her moral landscapes. In Mansfield Park, food culture and commensality expose central themes connected to social status and gender, revealing how consumption—of both literal and metaphorical foods—affects the major characters by molding their physical and emotional spaces.
By reflecting one’s emotional space, food reinforces internal conflicts connected to class. Upon her first arrival at Mansfield Park, Fanny Price’s attitude towards food signals her struggle in regards to her social position. Although she is aware that she should feel fortunate for securing a better future, her homesickness prevents her from expressing any form of gratitude, causing her misery to increase “by the idea of its being a wicked thing for her not to be happy” (13). Similarly to the class stratification presented in Austen’s fictitious world, foodstuff is likewise categorized in a hierarchal structure which often dictates what one is able to eat. While trying to comfort her niece, Lady Bertram offers her “gooseberry tart,” but Fanny “[can] scarcely swallow two mouthfuls before tears [interrupt] her” (13). When considering the conditions of her original home in Portsmouth, one can assume that this is the first time that Fanny has been offered such an extravagant dessert. The gooseberry tart is not only connected to comfort, but also to the opulence of the Mansfield estate and its inhabitants. Through the gooseberry tart, Lady Bertram is not only attempting to soothe Fanny, but also offering an invitation into her social realm. Though Fanny is only a child and not rationally aware of issues regarding her own social position yet, Austen already hints at feelings of social uncertainty in her early characterization through Fanny’s emotional response to her new environment, which is illustrated through the fact that she “[thinks] too lowly of her own claims” (20) and of her “situation” (35). Such feelings prevent her from accepting Lady Bertram's offer, for Fanny’s lack of gratitude makes her feel undeserving of receiving such a sophisticated dish, and consequently, of belonging to this higher social sphere. This rejection also indicates Fanny’s moral fortitude, since she is unable betray her feelings merely to please others, and foreshadows her refusal and reprobation of “improper” values that are presented throughout the novel.
These feelings of social uncertainty are echoed by Fanny when she is sent back to Portsmouth after declining Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. While she stays with her family, such is Fanny’s unwillingness to consume “Rebecca’s puddings, and Rebecca’s hashes, brought to the table as they all were, with such accompaniments of half-cleaned plates, and not half-cleaned knives and forks, that she [is] very often constrained to defer her heartiest meal, till she could send her brothers in the evening for biscuits and buns” (409). Fanny’s rejection of Rebecca’s dishes mirrors her refusal of the tart at the Park, illustrating her repulsion of her former home and exposing her social alienation. This alienation is further reinforced by her attempt to find food elsewhere. By containing neither the elegance associated with the gooseberry tart from Mansfield, nor the crudeness of the dishes from Portsmouth, these “biscuits and buns” also symbolize Fanny, for both food and she are placed in a liminal space between classes. Fanny’s quest for food is symbolic of her search for her own social identity; the fact that she considers “biscuits and buns” as “her heartiest meal” reveals Fanny’s quest as ineffectual since her choice of food can hardly be deemed as substantial or nourishing. Such a choice, then, signals Fanny’s inability to get any comfort or fulfilment from her current situation.
Sir Thomas’ decision to send Fanny to Portsmouth reinforces this lack of fulfillment as the narrator states that, “though Sir Thomas, had he known all, might have thought his niece in the most promising way of being starved, both body and mind [ . . . ] he would probably have feared to push his experiment farther, lest she might die under the cure” (409). Fanny’s discomfort transcends her physical body; her hunger is not only for “proper” aliment, but also for intellectual food produced by respectable society. The mortal threat presented by this dual starvation elevates this hunger, indicating that one’s deprival of food—whether it is concrete or social—can be destructive to an individual. Scholar Nina Auerbach comments on the effects of this deprival as she states that, by being unable (or unwilling) to eat, Fanny becomes “a spectral presence at the communal feast” (449). Indeed, we see no evidence of Fanny enjoying either her “biscuits and buns,” or any other concrete foodstuff at Portsmouth; instead, her social appetite is only appeased by “food for meditation” contained in the letters from Mansfield (309). This nourishment from metaphorical foods emphasizes her “spectral presence,” denoting that the fulfilment of Fanny’s emotional hunger is more significant than her physical sustenance.
Fanny’s food preferences at Portsmouth illuminate her unconscious shift of social allegiances, suggesting that her perception of belonging is not solely dependent on family, but also on the ability of being nurtured both physically and mentally. Her reaction upon hearing Henry Crawford’s rejection to dine with the Prices at Portsmouth reflects this shift as she feels relief from “escaping so horrible an evil” which would involve his learning of her families’ “deficiencies” in propriety (402-3). Fanny claims her distinction from her family through her “natural delicacy” which prevents her from being at ease with her family during meals (403). Fanny’s relationship with food highlights her emotional turmoil through her inability to consume concrete foods in Portsmouth and reveals her moral struggle in understanding where she stands in the social spectrum.
Differently from Fanny, who actively procures foods which disconnect her from social extremes, Mary Crawford acts as her food foil by indulging in social affluence through the consumption of society itself. With the removal of Tom Bertram from their party, Mary already predicts a disruption in her social feasting as she “[retakes] her chosen place by the bottom of the table, fully expecting to feel a most melancholy difference in masters” (52). Her predictions are confirmed by her inability to satisfy her social appetite with Edmund’s silence, obliging her to feed on “what was passing at the upper end of the table” (52). Her distaste in his company is clearly reflected in her perception of the dishes served during dinner, as “[t]he soup would be sent round in a most spiritless manner, wine drank without any smiles, or agreeable trifling, and the venison cut up without supplying one pleasant anecdote” (52). Just as she finds Edmund’s reticence insipid, she cannot digest the rest of the meal provided by him, implying that both host and food are equally unpalatable. Not even the venison, which Austen critic Maggie Lane dubs as “the food which gives the most desirable social message in Jane Austen’s world” (62), is enough to please her. This exchange implies their incompatibility and foreshadows the outcome of their courtship by indicating how neither can satisfy the other, whether through food, status or love.
Interestingly, the implication of Mary’s choice in seats appears paradoxical to her submittal to personal displeasure; one must wonder why she abides Edmund’s company if she has the option to acquire better “nourishment” elsewhere. Perhaps, the key to this question lies in the location of the seat itself. As Lane comments on the position of guests in dinner parties, she explains that “[w]ith the exception of the chief male and female guests, who occupied places next, respectively, to their hostess and host, the company chose their own places at the table” (41). Given the presence of Dr. and Mrs. Grant, who would most likely be considered the main guests, and the expression “chosen place,” one can surmise that Mary’s decision to sit by Edmund is deliberate. Such a decision exposes Mary’s concern for her social “seat” and affluence, indicating that her appetite for status takes precedence over her own comfort.
Mary also displays her concern for status through her views on domestic economy. While reflecting on the challenges of housekeeping, Mary comments on how she plans to avoid the vexations connected to food management as she states, “I mean to be too rich to lament [ . . . ] A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of. It certainly may secure all the myrtle and turkey part of it” (210). Considering her disinterest in housekeeping, Mary’s use of term “recipe” seems ironic, yet it reveals a great deal about her social appetite. By connecting class to culinary terms, Mary signals that her satisfaction hinges upon the metaphorical consumption of status. Her reference to myrtle, a plant traditionally used both in dishes and bridal wreaths (Lane 148), implies that this consumption is not only related to concrete food, but also symbolic of marriage. Mary’s disinclination towards housekeeping and social aspirations to be “too rich to lament” denote her selfishness by indicating her preferment to be served, rather than to serve others. Such an attitude further supports her incompatibility with Edmund who, upon taking his orders, will require a wife who is able to properly manage their home’s economy and food. While we seldom see Mary indulging in real foodstuff, her metaphorical hunger for social affluence is often apparent and, in many instances, reflected in her language and behaviour.
Similarly to his sister, Henry Crawford is rarely seen enjoying real foods; instead, his flirtatious stance reveals his sexual appetite, exposing how women become targets for his consumption. While making suggestions on improvements for Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Henry comments, “I am inclined to envy Mr. Rushworth for having so much happiness yet before him. I have been a devourer of my own” (61). The term “devourer” clearly emphasizes Henry’s predatory nature and implies how this metaphorical consumption—of “happiness” and women—is greedily performed, negatively affecting his moral worth; the voraciousness linked to the word also suggests how Henry takes the role of a hunter who sees women as his prey. Such a connotation both reinforces and undermines his masculinity. While hunting has been historically attributed to men, asserting their aggressiveness and manliness, it also denotes an untamed brutality which, when assigned to Henry, makes him seem less of gentleman. As he fixes his attentions on Fanny, Henry does not wish to consume “the bread of idleness,” nor will he be “satisfied [ . . . ] without making a small hole in Fanny Price’s heart” (225). His language once again connotes hunting through the implication of his piercing Fanny’s heart. This connotation is strengthened by the fact that Henry sees the pursuit of Fanny as a pastime for his amusement when his hunting is not literal (225), signalling that the satisfaction of his sexual appetite is dependent on his consumption of her. Nevertheless, his motivations, however selfish, do provide him with agency (the same cannot be said of Edmund) in his pursuit of love. By making women consumable, Henry Crawford unifies food and gender, expanding his “hunting space” from physical to metaphorical.
Henry’s attitude also suggests his shortcomings as a patriarch, for his focus on consuming women, rather than providing for them, signals his unsuitability to be a proper husband. While making suggestions to Edmund on the improvements of Thornton Lacey, Henry proposes clearing the plantation fields away entirely, concentrating on the aesthetics of the garden instead as he comments on the beauty of the meadows surrounding it (238). His concern for the physical aspects of the estate reveals his placement of superficial elements above practical ones, reflecting his moral deficiencies through his attention to vanity—as he is indeed attracted to elegance in both women and his environment—and evidencing his lack of pragmatism and inability to nurture others. This inability is also perceived in his interactions with Fanny, for through his dogged efforts in trying to conquer her, he elevates her anxieties, making her lose her appetite when he is dining at Mansfield and causing “her comfort in that day’s dinner [to be] quite destroyed” (299). By not noticing or not caring about Fanny’s comfort, Henry demonstrates his selfishness and ineptitude as a provider, and indicates that his love for Fanny is based on self-interest, rather than on common understanding.
If Henry Crawford takes the active role of a “hunter” in order to satisfy his sexual appetite with women, Edmund acts as his foil, for though he show himself tempted by Mary’s charms, his pursuit is more reluctant. Edmund hungers for the metaphorical nourishments embodied in the shapes of Mary and Fanny; while Mary provides him with the sensual pleasures of viewing her gracious figure and the opportunity to be “indulged with his favourite instrument” (65), Fanny possesses “beauty of mind” (194) and the ability to nurture him with “intellectual” food. Edmund is seldom associated with concrete foodstuff; his most memorable connection with food happens not when he is consuming it, but rather when he provides nourishment for others: upon noticing that Fanny is indisposed, Edmund attempts to appease her headache by serving her a glass of Madeira wine (73). Similarly to his mother, he perceives food as a source of comfort and, differently from Henry, understands its practical necessity since he intends to solely move the farm yard in Thornton Lacey (237), demonstrating that his views are based on an equilibrium between delicacy and sense (Lane 120). Though he may not indulge in real foodstuff, Edmund often sustains himself on metaphorical food. As he returns to Mansfield after his ordination, his “spirits [are] ready to feed on melancholy remembrances, and tender associations” of Mary (330). This preference for metaphorical foods not only binds him closer to Fanny—as both characters share the inclination to dwell on intellectual thoughts – but also, along with his indifference to concrete foods, functions in separating him from “worldly appetites” which could be viewed as inappropriate for a clergyman, distinguishing him from characters such as Dr. Grant who is censured for his gluttonous habits.
Whether physical or metaphorical, food and consumption hold a prevalent significance in the works of Jane Austen. Moments dedicated to commensality often illuminate internal struggles which are settled below the surface and illustrate relevant cultural aspects of each work, particularizing living conditions in different settings. In Mansfield Park, food culture and consumption reveal important themes and conflicts connected to social class and gender, enabling one to perceive how physical and emotional spaces are shaped by food-based interactions and to gain a deeper understanding of the major characters’ motivations and attitudes. While one’s indulgence towards food is traditionally deemed as negative in fiction, Austen shows us that the consumption of literature is a menu plaisir worth having, and one that allows us to be, in turn, consumed with questions and ideas about how not only imaginary worlds are constructed, but also how the (re)constructions of our own world and culture are affected by literary texts.