In Jane Austen’s time, breakfast arrived late in the typical country household, usually between nine and ten of the clock. The household would have completed several tasks prior to sitting down to a simple meal. Using fine china, the house’s occupants would partake of tea and toast. Thought to be invented by the English, toast was said to have come about because the English required a means to spread butter on the bread. (One must recall the rooms were quite chilly.) A kettle for tea would be prepared on the same fire over which the family toasted the bread on forks. Tea was an expensive commodity so it was kept under lock and key. Grand households would have a larger spread. Austen’s mother lists the fare at Stoneleigh Abbey as, “Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea, Plumb Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, Bread and Butter, and dry toast for me.”
The Midday Meal
At an inn, one might partake of “luncheon” or “nuncheon,” but those were not words found in Austen’s novels. She uses each only once in her writing. Occurring in the day’s middle, this meal, which generally consisted of cold food and drink, filled the gap between breakfast and a late dinner. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is offered cold meat, cake, and hothouse fruit when she visits Pemberley in the afternoon. At Mansfield’s Parsonage, Dr. Grant served sandwiches to Edmund Bertram.
Early on, the English ate their largest meal in the day’s middle when it could be cooked and consumed during the daylight hours. However, by the 18th Century, the most fashionable people began to eat their dinners at an hour later than their social inferiors. A family’s social status could be easily delineated by the hour at which they dined. In 1798, writing from Steventon to Godmersham, Jane Austen wrote, “We dine now at half after Three, and have done dinner I suppose before you begin…I am afraid you will despise us.” However, in 1808, she wrote, “We never dine now till five.”
This evening meal also became a display of the family’s prosperity. “Courses” included several meat and fish courses, those of vegetables, and multiple puddings and sweet dishes. At the end, nuts, sweetmeats, etc., were served, along with wine. This was the “dessert” course. The ranking female would rise at the end of the meal, and the ladies would retire to the drawing room. The men were remained behind to enjoy their port and tobacco, as well as uninhibited conversation.
When Austen speaks of taking tea, she did not refer to what we now call “afternoon tea.” Instead, she meant the serving of tea when the men joined the women in the drawing room following dinner. Occasionally, invitations to social inferiors were issued purely for the tea time. In Austen’s novels, the reader finds Harriet Smith, Jane Fairfax, and Miss Bates are invited to drink tea at the Coles’s house, while Emma, Mr. Knightley, and the Westons are invited to dine with the Coles.
At a late hour on the evening of a ball, a supper was served. As the person’s neighbors would not be leaving the event until 2 or 3 in the morning, it was considered good manners to provide a meal at midnight. This meal was substantial and always included soup (usually a white soup) and negus (a drink made from boiled water, wine, lemon, spices, and calves-foot jelly). If no ball was planned, supper became a “midnight snack,” usually served from a tray.