Have you ever wondered why of all the items she could send to the ailing Jane Farifax, that Emma, after consulting with her housekeeper, sends some arrow-root? That powered starch we sometimes now use as a thickening agent in sauces etc?…Was that really special and a gift worthy of note?
Well, yes it was.
And Mrs Rundell, whom we mentioned yesterday, can help us to understand what at this remove might seem like a trivial and somewhat mystifying gift.
Let’s set the scene…When all is going wrong for Jane Fairfax in Chapter 45 Emma tries to rise above it all and be friends.
The possibility of Jane having some pulmonary disease is uppermost in everyone’s mind and Mr Perry , Highbury’s apothecary, is trying as humanely as possible to quell fears:
…when Mr. Perry called at Hartfield, the same morning, it appeared that she was so much indisposed as to have been visited, though against her own consent, by himself, and that she was suffering under severe headachs, and a nervous fever to a degree, which made him doubt the possibility of her going to Mrs. Smallridge’s at the time proposed. Her health seemed for the moment completely deranged — appetite quite gone — and though there were no absolutely alarming symptoms, nothing touching the pulmonary complaint, which was the standing apprehension of the family, Mr. Perry was uneasy about her. He thought she had undertaken more than she was equal to, and that she felt it so herself, though she would not own it. Her spirits seemed overcome. Her present home, he could not but observe, was unfavourable to a nervous disorder: — confined always to one room; — he could have wished it otherwise — and her good aunt, though his very old friend, he must acknowledge to be not the best companion for an invalid of that description. Her care and attention could not be questioned; they were, in fact, only too great. He very much feared that Miss Fairfax derived more evil than good from them. Emma listened with the warmest concern; grieved for her more and more, and looked around eager to discover some way of being useful. To take her — be it only an hour or two — from her aunt, to give her change of air and scene, and quiet rational conversation, even for an hour or two, might do her good; and the following morning she wrote again to say, in the most feeling language she could command, that she would call for her in the carriage at any hour that Jane would name — mentioning that she had Mr. Perry’s decided opinion, in favour of such exercise for his patient.
Emma is soundly rebuffed…..but still tries to do good:
Emma felt that her own note had deserved something better; but it was impossible to quarrel with words, whose tremulous inequality showed indisposition so plainly, and she thought only of how she might best counteract this unwillingness to be seen or assisted. In spite of the answer, therefore, she ordered the carriage, and drove to Mrs. Bates’s, in the hope that Jane would be induced to join her — but it would not do; — Miss Bates came to the carriage door, all gratitude, and agreeing with her most earnestly in thinking an airing might be of the greatest service — and every thing that message could do was tried — but all in vain. Miss Bates was obliged to return without success; Jane was quite unpersuadable; the mere proposal of going out seemed to make her worse. — Emma wished she could have seen her, and tried her own powers; but, almost before she could hint the wish, Miss Bates made it appear that she had promised her niece on no account to let Miss Woodhouse in. “Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody — anybody at all — Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied — and Mrs. Cole had made such a point — and Mrs. Perry had said so much — but, except them, Jane would really see nobody.”
Emma ‘s naturallly good impluses still make her want to help, in some way, this poor but proud, distressed soul:
Emma did not want to be classed with the Mrs. Eltons, the Mrs. Perrys, and the Mrs. Coles, who would force themselves anywhere; neither could she feel any right of preference herself — she submitted, therefore, and only questioned Miss Bates farther as to her niece’s appetite and diet, which she longed to be able to assist. On that subject poor Miss Bates was very unhappy, and very communicative; Jane would hardly eat any thing: — Mr. Perry recommended nourishing food; but every thing they could command (and never had anybody such good neighbours) was distasteful.
Emma, on reaching home, called the housekeeper directly, to an examination of her stores; and some arrow-root of very superior quality was speedily despatched to Miss Bates with a most friendly note. In half an hour the arrow-root was returned, with a thousand thanks from Miss Bates, but “dear Jane would not be satisfied without its being sent back; it was a thing she could not take — and, moreover, she insisted on her saying, that she was not at all in want of any thing.”
When Emma afterwards heard that Jane Fairfax had been seen wandering about the meadows, at some distance from Highbury, on the afternoon of the very day on which she had, under the plea of being unequal to any exercise, so peremptorily refused to go out with her in the carriage, she could have no doubt — putting every thing together — that Jane was resolved to receive no kindness from her. She was sorry, very sorry. Her heart was grieved for a state which seemed but the more pitiable from this sort of irritation of spirits, inconsistency of action, and inequality of powers; and it mortified her that she was given so little credit for proper feeling, or esteemed so little worthy as a friend: but she had the consolation of knowing that her intentions were good, and of being able to say to herself, that could Mr. Knightley have been privy to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not, on this occasion, have found any thing to reprove.
Never mind- it all comes right in the end, I promise.
So, back to our original question: why did Emma send arrow-root to JAne Fairfax? Most of us might think it an odd choice as a gift for someone who is ill . Why would this be considered nourishing and something to give to someone who had lost their appetite though illness?.
It was (and still is), an edible starch which was produced from powdering and drying the pith of the maranta plant. . The herb is extracted from the fleshy roots of the plant- the rhizomes- and this is achieved by putting the roots through an elaborate process of washing, peeling, soaking, and drying in the sun.
The end product is a fine, white powder with the same appearance and texture as cornstarch.
Further it was expensive to buy: it had to be imported to England from the West Indies and from India, and, as such, was a luxury item in Jane Austen’s era.
So thus far we have discovered therefore that Emma had sent to Jane Fairfax some expensive starch…is that all?
Well, no. And this is the important point to consider : Arrow-root was thought to be quite the best starch to be used when creating food for invalids. It was( and still is) widely considered to be an easily digested and nutritious starch . It did not set food as to make it very hard to eat and digest – such as a concentrated calves foot jelly mixture would have done, for example,- and could be used to soothe the stomach and alleviate the symptoms of diarrhoea. A jelly made from arrowroot was therefore considered to both be nourishing and beneficial to someone who was ill and had a poor appetite.(Jane Fairfax’s situation exactly,as related by Miss Bates)
In her book A New System of Domestic Cookery (1819) edition Maria Rundell included specific recipes for the sick in her chapter entitled Cookery for the Sick and for the Poor .This chapter contains some characteristically sensible advice on the feeding of people with poor appetites:
The following pages will contain cookery for the sick: it being of more consequence to support those whose bad appetite will not allow them to take the necessary nourishment, than to stimulate that of persons in health.
It may not be unnecessary to advise that a choice be made of the things most likely to agree with the patient; that a change be provided; that some one at least always ready; that not too much of those be made at once which are not likely to keep,as invalids require variety; and that they should succeed each other in different forms and flavours.
Her recipe for Arrow-root Jelly is as follows:
Dr Buchan( whom we met in out post, Were they right to worry about Jane Fairfax’s Health, below) in his book Domestic Medicine recommended supplying jellies for sufferers of possible consumptions:
IT is not to be wondered, that milk should, for some time, disagree with a stomach that has not been accustomed to digest any thing but flesh and strong liquors, which is the case with many of those who fall into consumptions. We do not however advise those who have been accustomed to animal food and strong liquors, to leave them off all at once. This might be dangerous. It will be necessary for such to eat a little once a-day of the flesh of some young animal, or rather to use the broth made of chickens, veal, lamb, or such like. They ought likewise to drink a little wine made into negus, or diluted with twice or thrice its quantity of water, and to make it gradually weaker till they can leave it off altogether.
THESE must be used only as preparative to a diet consisting chiefly of milk and vegetables, which the sooner the patient can be brought to bear, the better. Rice and milk, or barley and milk boiled, with a little sugar, is very proper food. Ripe fruits roasted, baked, or boiled, are likewise proper, as goose or currant berry tarts, apples roasted, or boiled in milk, &c. The jellies, conserves, and preserves, &c. of ripe subacid fruits, ought to be eat plentifully, as the jelly of currants, conserve of roses, preserved plums, cherries, &c.
Just a final note: in the recipe for Arrow-root Jelly above do note that Mrs Rundell gives a warning about purchasing adulterated ( and therefore cheap) arrow-root. Dangerously adulterated food, before the introduction of food hygiene laws and standards, was a sad fact of life in early 19th century England. Mistresses of households, housekeepers and cooks were advised by many of the recipe and household instruction books of the era to be vigilant when purchasing perishable goods. In fact, specific warnings about adulterated arrow-root appeared in the newspapers of the time: look at this one from The Times, Thursday 3rd July 1828:
Arrow-Root. The adulteration of this very valuable article of diet for children and invalids with fine flour of wheat or with what is termed potato starch(a common practise in this metropolis maybe easily detected-ten grains of the flour or of the potato starch, forming with two ounces of boiling water a pretty strong jelly while the same proportion of genuine arrow root forms a very thin jelly. The jelly of the true arrow root will retain its solidity three or four days while that of the potato starch becomes nearly as thin as water in the course of two days,a fact that strongly points out the superiority of arrow-root over the potato starch as a nourishing article of diet.
Arrow-root is therefore revealed to be a very appropriate, thoughtful and kind gift on Emma’s part, not the least because at the time the novel was published, it was expensive and probably out of the financial reach of Miss Bates’s limited resources .As it was arrow-root of very superior quality, it was obviously the real thing, and sure to do good. Taking all the above into account, Emma’s gift can be seen to have been a very considerate and generous one. Mr Knightley and we should surely approve.