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This book-a copy of the 15th edition of  The Compleat Housewife originally published in 1753- has recently been published by the Chawton House Library, the first in a series of affordable reprints of  texts concerned with the domestic side of life in the long eighteenth century.All profits from this series of reprints will go directly towards the Chawton House Library acquisitions fund, helping them to improve and expand the library collection for generations of future readers. One can only approve …..

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Do allow me to tell you a little about its author-and be warned , for we only know a little about her…After Elizabeth Raffald , author of The Experienced English Housekeeper and Hannah Glasse, author of The Art of Cookery Eliza Smith(as she is usually called) is one of the best known female 18th century cookery writers.Very little is known about her life apart from the few hints she gives in the Preface to her book:


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(Note that the preface above was taken from my copy of her book NOT the copy under review here which is NOT a facsimile)

In it she claimed

that for the Space of Thirty years and upwards … I have been constantly employed in fashionable and noble Families, in which the Provisions ordered according to the following Directions, have had the general Approbation of such as have been at many noble entertainments’.

Basically then, she was an housekeeper. Probably, unlike others of her calling more fortunate than herself,-Mrs Raffald notably- she did not leave private domestic service to take up a career as a confectioner or to run a school of cookery.

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There are slight hints in her book of an association with the Netherlands, and Lord Montagu has suggested, in the introduction to a facsimile edition of her work published in 1968 that she may have worked at his home, Beaulieu Abbey in Hamsphire:

I was fascinated to find that several of the recipes contained were identical to those in manuscript form in my books. Although it is not known  in which great house Mrs E. Smith worked it is more than probable that some of these dishes were orignially created in one of my ancestors kitchens.

(See page 133, A short- title caltolgue of Household and Cookery Books published in the English Tongue 1701-1800 by Virginia Mclean.)

Eliza Smith’s book, though not the first recipe book to be published in England is of interest to historians because it was the first to be published in America-at Williamsburg. It does contain some interesting and innovative recipes. She was among the first cookery writer to include potatoes for savoury dishes, and she even inlcuded one recipe using tea.

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This was for a caudle, a hot drink made with ‘strong green tea’, white wine, grated nutmeg, and sugar, thickened with eggs like a custard. It soudns delicious.

Her book ends with a substantial section of medicinal recipes that she called ‘family receipts’. Some are identified with members of the gentry, but interestingly many more with members of the medical profession. Her knowledge of the technicalities of medicine went beyond what might be expected in a book of  typical‘family receipts’ of the time. She died in circa 1732  and her book lived on and eventually went into 18 editions thoughout the 18th century.

She appears to have disliked the fashion for cookery books written by grand men cooks,-cookes to Princes and Kings-as she felt they did not surender all their secrets to the reader thereby enabling them to sucesfuly replicate the recipes .Mrs Bennet, admirer of  grand French cooks would have surely been shocked…

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(Do note you can enlarge this section of Eliza Smith’s preface simply by clicking on it)

So why should a mid-18th century cookery book interest readers of Jane Austen? Because many in Jane Austen’s not particularly fashionable part of the world would have replied upon recipe books like Eliza Smith’s for  both their fare and for their medicine. As  Gillian Dow  of Chawton House Library and Southampton University writes, in the introduction to the book:

Austen’s letters to Cassandra are a rich source for piecing together female domesticity in the early nineteenth century. One can, however, have too much of a good thing: Austen famously writes, after a visit from her brother Edward to Chawton in September 1816,

‘Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of Mutton Joint and Rhubarb’.

Austen’s major preoccupation at Chawton was, after all, not the running of a household, but rather the publication, revision and composition of her six novels, all of which were sent out from Chawton to be published between 1811 and1818. In these classic works of English literature, the way in which the domestic informs the narrative intrigues a twenty-first century reader.

Would Betty’s sister, an excellent housemaid who works very well with her needle, have done well as a lady’s maid for the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility? Can we ever have such an intricate understanding of the variety and merits of strawberries as the party at Donwell Abbey in Emma? It is to the literature of Austen’s own period that we must turn for answers to these, and many other, vexing questions. For those who wish to understand Mr Woodhouse’s discourses in praise of gruel in Emma, Mrs Bennet’s anxiety when there is not a bit of fish to be got and Lizzie Bennet’s preference for a plain dish over a ragout in Pride and Prejudice, these reprints of rare texts from the Chawton House Library collection will have much to offer. What precisely were the ‘usual stock of accomplishments’ taught to Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove at school in Exeter in Persuasion, and why does Lydia gape at Mr Collins’s reading of Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride andPrejudice? Some answers will be found in Chawton House Library reprints of conduct literature. And for a true understanding of what it might mean for Fanny Price to be scorned by her better-dressed cousins for having only two sashes in Mansfield Park, for Henry Tilney to understand muslins particularly well in Northanger Abbey, and indeed just how Lucy Steele might have gone about trimming up a new bonnet, with pink ribbons and a feather, in Sense and Sensibility, instruction will come from reprints of works on eighteenth-century dress and fashion.

I couldn’t agree more: for that is my rasion d’etre here at this blog, after all ….

My only real gripe with the book is that is  not reproduced in facsimile: but it is being sold at a very reasonable price ( it is a hardback book and prettily produced) so  such minor quibbles should be kept in proportion.

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I really am looking forward to seeing what other texts will be published  in this series. The library at Chawton  is not only stocked with interesting fiction but has many, many  copies of recipe, conduct , instruction and gardening books. I know that every time I have visited it has made my mouth water with anticipation…. And I hope you find me bringing this to your attention worth while.

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