What does it mean when Jane Austen tells us that when Mr Elton dined at the Coles, they ate some cheese? Was it at all special? Why did he mention the type of cheese by name? And what did that say about Mr Elton(boo, hiss):

Mr. Elton was still talking, still engaged in some interesting detail; and Emma experienced some disappointment when she found that he was only giving his fair companion an account of the yesterday’s party at his friend Cole’s, and that she was come in herself for the Stilton cheese, the north Wiltshire, the butter, the cellery, the beet-root and all the dessert.

Emma, Chapter 10

Let’s take a look at the individual cheeses mentioned, shall we?.

First, Stilton.

This is a very traditional English cheese. It is a blue veined cheese made from full cream milk, forming its own crust or coat, made in a tall, cylindrical form.

The main outlet for the sale of this cheese was The Bell Inn ,a coaching inn on the Great North Road( which was the main route in Jane Austen’s era from London to York).

The Inn was  situate in the village of Stilton in Huntingdonshire. The inn is still in existence but due to modern country boundary changes it is now in Cambridgeshire. I can highly recommend a visit ;-)

The man who popularised it, was Cooper Thornhill, the inn’s landlord during the mid-1700s. It was thought that the cheese was first made by Thornhill’s sister-in-law, a housekeeper in Quenby, Leicestershire. But recent research has discovered that it was also made in the village of Stilton itself. This has led to some uproar in the rather strange world of Certification Trade Marks and EU Protected Designation of Origins (PDO’s) but that does not concern us here ;-)

Mites and all, he served it at the Bell and it was thus named after the village.Mites…and maggots. Yes, indeed. Those who have cast iron stomachs… do read on.  The following  extract about Stilton is from Daniel Defoe’s s Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-27):

Silton is a town famous for its cheese which is called our English Parmesan and is brought to the table with the mites and maggots around it, so thick that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese

It became very popular with hunters( the area around Stilton is known for its fox-hunting associations, with many a famous pack established there) and travellers  going to and from town(London) on the Great North Road. And through the influence of this aristocratic patronage, was sold as a delicacy in London in the late 18th/early 19th centuries.

Because it was made only at Stilton, the cheese had to be transported around the country to be enjoyed, and this accordingly  made it quite expensive. The Coles therefore were serving a delicacy ,and also one that had travelled a good distance to reach their dining table at Highbury in Surrey.

On to North Wiltshire Cheese.

North Wiltshire was famous from the 16th century for its production of cheese which was made on the dairy farms in the northern part of the county. Chippenham, Warminster and Swindon had famous markets which sold only cheese, to both locals and travelling merchants.

The north-western district of Wiltshire is particularly famous for its cheese, formerly sold under the name of Gloucetser, but now in sufficient esteem to be distinguished under its own name. Cattle are likewise fattened in these parts; and great numbers of swine are reared.

(See: England Described etc (1818) by John Aitkin )

The cheese was of excellent quality and in part this was attributed to the particular method of dairying in Wiltshire which allowed for consistency in temperature and method. At this time, the 18th century, the milk of Long-horn cattle was used; these have long since been replaced by modern dairy breeds, but in Jane Austen’s era Wiltshire cheeses were known for their  intense flavour and density.

Small cheeses, known as Wiltshire Loaves, and larger ones, similar in size to Gloucesters, are both recorded as existing. These were much more expensive than the conventional flat circular farmhouse cheese. At this time ( the end of the 18th century) Wiltshire cheese sold for 45-50 shillings a hundredweight ,as opposed to 27-28 shillings per hundredweight for the normal flat farmhouse cheese.

(Flat cheese awaiting transport: from W H Pyne’s Microcosm or a Picturesque Delineation of the Arts, Argicultures etc(1802-7)

The difference in prices reflected the way in which the cheese was made. The cheese took longer to mature than normal owing to its density, thereby causing valuable extra loft space to be taken up while the ripening cheese was stored.

As with Stilton , this cheese had to be transported from its locality in the West of England to Highbury in Surrey for the Coles to enjoy it, and this would have added to its expense.

So : no wonder Mr Elton mentioned that he had been served with both these cheeses.

The Coles were living in a rather exalted middle class fashion.They did not serve locally made farmhouse cheeses when they entertained,but bought expensive  cheese. Emma ., silly little madam that she is(I can say this with affection for she is my favourite of all Jane Austen heroines!)fails I think to spot that the Coles( whom she considers unworthy of her attention) really are coming up in the world, and their consumption of elite luxuries- like regional cheese from different counties to their own and new piano(even if it is uncertain there is anyone in the Coles household who can play the instrument!)- are good indicators of this :

“I declare, I do not know when I have heard any thing that has given me more satisfaction! It always has quite hurt me that Jane Fairfax, who plays so delightfully, should not have an instrument. It seemed quite a shame, especially considering how many houses there are where fine instruments are absolutely thrown away. This is like giving ourselves a slap, to be sure! and it was but yesterday I was telling Mr. Cole, I really was ashamed to look at our new grand pianoforté in the drawing-room, while I do not know one note from another, and our little girls, who are but just beginning, perhaps may never make any thing of it; and there is poor Jane Fairfax, who is mistress of music, has not any thing of the nature of an instrument, not even the pitifullest old spinnet in the world, to amuse herself with. I was saying this to Mr. Cole but yesterday, and he quite agreed with me; only he is so particularly fond of music that he could not help indulging himself in the purchase, hoping that some of our good neighbours might be so obliging occasionally to put it to a better use than we can; and that really is the reason why the instrument was bought — or else I am sure we ought to be ashamed of it. We are in great hopes that Miss Woodhouse may be prevailed with to try it this evening.”

Emma,Chapter 26

Certainly their table is spread with some of the finest produce, if the cheese they serve is an indication.

Emma ought to be careful,in my very humble opinion. Her  tiny little world, which consists of her family and Mr Woodhouse’s favoured companions, is not really wide enough for her to appreciate that the society in Highbury is on the move. Silly blinkered girl.

And what does this all say about Mr Elton: that he is keen on good cheese? Perhaps. But I think Jane Austen meant us to realise that it demonstrates more  probably,that he is easily impressed with show and display. And he likes a rich lifestyle as  demonstrated by the Coles who can put on a rather good display of expensive food due to their new-made wealth.Faced with the luxuries the rich can command, he is in rapture.

Qutie the little materialistic snob, isn’t he? (Boos, hiss)