- Mar 2022
She says there was hardly any veal to be got at market this morning, it is so uncommonly scarce.”
Veal, the meat of young male calves who are slaughtered between eight and twelve months of age, is not as popular in the UK now as it was in Austen’s time. At the time, it was an expensive food, hence Mr. Bingley’s decision to offer White Soup, which was made with veal broth, at the Netherfield Ball. It is unsurprising that Bath residents like the Allens would be accustomed to finding this expensive meat in the market since, as Maggie Lane explains, Bath was second only to West London “in the range and luxury of its shops” ('Domestic economy' 14). Its geographic location put it at great advantage to receive variety and high quality in foods: meat from Wales; fruit and vegetables from the Cotswolds; dairy produce from Somerset and Devon; fish from the River Severn; and imported wines from Bristol (13). So, Mrs. Allen’s concern about a shortage of veal in the Bath market strikes Lane as somewhat odd. However, as Lane herself states in more recent work, “any mention of a specific food stuff in Austen is made by a character who is thereby condemned for being greedy, vulgar, selfish, or trivial” ('Food' 268). Austen’s letters confirm that she learned about the complex social meanings of food and eating from her own domestic duties. So, although this might seem like a passing remark on Mrs. Allen’s part, it brings attention to the triviality that characterizes both Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe.
Mrs. Allen’s remark highlights her selfishness as well as her inadequacy as a guardian. Catherine is walking in from spending more time with Isabella and Mr. Thorpe, and her intuition about his dishonesty, although not yet formulated as such, is conveyed through her thoughts about him. She realizes that he “did not excel in…making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous.” After being with him, she feels “extreme weariness” creeping over her. But Catherine’s intuition is not affirmed by her temporary guardian, Mrs. Allen, who rather than ensuring that the Thorpes are good company for Catherine, is much more concerned with the shortage of veal. The veracity of Mrs. Thorpe’s information itself must be questioned, given that her children characterize deceitfulness. Yet, in addition to underscoring character flaws, Mrs. Allen’s and Mrs. Thorpe’s reliance on the market to acquire their meat emphasizes their class. As Barbara K. Seeber points out, “[t]o be able to command food that others cannot inscribes social hierarchy” (94, 97). In this case, while Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe might be performing refinement and wealth in their preference for veal, their inability to access it emphasizes what they do not have—a large estate and cattle.
Today, veal is consumed globally. It is prized for its tenderness, which requires that calves be restricted from exercise to avoid building muscle. For long, the farming industry has used crates to confine calves and restrict their mobility, a practice that animal advocates deem inhumane. In January 2007, the European Union banned these crates. The UK has implemented this ban for calves destined to be slaughtered for food. Otherwise, since bulls don’t produce milk and adults are not deemed good for meat, male calves are often shot when they are born. Calf crates continue to be used in the US and other countries.
Veal production and consumption remind us of the power dynamic that justifies human dominance over nature. Seeber has argued that this dynamic was familiar to Austen, who was well aware of its intersection with male dominance over women (97-99). Indeed,these two power dynamics intersect in characters like John Thorpe, whose preference for hunting and mistreatment of horses signals his perception of Catherine Morland as prey to be caught and consumed.
- Feb 2022
consoling herself, however, with the discovery, which her keen eye soon made, that the lace on Mrs. Thorpe’s pelisse was not half so handsome as that on her own.
The pelisse, a popular garment most recently revived through the iconic yellow model worn by Ana Taylor-Joy in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma (2020), might be included as a footnote in the twin history of fashion and ecological degradation.
By donning a pelisse, Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe, whatever their rivalries, were both at the cusp of early nineteenth-century fashion. Austen herself owned at least two pelisses, as historian Hilary Davidson has demonstrated. The pelisse, an overdress, was developed partly in response to the new Empire-period silhouette and partly due the “muslin disease” or influenza that ailed young women wearing fashionable lightweight fabrics in freezing weather.
In the colder months, pelisses could be lined with fur, so Mrs. Allen’s observation that Mrs. Thorpe’s lace is not as handsome would indicate that this scene takes place in the warmer months. The pelisse’s popularity led it to replace the fur cloaks of the earlier eighteenth century. Soon, though, pelisses themselves would be replaced with fur coats, which gained popularity throughout the nineteenth century, reaching a high point in the 1850s. Their popularity was in large part due to new methods of processing fur, which made it more supple (Fashioned 86). The consumption of fur and sealskin jackets, as well as feathers and cotton, throughout the period would lead to the devastation (e.g., India’s cotton industry) of ecosystems (71).
As we read these lines, then, we are reminded, of Austen’s critical eye for the consumer habits of her time. Although her critique here pertains to petty fashion rivalry, when reading about fashion items in her novels, we might find ourselves considering not only how little our fashion rivalries have changed but also how fashion and environmental degradation are historically linked.
For more on the pelisse, the spencer, and muslin, head over to Austenprose to read Hilary Davidson's post on Regency fashion in Emma (2020).