A KIND-HEARTED SPINSTER, PASSED OVER in her youth by a potential suitor, spends her life faithfully tending the hearth and home of her dear family and friends. She is content to toil as a housekeeper, unrecognized but for the praise of beloved companions. All the while, she keeps a detailed household book of handwritten recipes, from carraway cake to currant wine, that her family loves. Virtue is rewarded when, at 63 years of age, the loyal spinster weds the widower brother of her dearest friend, who is subsequently knighted, making her Lady of a great house. Nearly 200 years later, an academic press publishes her book of household recipes, thereby inscribing the humble homemaker into the echelons of literary fame.
This isn’t a plot from a Jane Austen novel—it’s part of the history of the Austen family. Born to a vicar in Wiltshire, Martha Lloyd was 10 years older than Jane Austen, but became fast friends with teenage Jane and her sister Cassandra, and later relatives through marriage. “It was a matter of months until Jane was dedicating one of her juvenile works to Martha,” says Julienne Gehrer, a former editorial director at Hallmark cards who is now an independent Austen scholar.
In 1806, following the death of both Mr. Austen and Mr. Lloyd, Jane, Martha Lloyd, Jane’s sister Cassandra, and Jane’s mother formed a household together. Jane and Martha had already either refused or been heartbroken by multiple suitors, so they formed a household with sisterhood at the core. They eventually settled at Chawton Cottage in Hampshire, a medium-sized cottage on the grounds of brother Edward Austen’s large manor. Now home to the Jane Austen museum, Chawton Cottage is where Jane either wrote or revised all six of her published novels. It’s also where, for decades, Jane’s beloved friend and relative Martha Lloyd created her household book, a record of the family’s favorite recipes gleaned from published cookbooks and friends.
Now, thanks to a collaboration between Gehrer, Jane Austen’s House, and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Austen lovers can read and cook from the same recipes Jane once enjoyed. As of late June in the UK, and August in the United States, readers will be able to purchase a full reproduction of Martha Lloyd’s Household Book, which is on display in the Austen museum at Chawton. The new edition contains a full facsimile original manuscript, with a deep-brown sheep parchment cover and yellowing pages covered in Martha Lloyd’s loopy handwriting, as well as Gehrer’s painstaking transcription of the entire contents. (Gehrer previously used the manuscript to compile a self-published collection of Austen-inspired recipes, Dining with Jane Austen, in 2017.)
Written in narrative form with little by way of precise directions, the recipes—for cowslip wine and cabbage pudding; pickled mushrooms and cowheel soup—are artifacts of the Georgian-era English countryside. For the Austen aficionado or adventurous cook, they’re also a vibrant glimpse into the daily life of an author whose own gaze of domesticity was so unshakingly vivid.
Read more at Atlas Obscura. Featured image: Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Austen, Public Domain