Deborah Yaffe

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Mutton and rhubarb

By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2020 01:00PM

Jane Austen seems to have spent as little time as possible in the kitchen, leaving the cooking to the women she lived with and the servants they supervised.


And, frankly, that’s a good thing: As Mr. Darcy might have said, Austen employed her time much better. “Composition seems to me Impossible, with a head full of joints of Mutton & doses of rhubarb,” she wrote in an 1816 letter (#145 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of the correspondence), apropos of her I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it astonishment at Jane West, a contemporary who churned out novels, poems, and conduct books while running a household and raising three sons.


Given Austen’s complete lack of interest in culinary chores, it’s bemusing to find her name attached to a high-end kitchen line (“simple and refined. . . a sense of space and openness. . . . solid maple with a smooth painted finish. . .”) advertised by a Dublin company, Nolan Kitchens. “A kitchen for people who would rather write than cook”? No, it’s probably just as well they didn’t choose that slogan, although for Janeites, the illustrative Austen quote they did select isn’t much better: “There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,” a typically vapid and dishonest remark from Emma’s Mrs. Elton, who is forever casting about for entertainment – a dinner, a strawberry-picking expedition, an exploring party -- that will get her out of the house.


Of course, literary-minded kitchen remodelers with a good-size budget – Nolan’s “signature kitchens” run to €18,000-€25,000 (about $21,000-$29,000) -- aren’t limited to the Austen line: Nolan Kitchens also offers designs named for Hemingway and “Brontë” (possibly Charlotte, since the quote on that page is attributed to her, although I’m told that Brontë proficients suspect she didn’t actually write it). Those who want something completely different can choose kitchen designs alleged to recall Newton, Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine), or a mysterious “Harvey,” whose page is adorned with a quote from Steve Jobs. (William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood? Seems an unfortunate association for a room filled with knives. . .)


Obviously, these names have been selected because of their aura of all things classy and upscale: “Austen” becomes shorthand for the manicured gardens and drawing-rooms on display in filmed adaptations of her novels, just as “Hepburn” implies chic cosmopolitanism and “Hemingway” suggests rugged masculinity (bullfighting next to the Sub-Zero!)


Still, as usual with these randomly Austen-themed products, I’m at a loss to understand why one set of tiled backsplashes, marble countertops, and custom cabinetry should be understood to evoke novels of manners, while another set recalls, say, the discovery of gravity or the Yorkshire moors. It’s all joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb to me.


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