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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Austen sleuthing

Although “Jane Austen Detectives” sounds like the title of a beach book I’d want to read, it’s actually the name of a sixteen-month-old web site/research project/promotional effort I stumbled across only recently.

The site seems to be the joint creation of Australian food consultant and TV presenter Ester Davies and British children’s book writer Gwynneth Ashby. Its stated purpose is to “unravel the world of Jane Austen -- her life, food, medicine and her social position in Georgian England.”

Given the wealth of existing resources on those very topics, I’m not sure how much unraveling these matters still need, and, on the whole, it is not a good sign when your Austen research site includes both a quotation from Northanger Abbey incorrectly attributed to Sense and Sensibility and a quotation from Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility incorrectly attributed to Jane Austen.

But I digress. And to be fair, I rather enjoyed a number of the items I found on the site, including a video clip of Davies baking some delicious-looking cookies from a recipe book owned by the family of Jane Austen’s older brother Edward Knight.

Reading between the lines, it looks like the real purpose of the site is to gin up interest in a TV project or two, including one to be called Food For Thought, in which famous contemporary chefs cook lavish meals inspired by famous dead writers – Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mitchell and others.

According to the promo clip, Austen will be assigned to British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, whose planned menu for a “Ball Supper for Twenty People” – scrolled amid clips from the Keira Knightley film version of Pride and Prejudice -- includes an appetizer course named “First Impressions,” entrees entitled “Pride of Salmon” and “Prejudice Duck,” and a dessert called “Tarte Lizzie,” described as lemon ice with pine cone.

It’s all a bit corny, and yet – you know I’d watch. And if anyone wants to try her hand at writing The Jane Austen Detectives, I’m there for that, too.

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