Jane Austen apparently liked to eat – “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me,” she wrote to her sister in June 1808 -- but most of the cooking in the country cottage where she spent the last eight years of her life was done by the household’s other female residents, especially the sisters’ old friend Martha Lloyd.
For decades, Janeites have known that Lloyd compiled her recipes for everything from toasted cheese to table varnish into a so-called “household book,” now owned by Jane Austen’s House in Chawton. Over the years, recipes from the collection, adapted for contemporary kitchens, have been published in Austen-themed cookbooks, including the one I used five years ago for my own less-than-successful foray into Regency cuisine.
Now, however, a complete scholarly edition of Martha Lloyd’s Household Book has been published for the first time. The volume, priced at $45 by its American publisher, includes a facsimile of Lloyd’s handwritten entries, along with an annotated transcript and contextual materials prepared by independent Austen scholar Julienne Gehrer.
Jane Austen was a teenager when she met Martha Lloyd, like her the daughter of a clergyman in a country parish. Although Martha was ten years older, the two became fast friends, and the connection between their families tightened over the years – first with the 1797 marriage of Martha’s younger sister Mary to the oldest Austen brother, James; then with Martha’s decision in 1806 to move in with the Austen sisters and their recently widowed mother; and finally, after Jane Austen’s death, with the middle-aged Martha’s own marriage to the fifth Austen brother, Francis.
Martha Lloyd’s life was far from dramatic; like so many women throughout history, she worked behind the scenes, cooking, managing servants, and eventually raising a houseful of stepchildren. Nevertheless, Janeites owe her a great debt: At Chawton cottage, Jane Austen wrote or revised all six of her completed novels, and Martha Lloyd helped create the domestic conditions under which that was possible. There’s no recipe for literary greatness, but at least we have her recipe for white soup.