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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Saint Charlotte

Thanksgiving Day may seem to be a holiday with no connection whatsoever to the works of Jane Austen. True, her major novels include the occasional reference to a holiday food – in past years, I’ve covered turkey, potatoes, and pie – but the pickings are pretty slim.

One Austen character, however, has a profound, if heretofore unrecognized, connection to the holiday. For at about the age of seventeen, Jane Austen created Charlotte Lutterell -- the patron saint of leftovers.

The unfinished Lesley Castle is one of the short, hilarious epistolary novels included in Jane Austen’s teenage writings, known as the Juvenilia. Three of its ten letters are written by Charlotte, a dedicated cook whose obsession with ensuring that no food goes to waste will seem sadly familiar to, ahem, any member of my family, especially over the next few days.

Charlotte has spent five weeks preparing a feast for her sister’s wedding, so imagine her horror when she learns from the prospective bride that the groom lies at the point of death after a horseback riding accident:

“ ‘Good God! (said I) you don’t say so? Why, what in the name of heaven will become of all the victuals! We shall never be able to eat it while it is good. However, we’ll call in the surgeon to help us. I shall be able to manage the sirloin myself, my mother will eat the soup, and you and the doctor must finish the rest.’ ” (Letter the Second)

Fortunately, Charlotte’s labors are not in vain: two weeks later, having left home to give her grieving sister a change of air, Charlotte informs her correspondent that all is well:

“I have the satisfaction of informing you that we have every reason to imagine our pantry is by this time nearly cleared, as we left particular orders with the servants to eat as hard as they possibly could, and to call in a couple of chairwomen to assist them. We brought a cold pigeon pie, a cold turkey, a cold tongue, and half a dozen jellies with us, which we were lucky enough with the help of our landlady, her husband, and their three children, to get rid of in less than two days after our arrival.” (Letter the Fourth)

Some may think that Charlotte is cold, unfeeling, and self-absorbed. Indeed, I suspect that Jane Austen herself thought so. I, however, think that poor Charlotte is unfairly maligned. What could be worse than watching cold turkey go to waste?

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