Persuasions #4, 1982                                                                                                                                            Pages 26-33




Dinner address at the Conference of the Jane Austen Society of North America, Toronto, October 16, 1982

Juliet McMaster

Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E5

Jane Austen and I are both daughters of the Empire. Her Empire was the Napoleonic one, where the ladies wore their waists under their armpits; and mine is the one on which the sun never sets, the one that used to show as pink on maps of the world. My particular outpost of the Empire, Kenya, was rather more like Jane Austen’s world than our republican Canada, because in the early years of this century the British had managed to transpose the nineteenth-century class system into twentieth-century Africa. The whites lived as country gentry, and among themselves preserved a rigid hierarchy. The colonial administrators of my parents’ generation know all about Rank, and a fair amount about Blood. They cared who led the way in to dinner, and who sat on whose right, and what it was proper and not proper to say to whom. Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have been thoroughly at home. In fact I think I once met her there.

On the strength of this affinity between Jane Austen’s world and the world I grew up in, I’m going to cull a couple of anecdotes from my family history which I hope will usefully illustrate what I have to say about hospitality in her novels. Both anecdotes predate my birth, but they have become part of my family mythology.

Behold my father in the ’twenties, newly married to my mother, installed as District Commissioner at Mombasa. Not the Provincial Commissioner, who was the senior administrator of the province, but a mere subordinate. Mombasa was to be honoured by a state visit from the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George and his queen, now the Queen Mother). They were to stay, of course, in Government House. But the Government House at Mombasa was only just completed; and so at short notice it had to be furnished for the royal visitors.

Of course such things are not done by Commissioners, District or Provincial, but by their wives. Now it happened that Mrs. Provincial Commissioner was away in England, so the job devolved on Mrs. District Commissioner, my mother. She was young, new to the country and inexperienced, and also four months pregnant (not with me – I was number five). But she flung herself into action. She first denuded our house of all the original paintings, family heirlooms, and hung them with her own hands on the walls of Government House. The furniture went next. Drapes and carpets were borrowed. It was all done just in time.

But on the state occasion at which the royal couple were to lunch with the local officials, my father was told that there wouldn’t be room for a mere District Commissioner and his wife. To say that my mother was not disappointed, as Jane Austen would say, would be to assert a very unlikely thing (VI, 347). But she was also somewhat relieved, and she and my father had cheerfully sat down to eat their lunch off packing cases, when a phone call had summoned them to the royal table. There was room after all. They rushed into their glad rags (my mother had some difficulty in getting into her only smart dress, because of her delicate condition) and duly presented themselves, a little flurried, to lunch with the Duke and Duchess. My mother was retiring in the conversation, and didn’t mention her exertions with the furniture. Family history records that she and the Duchess had a lively conversation about sharks instead.

I present that anecdote as my positive example of hospitality. My mother (I like to make a heroine of her), if not the mistress of the home where the guests were to be entertained, nevertheless was ready to give what she had for her community’s guests, and without receiving any glory. (Her virtue was finally rewarded; but she hadn’t done it for the reward.)

Anecdote number two, and the last. Time has advanced. My father is now Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza Province, and is himself to be the host of the important person. My two older sisters, an enterprising eight and six years old, are on the scene. And the guest is the late Aga Khan, who is coming to stay. To my parents the Aga Khan was a politically important and a socially charming man. But to the large population of Ismaili Moslems in Kisumu he was sacred, a descendant of the Prophet. They gathered in silent reverent multitudes outside our garden, and waited, day and night, for only a glimpse of him. If he called on the faithful to give in a worthy cause, they were ready to balance his weight in gold and in diamonds.

My sisters, Anthea and Eleanor, found themselves on terms of domestic familiarity with this god, and saw the chance of capitalizing. Anthea, particularly, at eight, had a sound commercial instinct. She decided to take up the profession of Chaucer’s Pardoner, and go into business selling relics. Wouldn’t a good Moslem give good money for the Aga Khan’s nail clippings, for instance? The nail clippings weren’t available, but what about his bath water? Surely selling bathwater to the faithful would be a good commercial proposition.

In the rather primitive plumbing arrangements we had, there was a little pipe that squirted the released bath water into an open drain. Here my sisters squatted when the evening came, with a fine collection of jam jars and tin cans, awaiting the happy moment when the Aga Khan should pull out his reverend plug, and a golden river would come gurgling into their receptacles. (My sisters must have been early practitioners of what Ronald Reagan nowadays calls “the trickle-down theory of wealth”!)

Well, they never realized their dreams of riches. My mother, the spoilsport, caught them in the midst of their pots and jars, and emptied them all. So we never did ascertain the market value of a bottle of Aga Khan bathwater.

In this anecdote, my sisters are the negative example, the villains. They were betraying the hallowed rules of hospitality in order to capitalize on their guest.

In Jane Austen’s novels we can similarly classify the hosts and hostesses. Some, like that heroine my mother, are ready to give of their time, their space, and their substance, even if their means are limited, and without expecting more than civility in return. The Harvilles in Persuasion are like that. Their house in Lyme is not large, and they have a bunch of children to accommodate, as well as a resident broken-hearted lover. But when their friend Captain Wentworth brings his party from Uppercross to Lyme, they are eager to have the whole group to dinner. “They seemed almost hurt that Captain Wentworth should have brought any such party to Lyme, without considering it as a thing of course that they should dine with them.” Anne, who has been more used to the cold ceremony of Sir Walter and Elizabeth at Kellynch, is delighted and moved by such warmth, by “a degree of hospitality so uncommon, so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display” (P, 98). The effects of such warm-heartedness spread like widening ripples in the human community, and almost magically enlarge the capacity of the hosts for hospitality. Anne is at first astonished at the comprehensive invitation when she enters their house, “and found rooms so small as none but those who invite from the heart could think capable of accommodating so many” (98). But presently she recognizes all the ingenious contrivances “to turn the actual space to the best possible account.” And in the crisis of Louisa Musgrove’s fall from the Cobb, the Harvilles’ hospitality is gratefully called upon, and their home even becomes a hospital. It is a kind of analogy, scaled down to the Austen world, to the gospel story of the loaves and the fishes that fed the multitude.

But not all hosts are like the Harvilles. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is more like my sisters. She wouldn’t be caught collecting her guests’ bathwater, I admit, but she has her own equally self-seeking means of turning them to good account. The chapter in which Elizabeth goes with the Collinses and Sir William and Maria Lucas to her first dinner at Rosings is a marvelous handling of a kind of hospitality in which the host takes all and gives nothing. Well, Lady Catherine provides, to be sure, spacious premises and an elegant meal. But one can hardly call it giving when these conveniences are to be paid for in kind, and at so exorbitant a rate. Mr. Collins, who is less her pastor and guest than her majordomo and head waiter, is employed to make sure everyone pays up, in the right kind of coin. First, the guests must dress in such a way as to mark their social inferiority to their hostess. “Do not make yourself uneasy, my dear cousin,” Mr. Collins tells Elizabeth, “about your apparel. Lady Catherine is far from requiring that elegance of dress in us, which becomes herself and her daughter …. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved” (P & P, 160.1). Lady Catherine, when she receives her guests, confirms his perception. “Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank” (162). Presently, they are “all sent to one of the windows, to admire the view,” – no alternative of not admiring it being permitted by her servant, Mr. Collins. When the dinner is served, the guests must keep working. Mr. Collins “carved, and ate, and praised with delighted alacrity; and every dish was commended, first by him, and then by Sir William, who was now enough recovered to echo whatever his son-in-law said, in a manner which Elizabeth wondered Lady Catherine could bear. But Lady Catherine seemed gratified by this excessive admiration, and gave most gracious smiles” (163). The conversation languishes. There is no meeting of minds, no genuine conviviality, no confirmation of human community. “Maria thought speaking out of the question, and the gentlemen did nothing but eat and admire” (163).

This is not hospitality, but its negation. Lady Catherine turns her guests into servants and customers. They must work for their food, and pay for it. If the gentlemen do nothing but eat and admire, it is because they have instinctively settled into the roles she has created for them. They must eat, so that Lady Catherine will have the gratification of making them grateful, and they must admire in order to pay for what they eat. Such fare indeed comes rather expensive. Her guests are obliged to be chanting a perpetual Te Deum, a chorus of “We praise thee, O Lady Catherine.” This may sound blasphemous, but the scene is not without its suggestion that Lady Catherine credits herself and her rank with some divine attributes. Before the party from the parsonage leaves, they are “gathered round the fire to hear Lady Catherine determine what weather they were to have on the morrow” (166). Apparently she has the power to arrange such matters. And I wonder which, of God and Lady Catherine, her clergyman Mr. Collins most reveres?

As with hosts, so with guests – and it is appropriate that the Latin word hospes comprehends both roles. Lady Catherine, as she is the most disagreeable host, is also the most disagreeable guest in the novel: when she calls at Longbourn, she systematically reverses the behaviour she requires of her own guests. She abuses the park, and the western exposures of the sitting room; she refuses, “very resolutely, and not very politely,” all offers of refreshment; and pointedly tells Elizabeth as she leaves, “I send no compliments to your mother” (358). Such is the behaviour of the Bennets’ “noble guest” (352).

A guest should also give as well as take, but without reducing the relation of host and guest to a matter of bargain and sale. Anne Elliot at Uppercross does all of the giving, but little of the taking: she mediates between husband and wife, soothes her hypochondriac sister, nurses her injured nephew, and plays the piano while other people dance. Mrs. Norris, on the other hand, specializes in the taking part of the business:

I think you have done pretty well for yourself, ma’am, [Maria says to her in the carriage, when they are on the way home from Sotherton.] Your lap seems full of good things, and here is a basket of something between us, which has been knocking my elbow unmercifully.”

My dear, it is only a beautiful little heath, which that nice old gardener would make me take; but if it is in your way, I will have it in my lap directly. There, Fanny, you shall carry that parcel for me – take great care of it; … it is a cream cheese, just like that excellent one we had for dinner. Nothing else would satisfy good old Mrs. Whitaker, but my taking one of the cheeses ….”

What else have you been sponging?” said Maria, half pleased that Sotherton should be so complimented.

Sponging, my dear! It is nothing but four of those beautiful pheasant’s eggs, which Mrs. Whitaker would quite force upon me; she would not take a denial ….” (MP, 105-6)

If Mrs. Norris were a frequent visitor, one feels, even the stately county seat of Sotherton might be swiftly depleted.

In a memorable moment in Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney tells Catherine on the dance floor at Bath,

We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. … I consider a country-dance an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both …. In both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each.” (NA, 76-77)

That speech has great resonance in the novels, partly because it is an instance of developed figurative language that Mary Lascelles has told us is rare in Jane Austen. Henry Tilney draws an analogy between marriage and the dance – “such very different things!” as Catherine calls them – that is almost as elaborate as a metaphysical conceit. Other examples of such emblems, again used by the characters rather than by the narrator, are Captain Wentworth’s likening of a “character of decision and firmness” to a hazel nut in Persuasion (88), and Elizabeth’s comparison of the development of social graces with playing the piano in Pride and Prejudice (175). All these images provide intense moments in the novels, and are accessible, like all parables, to lengthy analysis. But Tilney’s little lecture on the dance as emblematic of marriage is particularly satisfying because it puts in a nutshell (like Wentworth’s) what the rest of the novels demonstrate at large: that nothing in the Jane Austen world is insignificant, because every little incident is indicative of a whole set of moral and social and psychological relations; each coming together of the characters is a microcosm for the whole narrative. Whether we are considering a dance, or a marriage, or a journey, or a game of quadrille or speculation, we find that the characters keep illustrating themselves. What they are in small things, they are in large. To the impatient student who asks in exasperation, “Who cares if Emma scores off a boring old spinster? Miss Bates had it coming,” the answer is, we care, because Jane Austen makes us care. The momentary discourtesy to a harmless and vulnerable spinster shakes the world of Emma as the slamming down of the guillotine shakes the world of A Tale of Two Cities, because in Jane Austen’s novels everything matters.

Host and guest, like husband and wife, or like a lady and gentleman in the dance, have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness; and like all the intricate social contracts in the novels it is one that epitomises the delicate balance that must be maintained between the will of the individual and the needs of the community.

Jane Austen is far from suggesting that hospitality should be confined to your social equals. It’s very proper that Mr. and Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield should welcome the shabby-genteel old clergyman’s widow and daughter to their home, without expecting to be entertained in return. And Emma, though she has plenty of other faults, is a good hostess. “I hope I am not often deficient in what is due to guests at Hartfield,” she can claim with justice (E, 170).

But there are nevertheless certain dangers inherent in hospitality that can be extended in only one direction. Emma does at last turn on Miss Bates, and openly exult in her own superiority – though it’s not in her own home (where she would never have done it, I think). The guest who cannot return hospitality is in a position to trade on his immunity, as the host of such a guest may be tempted to trade on his superiority, and so the delicate balance of giving and receiving, the contract of mutual agreeableness, is violated. And the consequences may be enormous.

Lady Susan, that fierce and funny piece of fiction, is interesting in presenting an extreme case of the infringement of this contract. It is a story that could well carry the subtitle, if Jane Austen went in for such things, “The Nightmare of the Unwelcome Guest” (VI, 263). It opens ominously with a letter from Lady Susan to her brother, dated from Langford, the home of the Manwarings, with an announcement that she is coming to stay:

My dear Brother

I can no longer refuse myself the pleasure of profitting by your kind invitation … of spending some weeks with you at Churchill …. My kind friends here are most urgent with me to prolong my stay, but their hospitable & chearful dispositions lead them too much into society for my present situation & state of mind; & I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted into your delightful retirement. I long to be made known to your dear little Children … “Lady Susan” (VI, 243-4)

The second letter from Lady Susan, addressed to her intimate confidante, fills in some of the ugly truths behind the warm professions of the first. She is leaving Langford, it emerges, because she has simply made it too hot to hold her. She has carried on a flagrant affair with her host, Mr. Manwaring, under the nose of his outraged wife. And she has alienated the affections of their daughter’s fiancé, the eligible Sir James Martin, and proposes to marry him to her own daughter instead. Now this formidable lady, having destroyed the happiness of home, prepares to batten on to another.

And she wreaks havoc at Churchill, too. She tyrannizes over her daughter, and parades her lovers before her hostess. And by a specious show of virtue she ensnares her hostess’s brother into falling in love with her. Well may his mother lament the “vexation & trouble” caused to the family by “this unwelcome Guest” (263). As the hero finally tells Lady Susan, “you robbed [the family] of it’s Peace, in return for the hospitality with which you were received into it” (305).

Though Jane Austen doesn’t venture on so extreme a character portrayal in the major novels, we glimpse again that vision of the homeless guest who may fasten on to her hosts like a vampire, making their substance her own, and rendering nothing in return, in Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility. Sir John Middleton, whose omnivorous appetite for company of any kind makes him a rather tiresomely importunate host, meets the two Misses Steele in Exeter, and discovering they are distant relatives of his wife’s, at once invites them to Barton Park. They accept with suspicious alacrity – “Their engagements in Exeter instantly gave way before such an invitation” (SS, 188) – and move in at once. They come prepared to pay for their accommodation, but in that debased coin that Mr. Collins offers Lady Catherine, a servile subservience and gushing admiration. And like Lady Susan, they pretend to adore children. “They were delighted with the house, and in raptures with the furniture, and they happened to be so doatingly fond of children that Lady Middleton’s good opinion was engaged in their favour before they had been an hour at the Park” (119). Presently Lucy has slithered into a position of false confidence in the household, and is able to get her teeth into Sir John’s young cousin, Elinor.

We are made to feel how much is wrong in this kind of relation between host and guest. Sir John invites his guests not so much from genuine warmheartedness and a desire to extend and confirm the human community as from a need of his own, because he is aware of some vacuum in himself that he needs other people to fill up. And the Miss Steeles are also selfishly inclined to hang up their hats in comfortable quarters, and take what is genuine while returning only what is false. Jane Austen can be as astringently critical of undiscriminating hospitality as of unscrupulous self-seeking.

If I were talking about hospitality in Fielding, or Smollett, or Dickens, I would inevitably be referring often to the good cheer and other amenities available in the Inn at Upton, or at the Blue Lion at Muggleton, or at the Maypole, and a character who would necessarily claim my attention would be Mine Host, the Innkeeper, the professional dispenser of hospitality. How many great scenes of conviviality are set in public places on the road, how much generous fare is provided and eaten, how much punch brewed and consumed, how many companies have met and acted themselves out in gatherings where the restraints of home and family don’t apply! But Jane Austen is comparatively uninterested in hospitality as a profession. Innkeepers and their wives and servants, such favourite characters with Fielding, scarcely appear. This was not just because as a woman she would have less acquaintance with inns and pubs than riotous Harry Fielding or omnivorous Boz. For her the hospitality that counts happens in the home; the home being an extension of the personality, as Pemberley is of Darcy, it is there that the host most fully manifests himself, and the guest can enter most intricately into a relation with him.

When we come to the physical stuff of hospitality, the creature comforts of clean linen, warm space, attentive service, and particularly, food and drink – such comforts as we have been enjoying tonight – she can’t rival Dickens in the sheer quantity of specification; but then, who can? Nevertheless, she valued such things, and paid attention to them, though with an amused sense that a preoccupation with the physical can sometimes lead to a neglect of the moral.

Some people think that Jane Austen’s characters never drink anything stronger than tea, and seldom eat much more than Mr. Woodhouse’s very thin gruel. (Fortunately, we know better.) Such people might profitably read that wicked little story, “Jack and Alice.” The 15-year-old Jane could envisage characters just as boozy as Mr. Pickwick and his associates. At the end of the masquerade party at the Johnsons, we hear, “the Company retired to another room to partake of an elegant & well-managed Entertainment, after which the Bottle being pretty briskly pushed about, … , the whole party … were carried home, Dead Drunk” (VI, 14). In the major novels, too, there are those who put away a good deal more than the Mr. Woodhouse Special of “a small half glass [of wine] – put into a tumbler of water” (E, 25); we all remember the enormity committed in the carriage by Mr. Elton after “he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine” (E, 129).

The character most interested in food is Mr. Woodhouse, who is a kind of glutton in reverse, and spends a lot of his time denying rich delicacies to himself and his friends. He does what he can to dissuade his guests from eating wedding cake (E, 19), minced chicken, scalloped oysters, apple tarts, custard (24-25), roast pork (172), and so on; but since Emma assiduously supplies the luxuries he would withhold, the reader is allowed at least a waft of indulgence in the good things, and an assurance that affairs of the palate are not neglected at Hartfield.

Dr. Grant is a glutton more severely treated. We hear at the outset of Mansfield Park that “The Dr. was very fond of eating, and would have a good dinner every day” (MP, 31), and his interest in food and drink is a leitmotif attached to him throughout: he regards the visit of the Crawfords as “an excuse for drinking claret every day” (47), and he gets bad-tempered about some defective apricots, a turkey, and a green goose (54, 215, 111). Perhaps because he cares most that these good things should go down his own gullet, he is condemned as “an indolent selfish bon vivant, who must have his palate consulted in every thing” (111). Jane Austen rather sternly kills him off with an attack of apoplexy after “three great institutionary dinners in one week” (469).

With the cautionary fate of Dr. Grant in mind, I confess to some anxiety about her intentions for poor Arthur Parker in Sanditon. Arthur manages to take a considerable interest in food, in spite of being a confirmed invalid, and under surveillence by his spartan sisters:

I hope you will eat some of this Toast, [he says gallantly to his visitor, Charlotte Heywood.] I reckon myself a very good Toaster …. I hope you like dry Toast.” – “With a reasonable quantity of Butter spread over it, very much – said Charlotte – but not otherwise. – ” “No more do I – said he exceedingly pleased – We think quite alike there. – So far from dry Toast being wholesome, I think it a very bad thing for the Stomach. Without a little butter to soften it, it hurts the Coats of the Stomach. I am sure it does. – I will have the pleasure of spreading some for you directly – & afterwards I will spread some for myself.” … but when her Toast was done, & he took his own in hand, Charlotte cd hardly contain herself as she saw him watching his sisters, while he scrupulously scraped off almost as much butter as he put on, & then seize an odd moment for adding a great dab just before it went into his Mouth. (VI, 417-8)

The author who can invent such a scene knows all about the indulgence of the taste buds. And I am inclined to augur well for Arthur, because although he is greedy, he does take pains to look after his guest’s toast as well as his own. In this he contrasts notably with Lady Denham, in the same novel (or sad fragment of one). Lady Denham, who like Lady Catherine is very well provided, nevertheless most characteristically asserts herself by gleefully not inviting her nephew and niece to stay. “If People want to stay by the Sea, why dont they take Lodgings?” she argues. “Charity begins at home you know” (402). Clearly, in her last novel Jane Austen was still pondering the contract of mutual agreeableness that is entered into by host and guest, and the many ways of fulfilling and violating it. The selfish Lady Denham is balanced by the Heywoods, who act as Good Samaritans to the stricken Parkers at the beginning of the novel: “As every office of hospitality & friendliness was received as it ought – as there was not more good will on one side than Gratitude on the other – … they grew to like each other in the course of that fortnight, exceedingly well” (VI, 371).

There again we have the vision of hospitality as a joyful enlargement of both host and guest. It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes. Tonight we too have had a chance to grow to like each other, in the course of this dinner, exceedingly well. Ladies and gentlemen, for that we have given, as well as for what we have received, may the Lord make us truly thankful!


I have used R. W. Chapman’s edition of the works, the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Though I have necessarily abridged my talk because of restrictions of space, I have retained the opening anecdotes, having promised, by popular request, not to throw out the bathwater with the baby. – Juliet McMaster

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