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Oysters and Alderneys: Emma and the Animal Economy

J. DAVID GREY INFAMOUSLY WROTE THAT JANE AUSTEN “pays little attention to pets and animals” (342).  Barbara Seeber quotes a response to her “examination of animals in Austen,” as “‘but there are no animals in Jane Austen’” (x).  Since early downplay of the importance of animals in Austen’s novels and with rising interest in Animal Studies, numerous writers have countered the idea that animals play little part in Austen’s work. Seeber writes, “commodified animals are everywhere in Austen” (x).  James P. Carson adds that “a focus on animal studies illuminates an underemphasized dimension of Austen’s achievement—the way in which she advanced the realist project of situating the human in a spatially and temporally specific world, filled with things and animals” (166).  These assertions are persuasive, but Austen’s references to animals often carry much more weight than simply as plot device or scene furniture, especially in Emma:  they convey contextual and contemporary connections coded for the author’s original audience but that modern readers may miss.  Austen’s animal references imply secret signals between author and contemporary reader and amplify the context in which they appear. 

Nowhere is this more prominently demonstrated in Emma than in the description of meals with meat and the “connections between food and social hierarchies” (Seeber 166).  These references to food are so seamlessly employed as to make them appear trivial, while the foods themselves are keys to the scenes and action in which they appear. 

One example is the meal Emma plans on the occasion she meets Harriet Smith.  Emma is to provide hospitality for a group of ladies referred to as “a second set,” the people not important enough for a formal dinner, but useful for a night of entertainment.  They are Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard, to whom Harriet Smith is added; they will be “fetched” to entertain Emma’s father over cards (20).  Emma selects two meats that will allow her “the credit of doing every thing well and attentively” for this particular gathering:  “minced chicken and scalloped oysters” (24). Although these sound like lovely entrées, they also signal to the reader the nature of the feast and the position of the guests. 

Chicken was abundantly available in the country as poultry are relatively easy to raise and feed and would provide the owner with first eggs, then meat.  However, grand presentations of chicken for first tier guests would have featured a relatively young bird, or even a capon, roasted or boiled whole, garnished and sauced to make a superior table presentation.  Leftovers could be minced and served in sauce or other formats such as pie, and minced chicken almost certainly signaled the second appearance of the bird, suitable here for the second circle of Mr. Woodhouse’s acquaintance.  Also, considering Mr. Woodhouse’s culinary peculiarities, we might note that in nineteenth-century cookery books, minced chicken foods such as quenelles of chicken were mentioned as food for invalids.  Thus the minced chicken entrée would be suitable not only as thrifty, but seeming wholesome to a food-obsessive hypochondriac.  Emma’s choice is an “attentive” one for the guests and her father, since it is tasty and nourishing, while offering this second circle food fit to their perceived station. 

The second option, the oysters, further points to thrift.  In Austen’s time, oysters were plentiful and inexpensive.  Maggie Lane tells us that “oysters [were] all too common fare at inns, for they were very cheap” (60).  A recipe “To Scollop Oysters” found in Elizabeth Raffeld’s The Experienced English Housekeeper describes the preparation:  “When your oysters are opened, put them in a bason, and wash them out of their own liquor, put some in your scalloped-shells, strew over them a few bread crumbs, and lay a slice of butter on them, then more oysters, bread crumbs, and a slice of butter on the top, put them into a Dutch oven to brown, and serve them up in the shells” (39).  Although cost would have been low, the elegance of the preparation would have recommended itself to a party of guests, even second circle guests.  And Dorothy Hartley, author of the classic Food in England, tells us that “white meat” (pale in color) was “considered suitable for invalids,” so perhaps this dish, too, Mr. Woodhouse might look on without disgust, if not exactly with favor (111). 

The oysters were also somewhat symbolic.  Oysters were, generally, the property of those on whose banks they found themselves.  Like ladies, they had no real mobility, being attached to their homes.  Robert Neild notes, “British writers tend to use the oyster as an image for an enclosed world” (4), which certainly describes Hartfield society and Emma’s own situation.  Even in Cowper’s work “The Poet, The Oyster, and the Sensitive Plant,” the oyster expresses its parallel situation in the lines:

Ah hapless wretch!  Condemned to dwell
For ever in my native shell,
Ordain’d to move when others please,
Not for my own content or ease. . . . (qtd. in Stott 108-09) 

Cowper’s oyster continues, extolling its own “tenderness” and fine “sensibilities,” the same qualities Austen characters like Marianne Dashwood or Anne Elliot might claim as well.  Austen herself, who was not eager to move to Bath with her parents to live with them in increasingly restricted circumstances, could even have experienced a twinge of recognition on reading the poem. 

Just as oysters signal to readers Emma’s purposes in her menu selection, so do the plans for a subsequent meal for the second circle.  In this case, Emma plans the meal anticipating that she will not be present to oversee it.  For this second repast, she selects sweetbreads as the main course.  Like oysters, sweetbreads were inexpensive in Austen’s day and plentiful in times of slaughtering.  Maggie Lane reminds us that Emma, more than Austen’s other work, is tied to the agricultural year—from harvest to harvest, October to October, autumn being a time of slaughter for animals not carried over the winter (163). 

Because sweetbreads were organ meat, they had to be cooked and served quickly after slaughter to avoid rather rapid spoiling.  Sweetbreads could come from a variety of animals, perhaps primarily, in the instance of Emma, from pork (which Mr. Woodhouse praised) but also from lamb or veal.  Hartley tells us of pork sweetbreads: 

There are three different breads: the heart, throat, and pancreas.  Being white meat, they are considered suitable for invalids.  First blanch them, by soaking in salted water for an hour, then put into fresh cold salted water and bring to the boil as slowly as possible.  Drain, clear of any skin or gristle, and slice fairly thickly.  They should now be as white as a piece of bread.  (111) 

For preparation, Emma selects a thrifty fricassee, and we can get a sense of this dish from Elizabeth Raffeld’s recipe for a white sweetbreads fricassee: 

Scald and slice the sweet-breads as before, put them in a tossing pan with a pint of veal gravy, a spoonful of white wine, the same of mushroom catchup, a little beaten mace, stew them a quarter of an hour, thicken your gravy with flour and butter a little before they are enough; when you are going to dish them up, mix the yolk of an egg with a tea cupful of thick cream, and a little grated nutmeg, put it into your tossing pan, and shake it well over the fire, but don’t let it boil, lay your sweet-breads on your dish, and pour your sauce over them.  (99) 

Since the entrée is assumed to be wholesome for invalids, as well as thrifty, Emma probably feels that Mr. Woodhouse will not interfere with the guests’ eating pleasure. 

Emma pairs the sweetbreads with asparagus, however, historically another dish for invalids, except that asparagus was frequently served al dente.  Mr. Woodhouse, “‘thinking the asparagus [not] quite boiled enough,’” sends the whole dish away, never to return (329).  Miss Bates speaks of Mrs. Bates’s disappointment because “‘there is nothing grandmamma loves better than sweetbread and asparagus’” (329).  Although Seeber opines that the disappointment arises from “the absence of meat” and that Mrs. Bates “probably was looking forward to a more elaborate dinner than usual” (111), in fact, there is no real dinner at all, only the pudding course of baked apple and biscuits, which Mrs. Raffeld describes as sweets (275-76).  This conclusion would mean disappointment for someone whose poverty provided scant fare and who was looking forward to a full dinner and ample calories at Hartfield. 

Another category of meat by which the higher ranks share their bounty with or withhold it from their less affluent neighbors is gifts of pork.  Although Mr. Woodhouse seems to champion a vegetarian regime, in fact, he says of pork that if it is used to make fried steaks to which no additional fat is added, it is possibly edible.  Salted pork, if boiled till well cooked, he considers “‘not . . . unwholesome’” (172)—almost the most complimentary thing Mr. Woodhouse has to say about food other than gruel.

Significantly, Mr. Woodhouse tells us they have just “‘killed a porker,’” a word which might sound like slang to us but which had a very specific meaning.  The “porker” referred to the fact that pigs “to be eaten as pork are different from those to be bacon and hams” (Hartley 100).  According to Hartley, “the type of animal is different, and the feeding is altered to suit the purpose for which the pig is required.  Bacon and ham pigs used to be wanted large, and in country places, 40- or 50-lb. hams, and sides of bacon to match, glistening with salt, sparkled aloft between the top of the grandfather clock and the dresser; but for pig-keepers in a small way, pigs are usually killed when just ‘full grown’ and used partly as fresh pork and partly for salting” (100).  Thus, the porker was ideal for those with small space in which to feed them and/or a refined economic sense; smaller pigs were more delicate in flesh and flavor as well as economical. 

This definition gives us insight into that gift that went to Mrs. Bates.  In an act of generosity, Mr. Woodhouse wants to give the Bates ladies a leg of pork, eliminating some of the bonier parts, such as the trotters, shanks, and the ham hocks, but Emma seems to want to appear more important and gives them the whole hindquarter without consulting her father.  Mr. Woodhouse says of “‘a loin or a leg,’” they are “‘very small and delicate,’” but Emma says she has “‘sent the whole hind quarter’” because there “‘will be the leg to be salted, you know, which is so very nice, and the loin to be dressed directly in any manner they like’” (172).  Thus, Mr. Woodhouse was thinking kindly of the economy of scale on which the Bates household operates; Emma, however, sends a more opulent present, one that is larger than the household can accommodate.  Emma is thinking of the gift, not the recipients.  When Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax visit Hartfield, Miss Bates says, “‘My dear Miss Woodhouse—I come quite overpowered.  Such a beautiful hind-quarter of pork!  You are too bountiful!’”.  She then goes on to tell Emma that her mother was afraid they “‘had not any salting-pan large enough’” for the leg (173).  To Mr. Woodhouse, she says, “‘My dear sir, you really are too bountiful.  My mother desires her very best compliments and regards, and a thousand thanks, and says you really quite oppress her’” (173), which here very likely means overpower (the verb Miss Bates has used to Emma) or overwhelm.  Or maybe, as some critics have suggested, it really is oppression.  Mr. Woodhouse doesn’t quite get it: “‘We consider our Hartfield pork . . . indeed it certainly is, so very superior to all other pork, that Emma and I cannot have a greater pleasure than—’”(173).  He never gets to complete his thought.  Austen implicates Emma in offering a gift too large for the Bates ladies, overwhelming for their tiny quarters, perhaps for selfish motives. 

Harriet's Cow

Meat is not the only consideration in the animal exchange.  Consider the cows on the Martin farm.  Harriet Smith has been spending time with the Martin sisters, schoolmates of hers.  On her visit to the Martin farm, their brother, Robert, has fallen in love with her.  One of the great attractions of the Martins’ Abbey-Mill-Farm is the eight cows that Harriet describes to Emma, “‘two of them Alderneys, and one a little Welch cow, a very pretty little Welch cow, indeed.’”  Mrs. Martin, the matriarch, has even told Harriet that “‘as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow’” (27).  Of the eight-cow dairy herd, three are identified with specific breeds, and only these three are mentioned by breed by Harriet. 

Austen was on firm footing in her knowledge of cows and dairies.  Her own mother had written in a letter to a sister-in-law in 1773, “I have got a nice dairy fitted up, and am now worth a bull and six cows” (qtd. in Lane 2).  Maggie Lane tells us that in 1770, Mrs. Austen had described “an Alderney cow which ‘makes more butter than we use’” (2).  And in a letter to Cassandra, Jane Austen exclaims over the value of the family cows in the sale of the family possessions, “sixty one Guineas & a half for the three Cows [perhaps about $3000 today] gives one some support under the blow of only Eleven Guineas for the Tables” (12-13 May 1801).  Thus, when Austen mentions specific breeds, she understands what those designations meant.  Considering the value, the offer of a Welch cow to be called hers seems a kind of reverse dowry for Harriet, and a substantial one at that. 

Like Harriet, the breeds in question have their own semiotics of origin.  The Alderneys were a breed that, purebred, emanated (like Jersey cattle) from one of the Channel Islands.  They were known, according to William Youatt in his 1834 book on cattle, for “the richness of their milk, and the great quantity of butter which it yields,” but there was a problem with the Alderney that Youatt points to.  Like the Jersey cow in the earlier eighteenth century, the terminology “Alderney” sometimes conflated cattle imported from Normandy which were not Channel Island natives, with the name of the native breed.  Also, Jersey cattle were sometimes referred to as Alderneys, confusing the origins of the cattle completely.  Likewise, the Welch cow belonged to a breed that varied widely in description and conformation.  A breed standard was not set up for the Welch cow until the late nineteenth century, long after Austen’s death.  So, like the Alderneys, the Welch cow had no background or lineage that could be determined.  “Welch cow” could be a name for any one of a number of mixed breed of cattle.

Thus, the relationship between Harriet, “the natural daughter of somebody” (22), and the cows is highlighted, and more than one critic has commented on the cows.  Seeber tells us that “Gifts of food enact power relations,” and she further suggests that Austen links “agriculture and marriage as systems in which nature and women are born to submit” (105).  The gift by which the Welch cow is said to be Harriet’s cow confers an agricultural gift of potential food in the form of milk.  Critics have suggested that Harriet is being added to the Martin “herd,” with the prospect of motherhood (like the dairy cows) in her future, or even that the cows and Harriet share some common identity.  In a very specific sense, they may.  The cows that Harriet mentions with such favor and the cow that will be called her cow are all cows of indeterminate background, like Harriet herself.  In spite of this, they are valued and cared for by the Martins. 

More than the cows, perhaps the most ubiquitous animal in Emma is the horse.  Horses appear to reflect on the characters who have ownership or control over them.  Mr. Woodhouse, for example, exercises extreme control over his horses in order to exercise control over Emma.  It seems a good way to keep his daughter and himself at home.  On the other hand, the narrator tells us that Mr. Woodhouse never seems to mind the use of his horses when his evening parties at home provide the opportunity to entertain friends at cards.  Austen writes of these invitations to the second set of visitors: 

[A]mong the most come-at-able . . . were Mrs. and Miss Bates and Mrs. Goddard, three ladies almost always at the service of an invitation from Hartfield, and who were fetched and carried home so often that Mr. Woodhouse thought it no hardship for either James or the horses.  Had it taken place only once a year, it would have been a grievance.  (20) 

Mr. Woodhouse’s favorite, Mr. Perry, is also a horse owner, his horse being needed for his medical practice since he can be called out at all hours of the day and night.  Austen uses him and his horse for a plot device as well as a coded historical reference.  On one occasion, the Westons and Frank Churchill meet Mr. Perry on his horse, and as he has passed by, the men in the party discuss the horse.  Frank asks Mrs. Weston whether Mr. Perry plans to set up his carriage, as she had written him.  But Frank is confused; it was Jane Fairfax who had mentioned this impending event.  Perry is doing very well in his business, but also, as Roger Sales informs us, his status in society “hinged on whether he was to be a tradesman on a horse, or a professional man who used a carriage for daytime visits” (152).  The Regency was a period of struggle between physicians and apothecaries regarding professional status, and, according to Sales, keeping a carriage was an integral part of this struggle (152-53).  And Frank’s special knowledge of Perry’s potential carriage indicates that he has inside knowledge, not from Mrs. Weston, but from some other letter writer. 

Mrs. Elton, who seems not to want to travel on horseback, espouses the alternative of the donkey (356).  Donkeys did have some advantage over horses.  Sales tells us, “A donkey, sometimes with a cart, was often the only form of transport that women in the country could call their own” (159).  For Mrs. Elton, however, they seem to be a desirable part of an elegant show of country indolence.  Mrs. Elton says, “‘I wish we had a donkey’” (356) to express her whim.  “‘The thing would be for us all to come on donkies, Jane, Miss Bates, and me—and my caro sposo walking by.  I really must talk to him about purchasing a donkey.  In a country life I conceive it to be a sort of necessary; for, let a woman have ever so many resources, it is not possible for her to be always shut up at home;—and very long walks, you know——in summer there is dust, and in winter there is dirt’” (356).  Mr. Knightley breaks her bubble by telling her his lane “is neither dusty nor dirty” (Sales 159), but, in the final analysis, when a woman wants an accessory, a woman wants an accessory, and an ass would be a fine, symbolic accessory for Mrs. Elton. 

The mention of dining on chicken in the beginning of Emma and the poultry theft at the end remind us of how important poultry are to the animal economy.  Chickens would have been raised at most establishments, truly free range, unless the poultry yard were fenced to keep off predators.  If the barnyard had geese, the geese would guard the flock, for geese have been watchmen since ancient times.  We know Robert Martin raises geese because the Martin matriarch gives a fine goose to Mrs. Goddard, who says it is “‘the finest goose [she has] ever seen’” (28).  If anyone would be a judge of geese, Mrs. Goddard would fit the description, having turned goosish girls into passable women for a long time.  Robert Martin proves with the gift that his establishment of sisterly women will offer both nurture and protection as a home for a goose like Harriet. 

Ultimately, one of the main purposes of the barnyard fowl in Emma is to assist in making the marriage between Emma and Knightley, for the very event of turkey-napping that Mr. Woodhouse considers to be “housebreaking” causes him to value the importance of a resident son-in-law as protection.  As Austen writes, “Mrs. Weston’s poultry-house was robbed one night of all her turkies—evidently by the ingenuity of man.  Other poultry-yards in the neighbourhood also suffered” (483).  This incident also brings to mind the previous depredations of the gipsies.


In this incident, Austen is pointing not just to Mr. Woodhouse’s anxiety, but to Joseph Addison’s Spectator 130.  Here, the narrator describes how he and Sir Roger de Coverley discover a band of gipsies.  Sir Roger has an internal conflict over whether to exert the “Justice of the Peace” upon them, but “fearing that his Poultry might fare the worse for it, he let this Thought drop” (394).  Sir Roger continues, “Our Geese cannot live in Peace for them; if a Man prosecutes them with Severity, the Hen-Roost is sure to pay for it” (394).  This allusion suggests that the turkey napping at Mrs. Weston’s is probably tied to Harriet Smith’s gipsy incident, since the narrator states that Frank Churchill leaves Harriet with Emma, and Emma “engag[es] to give . . . notice of there being such a set of people in the neighbourhood to Mr. Knightley” (334).  “The gipsies,” however, “did not wait for the operations of justice” (aware of the vigor of Mr. Knightley’s pursuit of his responsibilities as magistrate); “they took themselves off in a hurry” (336).  The irony of Knightley’s severity as magistrate is that it apparently brings retaliatory turkey theft by the gipsies, which in turn expedites Knightley’s marriage with Emma.  (Equally ironic is that the marriage of Robert Martin and Harriet Smith unites characters bearing what historians tell us are among the most common surnames of British gipsies.)  Regardless, the happy ending is ultimately brought about not just by the gipsies, but ultimately by the workings of the animal economy.  Austen uses her animal references to provide provocative signals and insights that would have amplified the pleasure of her text to insider readers

Works Cited
  • Addison, Joseph, et al.  Number 130.  The Spectator in Four Volumes, Volume One.  Ed. Gregory Smith.  New York: Dutton, 1967.  393-96.
  • Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  London: Oxford UP, 1966.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  4th ed.  Oxford: OUP, 2011.
  • Carson, James P.  “One of Folly’s Puppies: Austen and Animal Studies.”  Global Jane Austen: Pleasure, Passion, and Possessiveness in the Jane Austen Community.  Ed. Lawrence Raw, Robert G. Dryden.  NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.  165-88.
  • Grey, J. David.  “Pets and Animals.”  The Jane Austen Companion.  Ed. J. David Grey.  Houndmills: Macmillan, 1986.  324-25.
  • Hartley, Dorothy.  Food in England.  London: Abacus, 1996.
  • Lane, Maggie.  Jane Austen and Food.  London: Hambledon, 1995.
  • Neild, Robert.  The English, the French, and the Oyster.  London: Quiller, 1995.
  • Raffeld, Elizabeth.  The Experienced English Housekeeper, for the Use and Ease of Ladies, Housekeepers, Cooks, &c. . . . Consisting of Near Nine Hundred Original Receipts.  5th ed.  London: Baldwin, 1776.
  • Sales, Roger.  Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England.  New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Seeber, Barbara K.  Jane Austen and Animals.  Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.
  • Stott, Rebecca.  Oysters: Animals and Civilization.  London: Reaktion, 2004.
  • Youatt, William.  Cattle; Their Breed, Management, and Diseases.  London: Baldwin, 1834.
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