I’ve had cake on my mind of late. Not eating it, exactly, but thinking about the cultural significance of cake. This lead me to considering a couple of iconic cake moments in Austen novels, which made me decide to dig a little deeper into Austen’s views on cake.
She mentions cake in a letter to her sister written on June 15, 1808. After referencing an evening her sister had spent with Miss Austen and her niece, she adds, “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me.” I read and re-read that passage, wondering if it was sarcastic or sincere and find I’m just not sure. Buying a cake from a bakery would not have been a common experience among the ladies of Austen’s sphere, so the idea of bypassing the hour of hand-whipping the eggs to make a sponge cake may well have seemed like a luxury she would appreciate. On the other hand, Austen was clearly responding to something her sister had said, so if Cassandra had found the visit tedious, the quip might have been Jane’s snarky acknowledgement of a boring conversation.
If we turn to references of cake in JA’s novels, we get a few hints of her opinion on cake, yet she does a good job of hiding her precise position. Let’s look at those scenes I referenced earlier. The first is from Emma, Chapter 2. Here is the passage:
There was no recovering Miss Taylor — nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for anybody; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. He had been at the pains of consulting Mr. Perry, the apothecary, on the subject. Mr. Perry was an intelligent, gentlemanlike man, whose frequent visits were one of the comforts of Mr. Woodhouse’s life; and, upon being applied to, he could not but acknowledge, (though it seemed rather against the bias of inclination,) that wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many — perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately. With such an opinion, in confirmation of his own, Mr. Woodhouse hoped to influence every visitor of the new-married pair; but still the cake was eaten; and there was no rest for his benevolent nerves till it was all gone.
There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands: but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it.
I hold that Austen was having a bit of sport with us here. We all know – as did the people of Highbury – that cake doesn’t fall into the “wholesome food” category and that it may even make some feel a bit unwell. In spite of Mr. Woodhouse’s warnings and attempts to prevent people from indulging, every bite of the cake was eaten up and by all accounts, everyone survived. Of course, folklore has long held that eating a piece of wedding cake brings a person good luck, so their odds of survival were promising from the start.
The second scene I’d like to share is from Persuasion, Chapter 6.
Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt! It is a pity you cannot put your sister in the way of managing them. They are as fine healthy children as ever were seen, poor little dears, without partiality; but Mrs. Charles knows no more how they should be treated — ! Bless me! how troublesome they are sometimes. I assure you, Miss Anne, it prevents my wishing to see them at our house so often as I otherwise should. I believe Mrs. Charles is not quite pleased with my not inviting them oftener; but you know it is very bad to have children with one, that one is obliged to be checking every moment, “don’t do this, and don’t do that;”; or that one can only keep in tolerable order by more cake than is good for them.”
Here, cake becomes the point of discord between Mary Musgrove and her mother-in-law. Mary complains to Anne that her MIL is feeding the children junk food, and then she has to deal with the tummy aches and misbehavior, while Mrs. Musgrove gripes that Mary doesn’t manage her children and that she has to ply them with cake to get them to behave. I have to laugh a little at this scene because this exact scenario plays out in many families even today. I think of it every time my husband tells our adult children that his job as the grandpa is to feed the kids sugar, shake them up and send them home.
I reviewed other instances of cake appearing in Austen’s novels and found that the other scenes hinge on the role of serving cake in showing hospitality and eating the cake you are served in accepting hospitality and be a good guest. Then there is Mrs. Elton who is shocked at “the poor attempt at rout-cakes”. Basically, she’s a cake snob.
In spite of the fat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, sugar-free, and organic only movements, the popularity of cake has only grown and expanded since Austen’s time. I wonder what she would think of the boxed cake mixes, tubs of icing and electric mixers that make baking a cake far easier than making a pie.
And now, just for fun, I leave you with a picture of William and Kate’s wedding cake. I bet everyone who got a piece of THAT cake felt pretty lucky! It’s your turn. So, what’s your favorite (or least favorite) type of cake? Have you ever spent an afternoon or evening perusing the Cake Wreaks website or looking at cakes on Pinterest? Let’s talk cake!