I can almost see it: “A pineapple?” Lady Catherine de Burgh crinkled her nose.
You would think, wouldn’t you, that the formidable woman would likely be offended by anything less than proper and wholly English. But actually, the pineapple was a rare luxury in Regency England.
This and much more we learned at Cobbett Road Library’s wonderful Regency Tea Party on the first Saturday of the Festival, a celebration of everything Austen… and everything cake!
Yes, the pineapple was in fact treasured by our bonnet-wearing ancestors who – so long as they could spare the high cost of £25 – could hire one for their dinner party table as a luxurious centrepiece. Did it set the tone for the sorts of decorations we use today? One thinks it must have.
Pineapples would be hired for the day. High in sugar, it would last for many rentals, its prickly nature surely inspiring such characters as Mr Collins’ patron, de Burgh. (As Cheryl Butler said on Thursday, we don’t know the contents of many of Austen’s letters, so anything is possible!)
Cobbett Road’s table was a long banquet affair only suspect in authenticity due to its plastic chairs. Small vases of flowers set off the 3 exotic fruits on display. The cakes were cooked to authentic recipes, oat flapjacks and cottage cheese pies two of the options. The only thing that differed was the amount of sugar – we know better these days.
Print-outs from Northanger Abbey were dotted around the table, the pages chosen those which included the great many novels Austen referenced in her Gothic parody – The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Castle of Wolfenbach, The Monk. Did you know that Austen used a library on our city centre High Street? We don’t know exactly where it was, but it was near the Bargate. And did you know that there was a vast amount of recycling done in the period?
It’s true. The Regency era was way ahead of us – old material was unravelled and re-purposed as lace. Newspapers were printed on cloth, passed around the town for tuppence per family, before it reached the last person who would pay threepence. The cloth was then often washed and reused, starting the process all over again.
Back to the present and, for all the sweetness that might have been on offer, the highlight was the dancing. Instructed by the very knowledgeable Shirley Funnell and Amy Coombes in the art of dancing the “Lord Byron’s Maggot” quadrille, much happiness and laughter ensued.
And by the end of the afternoon, the cakes were gone and we had all been persuaded, pun most definitely intended, that the Regency period could be a whole lot of fun.
Written and photographed by Charlie Place, with many thanks to the Friends of Cobbett Road Library.