Thoughts on P&P’s “White Soup”

From Judith:

The JASNA newsletter which I receive yesterday (April 21) mentioned that the Vermont chapter is interested in Nicholls’ “White soup.” There are several recipes available on line for this concoction, which is so called because no dark meat (that is beef or mutton) are used in making it, but only veal and or chicken. It is a very rich soup with anchovies, cream, egg and ground almonds added, as well as herbs and onion.

However, soup spoils readily, and it is possible that Nicholls was making a white portable soup, which is described at length in The Frugal Colonial Housewife. One takes a leg of veal, a LOT of chicken and a LOT of water and cooks it all down to a jelly, strains and boils down some more, until one winds up with what amounts to dry bouillon cubes, which, according to the cookbook, you can carry in your pocket. These could be reconstuted when wanted, and the fancier ingredients mentioned above added.

Incidentally–Nicholls is Mr Bingley’s cook, not his housekeeper. In a household of that level of wealth, there would be both, as indeed Mr Bennet’s also has, although we do not know the name of his cook. The Bennet’s housekeeper is Mrs Hill.

Those who do not receive JASNA News will need a bit of a filling-in: At the Pride & Prejudice Weekend held end-January/beg-February, our hostess Suzanne Boden (owner of The Governor’s House in Hyde Park, a B&B) had a quiz based on the novel. I am hopeless at such quizzes; as I’ve said before, I do not read Austen in order to retain minutae.

One question had to do with Who ‘Nicholls’ was–we’ll come back to that point in a moment–this person shows up twice in the novel, once just as a last name, and once designated “Mrs Nicholls” (or could they be two people?). Anyway, after reading the comment about ‘white soup enough’ – a requirement for Bingley to begin sending out invitations to the Netherfield ball, we did two things: looked up a recipe for ‘white soup’ and wondered among ourselves WHY the dance would depend so heavily upon this. Suzanne, as an excellent cook, of course could come up with a book that included a recipe for ‘white soup’ — but not being a cook, I didn’t read it thoroughly, much less retain it! So what Judith tells us is of great interest! Especially about the ‘portable’ soup!! Who knew?!

For Nicholls’ place in the household, I believe I deferred to Chapman (I had had the book with me that w/e); so will have to look further into the matter (Would Bingley allude to her merely as ‘Nicholls’ or would she always receive the title-treatment, Mrs Nicholls? Is Nicholls male, and has a wife who does the shopping??)

The relevant passages: in the 1918 edition online at Google, p. 56: “‘If you mean Darcy,’ cried her brother, ‘he may go to bed, if he chooses, before it begins–but as for the ball, it is quite a settled thing; and as soon as Nicholls has made white soup enough, I shall send round my cards.’

The second mention of Nicholls, in VOL II of the first edition, p. 193: “‘You may depend on it,’ replied the other, “for Mrs. Nicholls was in Meryton last night; I saw her passing by, and went out myself on purpose to know the truth of it; and she told me that it was certain true. He comes down on Thursday at the latest, very likely on Wednesday. She was going to the butcher’s, she told me, on purpose toorder in some more meat on Wednesday, and she has got three couple of ducks, just fit to be killed.'”

Therefore, my BIG question was WHY: Why would the invitations (if that is what his “cards” allude to) depend upon Nicholls making ‘white soup enough’?? Was this a staple at a dance? did you nourish your visitors before sending them on their way at 2 or 4 a.m.? Was the staff, or townsfolk given this as a ‘thank you’ treat kind of thing?? It’s such a little sentence, but (as often in Austen) the author was pointing out something that was a ‘norm’ then — and just isn’t thought about (maybe known much about) now.

So thank you for your insights, Judith. I’m sure readers will have more to add regarding both white soup and the position of Nicholls within the Bingley household. And if anyone knows the ‘why’, as well, do write in!

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on P&P’s “White Soup”

  1. At public assemblies tea was served, but at private balls hosts were supposed to serve supper around midnight, and white soup was the most common dish. Since there would be many guests the cook needed some time for preparation. Likely no one held such huge pots as restaurants do today. Nicholls needed to prepare it many times in smaller ones.

    Some times ago I wrote down some general rules about balls. White soup has its small mention. Ballroom Etiquette.

    Nicholls and Mrs. Nicholls is probably one person. Servants rarely had spouses, and the Mrs. before a cook or housekeeper’s name was only a courtesy. Mrs. Reynolds wouldn’t be hired at Pemberley if she had a husband either.

    The more important servants, such as cooks, housekeepers, butlers, valets, the main coachmen, gardeners etc were called by their surname, while others by their first name, often of their master’s choice, and not their real one. I.e. it was easier to always call a footman “John” no matter which footman it was.

    However, Mrs. Bennet, who called her own housekeeper “Hill”, without the “Mrs.” before it, would be obliged to call Bingley’s cook “Mrs. Nicholls”. While Bingley could call her just “Nicholls”. She was his servant. Yet Bingley, as better behaved, would probably add the “Mrs.” when addressing her directly.


  2. Hi Kelly, here are the references to “Nicholls” – all refer to “Mrs. Nicholls”

    1. Grey, JA Companion: the cook and/or housekeeper at Netherfield.
    2. Leeming, Who’s Who in JA and Brontes: Mr. Bingley’s housekeeper
    3. Apperson, A JA Dictionary: housekeeper at Netherfield
    4. Chapman, P&P: housekeeper at Netherfield.

    Note that the second reference you mention above referring to Mrs. Nicholls being seen in Meryton on her way to the butchers – preceeding this is a paragraph with a mention that “the housekeeper at Netherfield had received orders to prepare for the arrival of her master” [all this relayed by Mrs. Phillips] – I agree with Judith that there would likely be two people and that the housekeeper is never mentioned by name and that Mrs. Nicholls is actually the cook, therefore shopping for the food. But I also question that as Netherfield is essentially uninhabited until Bingley returns, perhaps Nicholls is both housekeeper and cook until his party arrives when another servant is added for the running of the house. This is pure speculation as Austen does not clarify…

    Janet Todd has a short article on “Servants” in the Grey “Companion” saying that “servants are ubiquitous in Jane Austen’s world – both in the real world of her letters and her fictional world where some are mentioned and some are not [I have other sources on this that I will check later.] Sylwia is correct in her stating the reasons for dropping and/or use of the “Mrs.”

    As for “white soup”, Olsen’s “Cooking with Jane Austen” has 3 pages of commentary and various recipes: “white soup was the most elegant type of soup, based on veal broth, cream and almonds” and would have been served for supper at private balls – this is one of the few instances where Austen specifies the type of soup.
    [oh and Kelly, this IS the ultimate Austen “minutae”!!]


  3. (Now that I’ve a little time to respond; and my damned Internet Explorer is working as it should… and used to do before updates got installed! I could not long cut & paste!!)

    Sylwia, just read your fascinating post on balls; Emma Smith wrote constantly of the private balls and concerts the Goslings, her own mother, and other relations held – so it is a topic of great interest. Can you supply any literature you found useful for your post??

    Such little things always bring up such BIG thoughts and questions, for instance everyone’s comments on servants.

    I have found married servants among the Smiths/Goslings extended family. At Kinwarton there is Mrs Page and her daughter (In the 1851 census she is a 46-year-old, married woman, whose 14-year-old daughter assists her); and the Goslings employed Mrs Sandoz and her daughter. There is also a Mr and Mrs Marshall in the Smith household; their children get mentioned as well.

    In other readings, I have come across “a couple” being purposely engaged, the woman for the house, the man for such tasks as ‘driving’.

    Found this letter of Verdi (1858): “All things considered, I think it would be unwise to take on a coachman with uncertain eyesight and a certain wife. One servant plus one wife makes two-that is, two enemies constantly conspiring against the master! One at a time is quite enough! Also I’d prefer to avoid married servants for as long as possible….” Ha-ha!!

    This isn’t a subject I have gone into great depth, and I do seek out authoritative texts on the subject.

    As regards the use of a last name only, for example a woman who could be either a cook or housekeeper in the Smith household during Emma’s mid-teens is constantly called Mrs Dixon. Not even in passing is she merely ‘Dixon’.

    A quick perusal of a searchable PP leads me to realize that the FAMILY refer to their housekeeper (for so she is called w/in the text) as ‘Hill’, while the NARRATOR insists on calling the woman ‘Mrs Hill’, for instance (p. 376; the Thomson edition): “‘…Oh! here comes Hill. My dear Hill, have you heard the good news? Miss Lydia is going to be married; and you shall all have a bowl of punch to make merry at her wedding.’ Mrs. Hill began instantly to express her joy.” Thus, in both reference and in discourse with the woman, she is HILL to the Bennet women, mother as well as daughters. But the narrator gives her her due: therefore: Is Austen trying to tell us readers something about the Bennets?? (For instance, would either Darcy sibling ever refer to their housekeeper merely as Reynolds?? hmmm… WICKHAM, however, refers to her as Reynolds when he says ‘Poor Reynolds, she was always very fond of me.’)

    Deb brings up an excellent point, in that additional staff could be gotten locally, once the family came down to Netherfield. Still, as a bachelor establishment, perhaps a smaller staff was required?

    While looking at the census I must include that Richard and Fanny Seymour had the following staff: Richard’s Curate is listed; a governess, footman, nurse and assistant (the Pages), cook, housemaid, nursemaid and kitchen maid. Biographical information on the Seymours usually calls their establishment ‘large’ (though I’ve read that Mrs Smith’s staff amounted to 22, I’m still seeking information on how this number was arrived at [this was mentioned at her funeral; some could have been former employees]).


  4. It’s been some years since I was reading about balls. Mostly in old dance and etiquette manuals. I lost links to them during some computer crash, but I’ll try to find them one day and copy them to the Repository, where I try to collect Regency sources. Careful reading of Austen and her contemporaries also helps. Dancing is often mentioned.

    Some other sources:

    Susan Watkins – Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style
    Sharon Laudermilk & Teresa L. Hamlin – The Regency Companion
    Joan Klingel Ray – Jane Austen for Dummies
    Josephine Ross – Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners
    Josephine Ross – Jane Austen, a Companion
    Joan Klingel Ray – Jane Austen for Dummies
    Margaret C. Sullivan – The Jane Austen Handbook
    Jane Austen’s Regency World Magazine

    Also, if a book is annotated by Le Faye for example, one can expect many useful insights. However, it’s really good to read at least one manual, because annotations provide single sentences, without any explanation, and other books often mention balls in passing, while manuals explain where the people were coming from, and why a particular behaviour was expected. Etiquette is like the Highway Code. If one doesn’t observe it one’s likely to cause a disaster. ;)

    You can find more about servants and marriage in Pamela Horn’s “Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England”.

    Generally if a servant married she would have to quit her job. A male servant could keep his marriage and family secret. Not many masters would allow them to remain in the service or provide a cottage for them. No master would like two servants have sex below stairs or their maid give birth or nurse her children in his house. Additionally the new (18th century) manor houses had the serving staff strictly separated, with all men sleeping in the basement and all women in the attic.

    A housekeeper likely wasn’t a young woman. She could be past her birth giving age, returning to work when her kids were grown ups. She needed to have much more experience, and she should be at least a bit educated to be able to write, read and count. So married women or widows could happen, but spinsters still would be preferable.

    The life of servants was rather sad. In the mid-19th century a great number of London prostitutes were servants earning extra money between one position in a house and another. If a servant got pregnant she was fired, gave birth, abandoned the kid, and looked for another job. In Austen’s times the poor usually didn’t marry at all.

    One more quote – Austen wrote to Cassandra in one of her letters (Jan 3, 1801):

    “My mother looks forward with as much certainty as you can do to our keeping two maids; my father is the only one not in the secret. We plan having a steady cook and a young, giddy housemaid, with a sedate, middle-aged man, who is to undertake the double office of husband to the former and sweetheart to the latter. No children, of course, to be allowed on either side.”

    I think that when Wickham calls Mrs. Reynolds “Reynolds” it’s because he was brought up as a younger son rather than a guest at Pemberley. After all his manners are always impeccable. It’s likely that Darcy would call her without the “Mrs.” too. Although I do think he’d add it when addressing her directly.

    Jane Austen the narrator refers to all of her characters as their social acquaintance. For example she never says Lizzy or Eliza, it’s always Elizabeth. She speaks of Darcy either as Mr. Darcy or Darcy (men were often addressed without the “Mr.” by their friends) and similarly of Bingley, but she never calls either of them Fitzwilliam or Charles, because they’re not younger sons. With servants it’s the same. Those aren’t her servants, even though she created them.


  5. Thanks very much for the listing of secondary source texts, Sylwia; they may indeed come in handy.

    It was interesting that on Wednesday night (the talk by Prof. April Bernard at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library) that someone asked about servants, and of course talk also turned to the Brontes — and opinions mid-century of Austen’s works.

    Austen’s letters as well as her novels rarely comment on servants – we might almost say the just get about their jobs. Yet they obviously existed! — as you note with the quite amusing quotation from Austen’s 1801 letter.

    Anyway, what caught my attention was Bernard’s comment that SEEMINGLY Austen and the Brontes were from the same ‘class’ — both children of parsons; yet the Brontes were much poorer a family. Hmmmm…

    Your comment about the use of last name only makes me think of the diaries of Francis Edward Witts (which I’ve just purchased): the editor comments that men equal to him he notes as Mr Soandso, but men lesser to him appear as either a last name alone or first initial and last name. Once again, we seem in the area of historical minutae… like with the soup!

    I do, however, have to wonder: Are we to think Wickham’s manners impeccable?

    Was looking (briefly, alas!) at your own blog; enjoyed it immensely!!


  6. “Jane Austen the narrator refers to all of her characters as their social acquaintance. For example she never says Lizzy or Eliza, it’s always Elizabeth.”

    Not entirely. She refers to Catherine Bennet as Kitty more than once. While friends and family call her Kitty, (just as they call Elizabeth Lizzy or Eliza) should not the narrator properly call her Catherine?

    It makes me wonder who the real life embodiment of that character was for the author to make such a narrative error. Someone close, but not Cassandra (Austen’s only sister) unless she was recalling the possible awkwardness of her sister’s adolescence.


    • Hello Joy-Lyn – just getting to respond to you – I had to go back to this post and read it all !- see that what you are referring to is in one of the comments – and not sure of the answer – would need to re-read everything! to see how Austen varies in the choice of name as narrator and in dialogue. This issue is most apparent in Sense & Sensibility when Ann Steele is referred to as “Ann” [the proper name] and “Nancy” [the familiar diminutive] – and as you mention “Kitty” – this is a thought for another post! [and a good reference is Maggie Lane’s Names in Jane Austen.
      Thanks for visiting!


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