With only six sleeps before the upwardly mobile Ms Meghan Markle marries Prince Harry, speculation about all things royal wedding grows more and intense, with everything from the bride’s dress to what they’ll be eating at the wedding breakfast up for guessing grabs. The term ‘wedding breakfast’ itself has raised a question. Why is a three-, four- or five-course meal, usually eaten in the afternoon or evening, called a wedding breakfast? Simple really. A couple of centuries ago it was normal for the bride and groom to fast from the eve of their nuptials and they wouldn’t break that fast until the knot had been tied.
Get them to the church on time
Then there was the fact that in Jane Austen's day weddings were only valid if they were performed by clergymen of the Church of England between the canonical hours of 8am and noon in a place of public worship. At least Meghan and Harry are scraping in at noon on 19 May.
Breakfast as we know it
In any case, our modern-day notion of a quick breakfast first thing in the morning before we leave the house for the daily commute is relatively new although breakfast, as we know it, came into being during the Regency.
When one ate had its own social cachet. In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the dictatorial General Tilney expected everyone at the breakfast table at 9am sharp and takes umbrage at his son when he is late. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth walks the three miles to Netherfield Park after breakfast to be with her sick sister, Jane, only to encounter Mr. Bingley’s town guests just sitting down to breakfast over an hour later. At Mansfield Park, the breakfast is a more casual affair, with people arriving and leaving at their leisure and taking what they fancied from dishes on the sideboard. When Catherine Bennet visits the Fanshawes in my novel, What Kitty Did Next (published 28 June by Red Door Books), she finds they favour this more relaxed attitude, breakfasting between the hours of 10am and 11.30am!
Of course, breakfasting at 9am was not first thing in the morning for early risers. Jane Austen and many of her heroines would have been up for hours by before then. Before the breakfast hour at Chawton House, Jane was in the habit of writing letters or practising piano. In Emma, John Knightley takes his young sons on a walk before breakfast; in Persuasion, some of the travellers to Lyme stroll down to the sea before their morning repast. Many errands – perhaps to the library or the dressmaker – took place before breakfast, while “morning calls” to friends did not actually take place until the afternoon.
What was on the menu?
What was on the breakfast menu during the Regency? Tea, coffee and cocoa, rolls, breads, meats and eggs were normal. Jane Austen’s mother, when visiting their relatives at Stoneleigh Abbey remarked on the quantity of food at breakfast, listing, “Chocolate, Coffee and Tea, Plumb Cake, Pound Cake, Hot Rolls, Cold Rolls, Bread and Butter, and dry toast”. Interestingly, toast was often made at the hearth by the breakfasters themselves (rather than servants).
If you’re interested the ingredients for 18thcentury plumb cake included mace, nutmeg, currants, brandy and orange flower water. In one of her letters to Cassandra, Jane Austen mentions her enjoyment of “Bath bunns” or Bath cakes (right), which were a popular breakfast pastry of the time. These were rich, buttery yeast buns, seasoned and decorated with carraway seeds coated in sugar syrup. Laura Boyle's Cooking with Jane Austen and Friends has modern takes on Regency recipes.
With breakfast over by 11.30am at the latest, the next meal would be dinner – which again was a movable feast in the early 1800s as readers of Jane Austen would know. It became fashionable for dinner, once taken at around 3pm, to be moved later and later in the day. And as England became more and more industrialised and the working/middle class became a greater part of society, mealtimes changed and an early meal around 8am in the morning was needed to start tradesmen and professionals on their way. None of which will be bothering Meghan and Harry on 19 May!