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!