...13 years ago, during a group read in Janeites of Amanda Vickery's A Gentleman's Daughter, Diana Birchall wrote the following, and the ALL CAPS portions of this passage (about real people from JA's era) take on an almost unbelievable additional meaning in light of my latest claim re Mansfield Park re Mrs. Norris and her apparently intimate relationship with her "chief counsellor" Nanny.
Some of you will no doubt consider the uncanny parallels set forth below between real life and fiction, as merely a coincidence, or JA being psychic, because her depiction of Mrs. Norris so eerily tracks aspects of the real life of Mrs. Elizabeth Shackleford. For me, the parallels are so specific and so uncannily apt that I conclude that somehow JA had access to, or at least a secondhand report about, Elizabeth Shackleford’s real life diary about poor Nanny Nutter, who sounds like a real life combination of both Nanny, and also Fanny Price, both of whom Mrs. Norris took possession of at a young age.
Either way, it’s pretty mindblowing, and my assertions about something more personal going on between Mrs. Norris and Nanny than just a mistress-servant relationship add a whole additional layer of complexity to the literary “cream cheese” recipe served up below:
"Mrs. Shackleton's diaries are full of laments about the difficulties of keeping servants. "Nobody left as a woman servant in this house. God help me what will become of me," she wrote in 1780. She was so desperate to keep competent people that she overlooked cases of drunkenness and insolence -
"Immaculate delicacy was a luxury she could not afford," Vickery writes. THE MISTRESS-SERVANT RELATIONSHIP WAS COMPLEX AND PARADOXICAL, COULD BE FOND AND INTIMATE, or distant and antagonistic. The case of NANNY NUTTER, WHO SLEPT IN HER MISTRESS'S BED, was given many trinkets, yet KEPT RUNNING AWAY and being brought back by her father. Mrs. Shackleton AT TIMES REFERRED TO HER SERVANTS WITH CONDESCENDING SENTIMENTALITY, especially in her later years ("she was poor and came to me WHEN I WAS DESOLATE & QUITE WITHOUT HELP"), but more usually expected gratitude, CONSIDERING HER SERVANTS BEHOLDEN TO HER....
...Yet in Elizabeth Shackleton's household there is much evidence that THE MISTRESS HERSELF DID SOME WORK HERSELF (no doubt especially when servants were unavailable), and certainly she was never relieved of the burden of ACTIVE SUPERVISION IN ORDERING HER HOUSEHOLD...At times it sounds as if SHE IS DOING LABORIOUS TASKS HERSELF ("I wash'd all the China Pots & c in the Store room...we scowered all the Pewter")...
...She was actively concerned in the running of the home farm, notes all the rhythms of the farming year, and OVERSAW HER BUTTER SALES, the trade of which was worth the annual wages of two or three maidservants....There is no suggestion that she prepared food on a routine basis (we may remember Mrs. Bennet assuring Mr. Collins that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen), although ONCE SHE OFFERED HER HUSBAND A SPECIAL CREAM CHEESE MADE BY HERSELF as a peace offering - and we can recall an occasion in Jane Austen's fiction when cream cheese was given a similar importance and significance: MRS. NORRIS TOOK A BEAUTIFUL LITTLE CREAM CHEESE AND ITS RECIPE as her chief prize from her day at Sotherton!" END QUOTE FROM DIANA
To which I add these following additional Mrs. Norrisesque tidbits which I have pulled from Vickery’s original 1993 publication of her findings:
“To Mrs. Shackleton’s horror, Susy Smith was discovered dispensing fine white sugar for the servants’ tea in 1771 and the cook-housekeeper Molly Vivers was surprised drinking full cream milk in 1772. The expropriation of illegitimate perquisites threatened both Elizabeth Shackleton’s authority and her good housekeeping, a dual challenge made explicit in a note of 1779:
‘Found Betty Crook making coffee and breaking white sugar to drink with it. Servants come to a high hand. What will become of poor housekeepers?”
…An entire diary is devoted to the career of an adolescent maid, Nanny Nutter…”
And finally I found this anecdote which is utterly Norrisesque from this 2009 web article:
“One of [these servants] she calls Nanny Nutter and virtually adopts from the age of 12, but she runs away and ends up as a neighbour’s chambermaid. Shackleton writes in her diary (Vickery discovered 39 of them) that she’s ‘an ungrateful, lying girl’. Nanny Nutter cannot answer back because she was most probably illiterate.”
Ungrateful, lying girl—need I say more?