“Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 38 by Jane AustenIn her book Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen repeatedly mentions how happy Charlotte Collins is with her chickens. We can guess that the birds were a wedding gift from her parents, by the way in which her mother enquires about them after Charlotte’s younger sister Maria returns home from a visit to the Collins parsonage.
“Lady Lucas was enquiring of Maria, across the table, after the welfare and poultry of her eldest daughter;” Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 39 by Jane AustenNot only will the chickens supplement meals, in Charlotte’s newly formed household, with eggs and meat, they will also provide Charlotte a small regular income from the sale of extra eggs at 1 shilling for 2 dozen eggs. She might also hatch some of the eggs to continuously replenish her flock of laying hens with younger birds and sell the capons for table use at 3 shillings each. Charlotte’s flock of chickens is most likely of the dual purpose, eating and laying, Sussex breed. Sussex chickens are an ancient breed, which originated during the Roman occupation of Britain. Weights range from 9 ½ pounds for the cocks to 7 ½ pounds for hens. The original varieties were Brown, Red and Speckled. The light Sussex variety has a white body with a black tail and black wing tips and black feathers around the base of the neck. The light Sussex is the best layer of the breed and will lay approximately 240 to 260 eggs per year. The eggs are large and are cream to light brown in color. Sussex chickens are also excellent foragers searching for seeds and insects on their own. By removing eggs from the nest, as they are laid, Charlotte could encourage her hens to keep laying. However, if she allowed the eggs to accumulate until there were 10 to 12 eggs in a nest, the hen would stop laying and spend most of her time brooding, or sitting on the nest of eggs, until the chicks hatched after a period of about three weeks. The hen would not start laying again until the chicks were old enough to look after themselves. If Charlotte owned half-a-dozen hens, she could expect an income of around 60 shillings or 3 pounds from her poultry. Since a simple dress cost 5 shillings and a pair of shoes 6-11 shillings, in Jane Austen’s time, the chickens would actually allow Charlotte the independence to buy several things a year, without having to ask Mr. Collins for money.
Written for the Jane Austen Online Magazine Sharon Wagoner, Curator of The Georgian Index. Visit this site for a historical tour through Regency London!