“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!
At no point in Pride and Prejudice does Jane Austen ever talk about chickens in any way. The word “chicken” is used one time—they are eating it at dinner in Chapter 18. And the word “poultry” is used one time to refer to chickens, in Chapter 29 when Lady Catherine is giving Charlotte advice on how to care for her “cows and poultry,” and twice in a saying relating to the welfare of the household: “Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.” (Chapter 38) and “Lady Lucas was inquiring of Maria, after the wel- fare and poultry of her eldest daughter;” (Chapter 39).
As an English farmers daughter I was raised to believe the term is ‘hen’ until it is meat and then it is chicken. The babies are chicks. Does Jane Austen refer to the live birds as chickens?
I think there is almost zero chance you have this right. It seems to me “parish and poultry” and “welfare and poultry” is rather obviously a metaphor, a homey saying of some kind. It seems to me to be simply silly to imagine Lady Lucas was ACTUALLY enquiring about Charlotte’s chickens. What a bizarrely out of place line of discussion that would be! She’s not a farmer, for god’s sake! At no point in Elizabeth’s entire visit with Charlotte did they discuss chickens.