Mr Weston’s Good Wine

New columnist Saintsbury relates the tale of Christmas Eve in Jane Austen's Emma — but which wine did Mr Elton employ in his quest to warm the heroine's heart?


In Emma there is a dinner party held at Randalls on Christmas Eve, as a result of the hospitable Mr Weston’s insistence: “Mr Weston would take no denial; they must all dine at Randalls one day; — even Mr Woodhouse was persuaded to think it a possible thing in preference to a division of the party.” We are not told much about the dinner, Austen preferring to focus her attention on the drawing room to which the women have withdrawn and left the men to their wine and conversation. Not all the men of the party are wholly committed to these manly pleasures: “Mr Woodhouse very soon followed them into the drawing-room.  To be sitting long after dinner, was a confinement that he could not endure. Neither wine nor conversation was any thing to him; and gladly did he move to those with whom he was always comfortable.” However, the other men of the party — Mr Weston, Mr Elton, and Mr Knightley — obviously sit long over their wine, for the women have to distract Mr Woodhouse from the lateness of the hour before they are eventually joined by the other men: “Mr Weston was chatty and convivial, and no friend to early separations of any sort; but at last the drawing-room party did receive an augmentation.  Mr Elton, in very good spirits, was one of the first to walk in.”

Mr Elton’s good spirits are as much alcoholic as animal. As the guests are being distributed between carriages for the drive home, he manoeuvres himself so as to follow Emma into the second carriage, and thus ensures that they will be tête-à-tête. Emma, who has just been warned by Mr Knightley that she may have made a mistake in thinking that Mr Elton’s emotions are devoted to Harriet rather than to her, is troubled: “She would rather it had not happened. She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.” Sure enough, they have barely got beyond the Westons’ drive before Mr Elton is “actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping — fearing — adoring — ready to die if she refused him…”

Mr Elton is not the first lover who has turned to wine as an ally when declaring his feelings. But what was the “good wine” which Mr Weston served him? We know that the action of Emma begins in the autumn of 1813 and ends in the autumn of the following year. Although these were years of victory for the Grand Alliance, culminating in Napoleon’s exile to Elba on April 20, 1814, the tide in the war had set strongly against the French only with the desperate winter retreat from Moscow of November and December 1812. So during the years of embargo before the novel begins, Mr Weston (“so hospitable, and so fond of society”) would not have had much chance to lay down good French wines to serve his guests on Christmas Eve 1813. Even if he had had recourse to smugglers, as many otherwise respectable members of English society did, the quality of what they could offer was probably not good. In 1801 Napoleon’s Minister for the Interior, Jean-Antoine Chaptal, had been so dismayed by the quality of French wine that he published his synthesis of current best wine-making practice, his Traité théorique et pratique sur la culture de la vigne. But it clearly took time for these improvements to bear fruit. Three decades later an Edinburgh merchant, John Cockburn, had to complain about the 1828 first growths, finding in them “a poverty…which we did not anticipate”. And in any case, even when it was good, claret at this time had to contend with various negative associations. It was a drink for Scotsmen rather than Englishmen. In the early years of the century it had acquired a taint of political disaffection when Bolingbroke had imagined closet Jacobites meeting in secret, and talking the “treason that claret inspires.”

Later, it suffered, as did so many things, under the censure of Dr Johnson. Boswell reports that Burke, who had heard of Johnson’s “scale of liquors” in which claret is allocated only to boys, exclaimed: “Then let me have claret: I love to be a boy; to have the careless gaiety of boyish days.” To which Johnson replied: “I should drink claret too, if it would give me that; but it does not: it neither makes boys men, nor men boys.  You’ll be drowned by it, before it has any effect upon you.”

So it is likely that Mr Weston’s good wine was port (or just possibly Madeira). Since the late seventeenth century, and particularly following the Methuen Treaty of 1703, the English had developed a taste for the wines of Portugal, which could withstand the fatigues of transport much better than their French counterparts. Stories of Burgundy, and even Hermitage, going sour before they reach their English purchasers are commonplace in the 18th century. But port is rendered stronger, sweeter and more stable by the addition of brandy, which halts the fermentation of the natural sugars. Problems of adulteration during the mid-18th century, when it was not uncommon for the wine to be “dressed” with elderberry juice, had been resolved by the formation in 1756 of the Douro Wine Company, which guaranteed quality. Austen had the opportunity to know something of all this. In a letter to her sister Cassandra in October 1798 she reports that she has been entrusted with “the keys of the Wine & Closet”.

Perhaps more remarkable than what Mr Elton had been drinking is the way he has been drinking. We are told that he “had only drunk wine enough to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellects”, and that he was therefore in a “half and half state”. Port is a drink which is falling out of fashion, as people increasingly prefer wines which are lighter in alcohol and drier in finish (or at least say they do — some Australian Shiraz wines can be almost as strong and taste almost as sweet as port). But Mr Elton’s precision of drinking is perhaps the most arresting detail in this episode. Mr Elton is not always a very attractive character, and a   certain instrumentality in respect of his own emotions is at the centre of the reader’s suspicion of him. He is a creature of surface charm and inward calculation. Although outwardly convivial, he does not surrender to the sociability at Randalls, being “one of the first” to rejoin the ladies in the drawing room. Those who somehow remain self-possessed when drink is circulating are traditional and proper objects of resentment. They observe and merely pretend to participate. Who knows what they may remember, and even repeat?

Notwithstanding the moral coldness which on this occasion dictates it, Mr Elton’s skill at hitting and sustaining the point of balance he manages to achieve at the Westons’ dinner party, of elevation without confusion, is a technique well worth cultivating in this age of binge-drinking.

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