Saturday, 25 June 2011

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Nicola Humble's book is a fascinating review of the way cookbooks have been written, presented and used in Britain since the 1860s; it also functions, extremely effectively, as a social history of cooking and eating.  Presented chronologically, each chapter deals with the most celebrated food writers - Mrs Beeton, Agnes Jekyll, Boulestin, Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, Jane Grigson - and also their contemporaries who may not be as well-known today but whose influence on the way we cook and eat is persistent.  Humble's topic allows her to explore the social changes of the period thematically, too: the significance of gender in food writing, the decline of the servant class and the growth of a professionalised domesticity, the anxieties around the best way to feed children.  Some of these themes will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, as will her prose, which combines a thorough scholarship with great readability and humour.

The book is excellent at tracing the links between social change, class mobility and the transformation of food retail, and developments in food writing.  Modern cookbooks are often criticised as being for reading, or displaying on shelves, rather than cooking from; but Humble shows how this was always an aspect of cookery writing.  Late Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks often had chapters called something like "When Cook is Away", which included simple recipes the housewife might attempt herself, and glossed over the fact that for many readers at this time, Cook was not just away, but gone for good, if she had ever in fact existed.  The more elaborate recipes were for wistful perusal rather than for use.  The two chapters on wartime cookery show how important food writers were to the war effort, providing new ideas for using an increasingly limited range of ingredients, even if the results of their inventiveness were peculiar at best, revolting at worst.    Humble is also very good at analysing the way in which food writers write, the lifestyle that is being endorsed along with the recipes, and the influence on our contemporary views of dishes and ingredients; Elizabeth David's endorsement of tinned tomatoes has gone some distance to make them acceptable to the majority of today's foodies.  The book also considers the ways in which recipes and cookbooks have been presented: the simple hardback, recipe cards, flip-books that allow you to combine three courses in new and exciting ways, and the picture or cartoon books, like Len Deighton's cookbooks aimed at men.  The final chapter, which considers the rise of the celebrity chef and the influence of television on food writing, is a fascinating piece of analysis, and skewers Delia Smith with delightful precision; apparently she finds it disgusting when her fellow TV cooks taste their own food on screen.  This tells you all you need to know about Delia, really, although I am bound to admit that her recipe for flaky pastry is truly excellent.

Best of all, this book has recipes, so you can see for yourself how this type of writing has evolved and how it reflects on itself.  There is a frightful-sounding, necessarily eggless, World War II cake which comes with a rather surprising endorsement from Stella Gibbons.  Nicola Humble is particularly devoted to Constance Spry, and we get her apparently infallible recipe for choux pastry.  From Raymond Blanc's oeuvre we get a terrifying multi-stage recipe for red pepper mousse, the style of which will be instantly familiar to anyone who bought a cookbook in the late 1980s.  A Nigella Lawson recipe for a comforting family supper of fish pie followed by cherries and ice-cream exemplifies the intimate and personal tone that characterises her writing.  This book was not only highly informative and entertaining, but it sent me straight back to reading my own collection of cookbooks, and wondering when I might find the time to cook Jane Grigson's recipe for Paris-Brest, making use of the Constance Spry choux pastry method, obviously.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

To The River by Olivia Laing

Olivia Laing's book is a love-letter to the river Ouse in Sussex, a poetic blend of travel narrative, history and memoir.  After a personal crisis, Olivia sets out to walk the Ouse from the source to the sea, her backpack stuffed with cheese and oatcakes, on a journey of healing and discovery.  Her narrative takes in the history of Sussex around the Ouse.  We meet the amateur geologist Gideon Mantell, a doctor in Lewes in the early nineteenth who discovered the iguanadon; Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes; Richard Dawson who gave us the Piltdown Man hoax; and Leonard and Virginia Woolf.  Laing also ponders those who have loved rivers, and been endlessly drawn to them, like Kenneth Grahame, and the effect of rivers on the landscape, and of humankind on those rivers.

Laing's style is reflective, turning over for the reader her thoughts and wonderings about the landscape and the characters who populate it.  We are privy to her indecisions and confusions, which makes for an intimate, confiding text.  Her knowledge is demonstrated lightly and the stories and histories she relates make the narrative digressive and meandering, much like the Ouse itself.  I was faintly surprised by the depth of her botanical knowledge - she can spot a dozen species in a hedgerow - until I read on the back of the dustjacket that she used to be a medical herbalist.  She is also a fearless swimmer; I would not swim in the wide, grey, tidal Ouse at Southease, even without the awful example of Virginia Woolf before me.

Laing writes a lot about both Woolfs, looking particularly at the representation of water in Virginia Woolf's writings, and unpicking the notion that her suicide by drowning is foretold in her novels and diaries, extracting alternate readings of texts that have been read as sinister or portentous, like the diary account of Virginia wading into a flooded Ouse that covered the fields around Rodmell, unworried about getting wet because she was wearing Leonard's corduroy trousers.  But Woolf is an object lesson of the unpredictability of the river, which will take you, if you surrender yourself to it, but may not return you.

This book was particularly resonant for me because I've also walked the length of the Ouse, along the Sussex Ouse Valley Way which Olivia Laing also follows for the most part.  I can still see vividly the places she describes.  But the book has amplified  the memory of my walk by connecting it to history, geology and to Laing's own experience of the Ouse.  Above all, Laing's book celebrates the pleasures of walking alone in the landscape: "There wasn't a soul in sight, though I knew there were hordes of people beyond each ridge [...] I was nonetheless as purely happy as I've ever been right then, in that open passageway beneath the blue vault of the sky, walking the measure allotted me, with winter on each side [...] I felt untethered, almost weightless."  Like Waterlog, this book will make you want to stuff your swimsuit - and perhaps some cheese and oatcakes - into a backpack and set off into the fields towards the river.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall

Most readers, and I am no exception, come to Radclyffe Hall's work via The Well of Loneliness, and that's where they probably stop - with a bookmark permanently lodged near the middle in a number of cases, no doubt.  I've just re-read The Well for DPhil purposes, after a gap of about twenty years. While I remain impressed with her bravery in writing the book, I still find the prose almost unbearable: Hall uses repetitive devices, borrowed from the literature of myths, legends, and the Bible, to leave us in no doubt of Stephen Gordon's heroic, martyred status.  I was therefore delighted  - not to say astonished - to open The Unlit Lamp and find a well-structured novel written in engaging prose with even the occasional joke.  In a subversive way, however, The Unlit Lamp is as radical a novel of lesbian life as its more famous successor.

Hall's heroine is Joan Ogden, twelve when the novel opens, the daughter of a retired Colonel who has served in India to the detriment of his health, and his snobbish wife who makes much of her distant, aristocratic relatives.  The family live in Seabourne, a rather dull coastal resort that is particularly rigid in its gentility.  It is around 1890; the scholarly Joan has the good fortune to acquire a Cambridge-educated governess, Elizabeth Rodney.  Elizabeth recognises Joan's talent, as does a local friend, Richard Benson.  Joan will hope to emulate Richard by becoming a doctor.  Her sister Milly is not academic but very musical, and determined to study the violin in London.  Their father's old-fashioned objections to these aims (he thinks it "indecent" for a woman to become a doctor) are challenged when an aunt leaves the girls a small amount of money, enough to keep them while they train for some profession.  Milly does manage to get to a music school, but Joan finds her efforts to leave are continually thwarted.  Money, family illness and social propriety all conspire against her; most of all, Mrs Ogden's calculated vulnerabilities constantly undermine Joan's determination to get away.  Elizabeth recognises the situation and offers Joan a home with her in London, and to support her while she trains, setting herself in plain opposition to Joan's mother.  The book's drama is contained within the battle between these two older women for Joan's love and attention.

The structure and pacing of the book are excellent; Hall builds to a series of climaxes in which it seems that Joan might be going to follow her dream, then drops into anticlimax when Joan returns to familial duty.  The book is divided into key episodes from Joan's life, often with long gaps between them, so the Bildungsroman element is not overly detailed.  Mrs Ogden is no cardboard ogre, and the reasons for her selfishness are worked into the narrative; Elizabeth, similarly, is imperfect and it is this realism that makes Joan's endless dithering over her future understandable and tolerable.  Hall decided to write this novel to expose the ways in which adult unmarried daughters were exploited and thwarted by their mothers, and some polemical argument emerges, both in the narrative tone and in the mouths of a couple of the characters.  While the novel endorses the notion that women should have the chance of a life of their own, the stories of Milly and Elizabeth show the hazards inherent in venturing out into the world, and draw some ambiguity into the political force of the text.  The love between Joan and Elizabeth allows Hall to contemplate the difficulty of establishing a relationship between women, both economically and socially.  Joan comes to realise that she is afraid of acknowledging her desire:  "... she had not the courage to say straight out that she intended leaving her mother's home for that of another woman ... it was unusual, and because it was unusual she had been embarrassed."  Hall's greater frankness about lesbian desire in The Well of Loneliness contributed to its prosecution for obscenity; this novel expresses the sexual desire between Joan and Elizabeth only in metaphor and allusion, but is candid about their commitment to each other, their desire to live together, and the relationship of this desire to traditional notions of marriage.  There are interesting connections between this novel and Winifred Holtby's The Crowded Street, published in the same year, particularly in the context of the panic about 'surplus women' of the early 1920s.

The Unlit Lamp seems to be out of print, but the Virago edition is to be had for a penny on Amazon; it's well worth the penny and the postage charge.