24 April 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

EMILY BRONTË
1818 - 48

'We always ate our meals with Mr. Heathcliffe.  I held the mistress's post in making tea and carving; so I was indispensable at table.  Catherine usually sat by me; but to-day she stole nearer to Hareton, and I presently saw she would have no more discretion in her friendship, than she had in her hostility.
  'Now, mind you don't talk with and notice your cousin too much,' were my whispered instructions as we entered the room.  'It will certainly annoy Mr. Heathcliffe, and he'll be mad at you both.'
  'I'm not going to,' she answered.
  The minute after, she had sidled to him, and was sticking primroses in his plate of porridge.'

Wuthering Heights


Emily Brontë

19 April 2015

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I remember the day this book was placed into my hands along with several others.  The sun was shining on Charing Cross Road and it was the first time I met Simon, Rachel, and Mary.  While I nipped back to the tea room at the National Gallery to collect the umbrella I had left behind, my three friends had amassed a small pile of books they thought I would like.  I specifically remember asking 'is this one really that good?' and Simon nodding 'yes' with a smile.

The introduction is a succinct autobiography by Comyns herself (of course) that I found utterly charming and in keeping with her style, brutally honest.  In less than a page she moved throughout her life from writing as a ten year-old, a homesick sister who ran away from boarding school, the death of her father, and attending art school.  I'm not completely sure whether Comyns was a bit of a magnet for weird events or it's just the way she tells a story but how many people meet partners this way...

'I married a young artist that I'd known slightly since we were children - actually, we first met on an Anglo-Saxon burial ground where excavations were going on in a field near my home...'

As for The Vet's Daughter, published by Virago in 1959, Comyns wrote 'the book seemed to write itself''.  A rather humble opinion of brilliant storytelling that's just implausible enough to read like a fairy tale dovetailed with the youthful naiveté of a teenager during the Edwardian era.

Alice Rowlands lives with her dying mother and insensitive ass of a father in a house that smells of animal.  Well, he is a vet, after all.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Churchill who is a bit worse for wear but very welcoming and warm in personality.  She is recently employed to help with the care of Mrs. Rowland and help out around the house.

Alice daydreams out of boredom, spends time with her friend, Lucy, who talks on her hands because she is deaf, and narrates what she experiences around Clapham Common.  Moments of comic darkness dot throughout such as the funeral director arriving to measure Mrs. Rowlands for her casket while still breathing on her deathbed.  A local floozy named Rosa becomes the vet's lover once he becomes a widower (read 'tasteless haste').  Thankfully, Alice gains an ally in Mr. Peebles, a locum vet.  It's apparent he sees potential in the relationship but to Alice he is more of a distraction from everything unstable and frightening in her surroundings.  When Mr. Rowlands suddenly announces that Alice is to leave the house because he despises her, she is sent by train to live with Mr. Peebles' mother in a lovely house.

'I drew the curtains for her and made up the fire and stirred it to a blaze.  Looking round the room I was surprised to see how elegant this upstairs drawing-room was; the pale blue carpet, decorated with roses and true lovers' knots, pleased me so much that I almost forgot my hunger.  There was a glass-fronted cabinet filled with delicate china; and pretty little chairs and sofas with curved legs were dotted round the room.  There were lovely glass things like heavy tinkerbells on the mantelpiece.  It was the largest and most enchanting room I'd ever seen.'

This enchanting house is not without its negative forces and Alice is once again plagued by the presence of manipulative people.  And then there is the handsome Nicholas.

All of these details could happen in any number of bleak accounts of classic fiction but Alice has a certain gift, talent, affliction...take your pick...in that she can levitate.  At first this happens spontaneously but Alice soon harnesses the ability to levitate at will with devastating consequences.

For some reason that would take a bit of thinking about, the tragedy of Joan of Arc came to mind while reading The Vet's Daughter.  A young impressionable girl who means well, experiences too much that can't be explained, and has to go through it all with a sense of loneliness.  I had to reread the last couple of pages because they couldn't be true; it couldn't end like that.  But it did.  Usually this would make me want to curse the author but I've come to realize this is just the way it is with Barbara Comyns and it's absolutely wonderful.

17 April 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

ELLA EATON KELLOGG
1853 - 1920

Peas were introduced into England from Holland in the time of Elizabeth, and were then considered a great delicacy.  History tells us that when the Queen was released from her confinement in the tower, May 19, 1554, she went to Staining to perform her devotions in the church of Allhallows, after which she dined at a neighbouring inn upon a meal of which the principal dish was boiled peas.  A dinner of the same kind, commemorative of the event, was for a long time given annually at the same tavern.

Science in the Kitchen


10 April 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

J. K. ROWLING

'Around half past twelve there was a great clattering outside in the corridor and a smiling, dimpled woman slid back their door and said, 'Anything off the trolley, dears?'
  Harry, who hadn't had any breakfast, leapt to his feet, but Ron's ears went pink again and he muttered that he'd brought sandwiches.  Harry went out into the corridor.
  He had never had any money for sweets with the Dursleys, and now that he had pockets rattling with gold and silver he was ready to buy as many Mars Bars as he could carry - but the woman didn't have Mars Bars.  What she did have were Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans, Drooble's Best Blowing Gum, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Pasties, Cauldron Cakes, Liquorice Wands, and a number of other strange things Harry had never seen in his life.  Not wanting to miss anything, he got some of everything and paid the woman eleven silver Sickles and seven bronze Knuts.'

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone



8 April 2015

Making Conversation by Christine Longford

Published in 1931, Making Conversation follows Martha Freke through her later childhood years prior to World War I and subsequent entry into Oxford with a scholarship.  But let's not get too far ahead...

Curly-haired Martha and her etiquette-aware mother live in a house called Hillview.  They earn an income by taking in paying guests from near and far with various political stances.

'Hillview was a square house with six bedrooms, one bathroom, a dining-room, and a smoking-room where no one smoked.  When there were male visitors, they smoked, according to the advanced custom of the period, in the drawing-room'.

Martha's father, Major Freke, hasn't been in the picture for quite some time after writing 'too many cheques'.  Mother and daughter do have a constant resident though in Miss Pilkington who applied to an ever so slightly embellished advertisement.  Martha is in no danger of being short on advice with several women offering advice on how to navigate through life's obstacles as exhibited by her teacher, Miss Spencer...

  '"Now, I want to tell you that you are in danger of becoming a very unhappy little girl.  Owing to unfortunate circumstances, you are brought up for the most part among grown-up people, and you are losing your childhood."'  "Yes, Miss Spencer."  Martha was beginning to feel tearful from self-pity.  "You are lacking in community spirit.  The best means of counteracting your mode of life would be net-ball.  Tell your mother that one day you will regret the opportunities you have missed."'

If you're in the mood for it, there is nothing quite so entertaining as the observations of a young girl.  Written prior to the days of political correctness there are many instances of racial and religious stereotyping but I must confess to laughing out loud a few times.  I think mostly due to the absurdity of writing such things for publication, as in making cocoa the same colour as an Indian guest's skin.  If you are quite at home with the writings of Nancy Mitford you know what I mean.

Christine Longford began this novel during the summer of 1930, echoing various episodes in her young life so it's quite autobiographical.  The time Martha spends at Oxford is entertaining but also filled with more thoughts on Greek classics and psychology than I could absorb so at times I felt out of the loop.  The moments I thoroughly relished were the ones filled with humour and domesticity.

'She was making for a plate of scrambled eggs, when a hand was pressed on her shoulder.  It was Miss Stubbs, who said, "Don't!  They are not what they seem!"  "Oh, really?"  "No, they are Farm Eggs, which means Egg Powder, which means Custard Powder, which mean Custard Pudding."  The thought of custard pudding can curdle one's blood at ten minutes past eight in the morning...'

The book ends all too soon, just as Martha is coming into her own.  Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare that statement with Longford's life once she married but reading Rachel Billington's preface it would appear so.

While this book, No. 83 in the Persephone line-up, isn't quite a shining star it was definitely more fun than I was expecting.  And the endpapers are lovely.

3 April 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

ALICE THOMAS ELLIS
1932 - 2005

Aunt Irene really inclined to that simplest of all views:  the one expressed so cogently in the book of Genesis, which explained everything with appealing clarity.  This was the only view that explained, for instance, mayonnaise.  It was patently absurd to suppose that mayonnaise had come about through random chance, that anyone could even have been silly or brilliant enough to predict what would happen if he slowly trickled oil on to egg yolks and then gone ahead and tried it.  An angel must have divulged that recipe and then explained what to do with the left-over whites.  Meringues - there was another instance of the exercise of superhuman intelligence.  To Aunt Irene the Ten Commandments seemed almost insignificant compared with the astonishing miracle of what you could do with an egg.  As the angel had left his fiery chariot he must have added, 'And don't forget omelettes, and cake and custard and soufflés and poaching and frying and boiling and baking.  Oh, and they're frightfully good with anchovies.  And you can use the shells to clarify soup - and don't forget to dig them in round the roots of your roses', the angelic tones fading into the ethereal distance.

The 27th Kingdom


Happy Easter!