30 March 2013

A Vintage Cake Bake

One can never have enough recipes for a good cake.  Just lately this blog has had me lusting after Jane Brocket's Vintage Cakes recipe book.  The bakes that hold the most appeal for me are the tried and true, good old-fashioned basic sort.  Fancy recipes with lots of bother and hard-to-find ingredients don't really impress me; I just want something nice to feature alongside my cup of tea.

Thanks to Vanessa's baking skills and mouth-watering recipe reviews the marmalade cake was the first one I tried.  The Parsnip cake has been deemed her favourite but selling its virtues to my family is going to take some doing.  I turned out the finished product onto a cooling rack before setting out on a hike at the Royal Botanical Gardens with my husband and Deacon.  Leaving the house removes any temptation to drizzle the icing before the cake has had time to cool completely.

My icing turned out to be more of a glaze but as the cake is quite sweet it's not a bad thing.  My daughter asked if the cake would be disappearing as quickly as last week's pumpkin pie did.  I snapped back an indignant 'NO!'...what was she implying?  She snickered well into the evening as every time she came into the kitchen the cake was indeed going fast.  In my defence I yelled back 'it's only a single layer!'.  Then she reminded me that so was the pumpkin pie.

Another recipe in the book that caught my eye is for Parkin.  Has anyone tried it? 

28 March 2013

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

It was no accident that Angel was one of the last novels by Elizabeth Taylor to be pulled from my stash.  Not because I was saving it but rather, I was dreading it.  Reading various posts here and there about the main character, Angel, being petulant, headstrong, odious, and eccentric did little to inspire me to reach for it while browsing for my next read.  Well, let me add 'delusional' to that list of adjectives.

Things weren't so bad in the beginning - a family consisting of only women as her father had 'coughed his way through only a year and a half of married bliss'.  Living above her mother's small grocery shop on a street lined with other small businesses, Angel is never allowed to serve customers lest it give away the illusion of a child a cut above everyone else's.  While she sits quietly upstairs with nothing much to entertain her, the stairs separating her from the shop are littered with jars of pickles and vinegar.  Mrs Deverell's sister, Lottie, is in service as the lady's maid at Paradise House.  A large country home nearby with meandering lawns and large galleries, a jewellry case stocked with gems provide countless stories to fill the hours spent sipping tea during visits and Angel soaks up every last bit of it.

So far so good.  And when Angel tells her classmates, Gwen and Polly, that Paradise House is being cared for until it is her turn to inherit I lapped up every ridiculous lie.

'"My mother lost her inheritance because she married beneath her.  She can never go back, so don't ever mention anything to anybody about Paradise House for that reason."'

Well of course the girls are going to relay such a delicious tidbit which in turn has Mrs Deverell confronting her daughter.  Feigning an illness to avoid leaving the house and face ridicule she begins to write a novel dotted with scandalous material, wicked things like card-playing and a very detailed birthing scene.  Scenes considered unimaginable for the delicate female reader during the early twentieth century.  Writing with determination until her book is finished she packs off the bundle in the post and basically waits for the accolades to come rolling in - it doesn't happen.  In my favourite scene of the book Angel then heads to a publishing company in Bloomsbury to pitch her work of art to Theo Gilbright and Willie Brace.  After the meeting...

'"We should not have let her go alone.  Someone should have seen her to the station," said Theo Gilbright.  "Is she safe to be wandering about London?"
"Is London safe." asked Willie Brace, "with her wandering about in it?  She is surely mad?"

The rest of the novel plays out in what I came to think of Miss Havisham meets Blanche Hudson; rising star then a fall from grace before finally descending into wandering around a crumbling pile in fraying gowns.  If a storyline like that appeals then you will think you died and went to heaven with this book but it's not what I hope for when I think of that certain 'je ne sais quoi' in an Elizabeth Taylor novel.  So my final verdict on the matter is that this will be a love-hate sort of book for me as I couldn't relate to the characters, found it all a bit too fanciful but the first quarter of the book was fabulous and Taylor's skills of observation continue to amaze. 

23 March 2013

Escape to Mulberry Cottage by Victoria Connelly

Who hasn't spent time during a drive in the countryside glancing at cosy homes set back from the road and sighed just a little bit?  There was a time during my twenties when living smack dab in the middle of a bustling city would have been the ultimate in convenience, not to mention cool.  I still enjoy a day out amongst skyscrapers, shops and sidewalks streaming with people but my ultimate living experience these days would be a rural home with an Aga warming the kitchen.  And since it's my fantasy we're talking about, a little stream running nearby would be extra nice...please and thank you.

A little while ago, Victoria Connelly kindly asked if I would like to read her book Escape to Mulberry Cottage.  These days my books of choice were published during the last century but I couldn't resist exploring the journey of a couple who made the decision to exchange Heathrow's flight paths for rolling hills and garden space.  To say farewell to the highpitched whine of leaf blowers, loud neighbours, constant construction and other people's music...whose taste never seems to match your own.

Victoria's husband, Roy, is a painter and spends large amounts of time capturing the beauty found in outdoor scenery.  Spurned on by the tributes of cottage life by friends and fellow painters the couple pondered whether or not it was financially feasible, not to mention practical, to contemplate such a move.  Once they began to look at property listings it was difficult not to fall in love and picture themselves puttering around garden plots with Mother Nature at every turn.

After a few disappointments, Victoria spied a listing for a property in Suffolk called Mulberry Cottage.

'Ever-practical, Roy tried to keep me in check but he couldn't deny how pretty the cottage was as we opened the little gate and walked up the flower-lined path.  It really was the loveliest cottage garden with yellow and pink hollyhocks, bright crocosmia and a crab apple tree.  It didn't have roses around the door but I immediately planted some in my mind's eye.'   

An offer was placed and after a bit of going back and forth a deal was finally reached.  Victoria received word while on the quiet carriage of a train so restraint was called for but can't you just imagine her excitement?  All that was left to do was wait for their moving day to inch ever closer...and buy some battery hens.  Well, you can't have all that space and not have chickens!

By now, as a reader, I was completely sucked into the story of Victoria and Roy's move to their new home.  Oh my heavy heart at the description of her new feathered friends rescued from a life of servitude as battery hens.  Actually they were missing a lot of their feathers come to think of it!  When moving day finally came and night fell the reality of life off of the beaten path struck them in the darkness.  Literally.  Without streetlights they needed a torch to find their way along the path to their nearest neighbours.  Something I hadn't even considered in my own country-living fantasies.

Escape to Mulberry Cottage is such a heartwarming read and I so enjoyed rooting for Victoria and her husband in their quest to find a cottage to call their own.  A quick read, it was over all too soon.  With any luck Victoria has plans for more stories from Mulberry Cottage; if I may be so bold as to suggest life in the countryside through a calendar year as a subject?  You know, for those of us poor things who still have to live vicariously through such lucky people.  Thank you for sharing your book with me, Victoria.  All the best!

15 March 2013

An Open Book by Monica Dickens

During quiet moments at the library, or procrastinating the sorting of a bin full of books, I type various authors' names into our catalogue's search engine.  Oh the interesting things you find that you never knew were hiding on shelves in other locations.  A bit of autobiographical writing from Monica Dickens popped up and sounded too interesting to pass up.  When my hold arrived it was really quite disgusting with its battered edges, yellowed jacket tape and food stained throughout.  How it has missed the weeding process I'll never know but it was a good thing for me that it had.

Meandering through moments in her life, Dickens begins with a description of her family home, a late Georgian house in West London.  Her mother is nearly forty and exhausted by motherhood and the impact of enduring a miscarriage as well as the death of twin babies.  Monica's earliest memories are from around the age of two with maids throwing their aprons over their heads in terror that the Germans would invade at any moment during the Great War.  I loved her simplistic recollections of her parents...

'My mother was a paisley coat with a band of fur round the bottom at eye level, on which I clung and hung and buries my yawns while she chatted interminably on street corners.
My father was a front door banging and shout of, 'Where's my baby?', and a pyramid of soft sawdust growing on the dining room carpet where I sat while he cut out jigsaw puzzles on his treadle fretsaw.'

A clever girl with a strong personality she was eventually expelled from St Paul's School.  No light is shone on the details but things couldn't have been all that terrible as Monica was accepted at a finishing school in Paris before being presented at Court.  With the help of an endocrinologist and some thyroid pills the young debutante shed her puppy fat to become something of a swan.  The means don't sound altogether healthy and indeed seemed to be the start of an eating disorder which also included excessive walking all around London's parks and the Embankment.  Sometimes late at night there would be cupboard raids followed by doses of castor oil to flush out her digestive tract.  'Finally, our family doctor discovered what was going on and threatened to put me in hospital and force feed me through the nose, like the Suffragettes.'

Being told by the high Mistress she was not cut out for University, Monica Dickens used the only skill she thought she possessed in her search for employment.  A handful of cooking lessons at the Petit Cordon Bleu school in Sloane Street was the fashionable thing to do at the time and came in rather handy.  Joining a domestic agency with the hilarious name of 'Universal Aunts' in Knightsbridge it was no time at all before she was riding the 52 bus to her first job.  Cooking for a few was no problem but when one of her first duties was to cook for a party of twelve panic began to set in, needless to say when the going got tough Monica would look for something else.  The dwindling number of servants meant that she could leave one post and find another quite easily.  In two years she tried her hand at more than twenty jobs but it doesn't sound as though she ever came close to perfecting her skills.

'A vivid Cavendish memory: I put polish on the hall floor without rubbing it in, carried up the coal bucket, slipped on the polish, put out a hand to save myself, scrubbed at wall to remove hand smudge, found out that wallpaper is not washable, moved grandfather clock two feet to hide disaster, found chair from drawing room to hide different colour wallpaper.  'Why have you moved that chair, Monica?' 'We must have somewhere to lay coats.  The stand is broken.'  Broke two pegs off the coatstand to prove it.'

Her domestic endeavours provided the material for what would become One Pair of Hands published in 1939, a copy of which I bought last year and can't wait to read now!  The next year she would publish Mariana which was republished by Persephone Books in 1999.  Shifting her employment from domestic service to nursing during World War II meant more stories to write about in One Pair of Feet but her plain talk of what went on behind the scenes at the hospital made Monica dangerous to talk to.

'In hospital after hospital, a promising interview would end with a second look at my name on the application form, and a sharp upward glance.
'Aren't you the nurse who...'

With her saved wages and income from writing, Monica was able to purchase a beautiful thatched cottage in Hertfordshire.  At weekends her cosy home was often bustling with family come to stay and she was a favourite with her nieces and nephews.  Any why not with horses, dogs and cats to play with?!

'The windows were low, with small lattice panes and windowsills on which you could put geraniums, like a Beatrix Potter illustration.'

I laughed at the story she wrote about being in Australia for a book signing in 1964.  A woman approached and apparently asked 'how much is it?' in her very strong regional accent.  Monica, thinking the woman had stated her name began to write in a copy...'To Emma Chisit, with best wishes...'  Many times there would be people lined up for ages but rather than wanting to have one of her books signed they simply told Monica how much they enjoyed the works of her great grandfather, Charles Dickens.  I suppose it's to be expected when there is such an iconic figure in your family tree.

The book isn't all warm and fuzzy though as there are some heartbreaking stories from her days of humanitarian service with organizations such as the R.S.P.C.A and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  So far I have only read one of Monica's non-fiction books The Winds of Heaven but it could just be that her autobiographical works are her most riveting.  As soon as I sign off on this post I will be heading out the door to see if a copy of One Pair of Feet is still languishing on the shelf at my local Reuse Centre.  I very much hope so.

The view near Chard, location near Chilworthy, the Elizabethan house owned by Monica Dickens's mother's family.

11 March 2013

You Will Be Missed, Nicholas Hoare

One of my favourite bookshops will close its doors on April 1.  Nicholas Hoare in Toronto has the sort of charm and atmosphere that exists at Hatchards on Piccadilly or Daunt Books on Marylebone's High Street.  The creaky wood floors and warm lamplight, the roaring fireplace on cold winter afternoons, all made me feel ridiculously excited and relaxed at the same time.  A well-worn sofa and two comfy armchairs face the crackling fire and there would often be customers lounging cosily, book in hand, as if time barely mattered.  The books were stocked face out which meant no craned neck to read titles, this also allowed your brain to absorb the beauty of any cover art instead of feeling claustrophobic amongst tightly packed shelves.  Quite often my husband would drop me off at the nearest intersection if the light was red so I could hot-foot it with my eye on the familiar signpost hanging above the door.  The end of every visit was for browsing the books displayed in the window as we slowly walked away.  I could cry thinking about never making that trip again. 

There was a bit of happiness in my last trip to Nicholas Hoare though.  Looking high up on the shelves I spied a copy of Elizabeth Bowen's To the North; I have this very shop to thank for my introduction to her writing.  Then I spied a new cover on a shelf even higher.  This called for pulling over the library ladder and an excuse to climb its rungs one last time.  I had no idea that The Hotel had been reissued and it's one of the few works by Bowen that I haven't squirreled away.  Ashamedly, it was also one of the first times in ages that I didn't pause to wonder what the cost would be from an internet book site.  This book was going to be my souvenir, if you like, of a farewell visit.  While Nicholas Hoare is retiring to a gorgeous property in Nova Scotia the demise of his shop is in part to just such a sentiment; spend cosy time in a gorgeous bookshop and then go home and click 'check-out now' on a book-selling website.  Thinking about it for a minute I am so glad that Persephone Books is as much an internet business as they are cosy shop proving that the two can successfully co-exist.  Alas, despite all the hope in the world, there was no offer forthcoming to take over Nicholas Hoare so as of April 1 the doors will close buy my fond memories will carry on.  Many thanks to the wonderful staff for their friendly professionalism and literary knowledge over the years, you will most definitely be missed.


1 March 2013

Thank Heaven Fasting by E. M. Delafield

'Monica's mother was, comparatively, liberal-minded.  She allowed her child to go out to matinĂ©es with only another girl, and to walk in the streets of Belgravia - not the Pimlico end and not beyond Harvey Nicholls at the top of Sloane Street - escorted only by a maid.  Monica might go in cabs, even hansoms, although not in omnibuses, and she might travel alone by train, first-class, if her mother's maid went in the carriage with her.'

Does anyone else stand amongst towering shelves of second-hand books in a shop full to bursting wondering just how close they are to that gem of a book they've been searching forever for?  Well I do - all the time.  But a couple of weekends ago I found a new shop to browse on Bloor St and there it was, a book I have been dying to find, in all its glory. 

Published in 1932 my best guess is that Thank Heaven Fasting is set during some point just after the First World War.  Delafield isn't specific but there is talk of a shortage of men and both carriages and cars are employed for travel.  A home in Eaton Square is full of excitement as a coming-out ball at the Ritz is only days away and there is much to be talked about between mothers and daughters.  Everything is to be perfect on that night of nights as the ultimate goal is to catch the eye of an equally perfect young man from a well-to-do family.  The sad truth is that any husband is better than none, even the aging Mr Pelham with his bulging prawn-like eyes.

Mrs Ingram, Monica's mother, practically has a full-time job on her hands with writing out invitations, having the tiara polished and a pearl necklace restrung not to mention the appointments with dressmakers.  Bond Street must have been a veritable highway with hordes of young ladies and their mothers, being driven to and fro, seeing to every detail.  The Ingrams are particular friends of the strikingly beautiful Lady Marlowe from Belgrave Square whose daughters, Frederica and Cecily, apparently lack her beauty, grace and charm.  It gets worse...'Both were intensely conscious of their height, and stooped partly from the wish to minimize it, partly from sheer lack of vitality.  They gave limp and chilly hands to the greeting clasp of the visitor, and withdrew from the contact quickly, obscurely disliking it.'

Despite the litany of horror stories about what can happen to a young lady's reputation  due to dalliances with inappropriate men, Monica falls for the dashing, Christopher Lane (well of course she does!).  A state of secrecy and delicately worded half-truths become Mrs Ingram's new occupation as Monica becomes part of a dreaded group.  Those young ladies who are 'unattractive' to men.  Will her reputation ever be restored or will she end up a spinster watching life go by from behind the veil of net curtains? 

I loved this book and Delafield's writing is a treat to behold.  Her wit and turn of phrase are a joy but she also addresses the dark side of a rigid society that treats women as mere chattel passing from father to husband.  It is pointed out that a young lady's inability to secure a good marriage is seen as not only her failure but her mother's as well.  On balance I wonder if there are as many stories about a father's fear of failure if his son neglects to increase the value of the family business or marry well; George Grossmith's Charles Pooter and Lupin from The Diary of a Nobody springs to mind as one possible example.

The last sentence of Thank Heaven Fasting took me by surprise; its tone sadder than anything else in the book but oh so understandable.  E. M. Delafield delivers yet again.