Annabel Abbs: 15th June 2022


On Wednesday 15th June we had the opportunity to meet the writer Annabel Abbs and hear her discuss her new novel The Language of Food, based on the true story of Eliza Acton who has been described as Britain’s first ‘domestic goddess’. Annabel’s two previous novels, The Joyce Girl and Frieda both told fictionalised stories of real people. The first being about Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, and the second tells the story of the elopement of Frieda Weekley with D H Lawrence.


Our guest confessed that she wrote about real people as she was ‘not that good at imagining characters’ and also liked doing research. After the publication of Frieda she wanted to write about a female who was little known. The inspiration for The Language of Food came from an inheritance from her mother-in-law, a large collection of historic cookery books. It included a very early edition of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families first published in 1845.


The author commented on Eliza Acton’s Suffolk links describing how she arrived in Ipswich with her father John Acton, a brewer, his wife and their eight other children. Eliza was involved in running several local boarding schools between 1817 and 1825 and spent some time in France. On her return she arranged for a collection of poems to be published by Longmans, mostly funded by Suffolk subscribers. In 1827 John Acton was declared bankrupt and fled to France leaving his wife to move the family to Kent. Soon after, Eliza attempted to get Longmans to publish more of her poems but they declined and may have suggested she write a cookery book although this has been contested. However in 1845, Eliza published Modern Cookery for Private Families which became a bestseller, running through thirteen editions by 1853.


In The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs fictionalises the story behind this cookery sensation, imagining an assistant called Ann Kirby who helps her in her task. The chapters alternate between these two characters with each having a food related subtitle. One omission from the talk was the mention of the biography The Real Mrs Beeton: Eliza Acton the Forgotten Founder of Modern Cookery (2011) by Suffolk writer Sheila Hardy but there is no mention of that book in the Preface to the novel.


Jeff Taylor