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The Language of Food


Annabel Abbs (Simon & Schuster: 2022)

This is a work of fiction based on a handful of known facts about the life of poet and pioneering cookery writer, Eliza Acton and her assistant, Ann Kirby. Between 1835 and 1845, Eliza and Ann lived in Tonbridge, Kent. Their cookery book was a bestseller in its time, in the UK and internationally, selling over 125,000 copies in thirty years. Eliza Acton had profoundly influenced later cookery writers, including Elizabeth David and Delia Smith.

The opening chapter, ‘The Prologue 1861’ is from the perspective of Ann, servant, nanny and bed companion of her master, Mr Whitmarsh. He presents her with Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It was at this point the phrase ‘My mind whisked to a foaming peak, goes very small and tight and still. Like a hazelnut’ almost put me off reading any more. This seemed so incongruous a sentence from a servant on receiving a cookbook. I am pleased to have persevered.

The chapters alternate viewpoints in first person between Eliza and Ann. In the first chapter, ‘Fish Bones’, Eliza has an interview with her publisher, Mr Longman. Eliza has published poetry but Mr Longman demands she write novelettes or a cookery book. So, in 1835, Eliza returns home dismayed by the challenge but motivated by the need to support herself. The family are to move from a comfortable life in Ipswich - which is not described in particularly flattering terms - due to her father’s bankruptcy. Eliza’s mother leaves Ipswich to open a genteel boarding house in Tonbridge. Meanwhile Eliza’s father escapes to France leaving large debts. The new life running a boarding house allows Eliza to examine recipe books brought from her stay in France and Italy. She takes charge of the cooking and takes on Ann Kirby as kitchen maid.

Ann’s description of her home is bleak. Her father is disabled, he lost a leg in the war and her brother is a kitchen boy living away from home. The most harrowing graphic description is of Ann’s insane mother, who wanders around without clothes and demonstrates such aggression that she is tied by ropes to a post. As the father does not earn much money the family are starving but are saved by the local vicar. Reverend Thorpe arranges for Ann’s father to work using eel and animal skins. Ann is too old to go into service at seventeen so would need to be a maid. She tells Reverend Thorpe ‘I dream of being a cook.’ He replies, ‘That would be ambitious indeed.’ If this plan is to succeed Ann’s mother must go to a lunatic asylum, which Ann finds very painful but unavoidable.

The Reverend Thorpe has a wealthy, unpleasant and very influential wife. Mrs Thorpe gives Ann a cast-off frock which is much too big and advice on how to conduct herself at the interview, so Ann is surprised when she is introduced to Eliza Acton. Eliza is informal and friendly, pleased that Ann can read and write and is enthusiastic about cooking. A perfect addition to the creation of Eliza’s cookery book.

This novel is an enjoyable read, focussing on two characters’ work over ten years producing recipes, which eventually are published in 1845, becoming a best seller until overtaken by Mrs Beeton’s book published in 1861. These recipes are referred to throughout the book. One criticism is that the recipes would have benefitted from annotation with an index. I am recommending this book. Although the descriptions of poverty and the lunatic asylum are raw, the story is positive and a pleasant read.


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