England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes her new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady’. Instead, they want her to write a cookery book. That’s what readers really want from women. England is awash with exciting new ingredients, from spices to exotic fruits. But no one knows how to use them.
Eliza leaves the offices appalled. But when her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, she has no choice but to consider the proposal. Never having cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-crippled father and a mother with dementia.
Over the course of ten years, Eliza and Ann developed an unusual friendship – one that crossed social classes and divides – and, together, they broke the mould of traditional cookbooks and changed the course of cookery writing forever.
My mother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was gifted to her on her wedding day. A traditional gift that, despite its increasing lack of relevance to modern housewives (to my mum’s dismay, as a 1980s suburban housewife, she really wasn’t going to need all the advice about how to hire a good maid-of-all-work or ensure the butler got a proper shine off the family silver), remained the ‘go-to’ guide for all things household for generations of women.
Yet before Isabella Beeton there was Eliza Acton, whose Modern Cookery for Private Families revolutionised domestic cooking on its publication in 1845. Despite it since coming to light that many of Mrs Beeton’s recipes were liberally ‘borrowed’ from Eliza’s book, Acton remains a much more marginal figure, known primarily only to food writers and food historians. Hopefully, with the publication of The Language of Food – Annabel Abbs’s lively and engaging novel about her life and writing – she will become much better known.
We first meet Eliza as a hopeful young poet, attending a long-awaited meeting with publisher Thomas Longman. Following a well-received private publication of her emotional first collection, Eliza has spent ten years working on her latest poems and dares to hope they might even meet the lofty standards being set by her own favourite female poets: Mrs Felicia Hemens and Miss Letitia Elizabeth Landon. When Mr Longman dismisses her efforts by telling her that, not only is poetry no business for a lady but it also doesn’t sell, Eliza is heartbroken. And when he suggests she goes away and writes him a neat and elegant cookery book instead, she is insulted.
But when a cruel twist of fate leaves her family on the verge of penury and ruin, Eliza begins to realise that the women of England need a good cookbook: one with specific measurements and cooking times, that embraces the vast array of new ingredients coming into the country, and the new methods of cooking being advocated on the Continent. Along with Ann Kirby – the family’s seventeen-year-old kitchen maid – Eliza begins to cook and, over the course of the next ten years, the two women will change the course of cookery writing – and each others lives – forever.
Told in alternating chapters, The Language of Food is both a remarkable story of the history of English cooking and an intimate portrait of female friendship and Victorian domestic life. As Annabel Abbs notes at the end of the novel, although Eliza’s life is relatively well-documented, numerous gaps in the publicly available record remain. Ann’s life, meanwhile, is almost entirely undocumented. Into these historical voids, Abbs has created two incredibly vivid characters who, despite their very different social standings, inspire one another to persevere and develop professionally even as societal expectations try to hold them back.
I loved the vivid descriptions of the food and enjoyed reading about some of the more unusual recipes and ingredients (smoked haunch of badger, anyone?), as well as the way in which Eliza was unafraid to innovate by taking inspiration from other cuisines and cultures, and by learning from those around her. Real people and places are incorporated into the narrative with ease and Abbs has provided extensive notes at the end of the book – as well as some sample recipes – for those keen to know some of the history behind the story.
I also found the lives of Eliza and Anne to be deeply compelling. Eliza’s frustration with her lot – and her desperation to make a living through her writing – resonated through the pages. I really sympathised with her, trying to make the best of reduced circumstances whilst being constantly pressured to marry for the good of the family by her over-bearing mother. Anne, meanwhile, desperately wants to embrace this opportunity to escape her life of poverty, but feels guilty for leaving her alcoholic father and dementia-stricken mother behind her. Anne’s story also highlights the huge gulfs in wealth that existed in Victorian society, and highlights the way in which the poor and dispossessed were so left with few safe avenues with which to turn.
The Language of Food isn’t a fast-paced read but, for any historical fiction fan who enjoys their fiction with a side of reality, it’s a beautifully-told and engaging story that sheds light on the life of a woman who deserves much greater recognition. Steeped in research and with a real sense of both time and place, The Language of Food was a pleasurable and engaging read that swept me back into the past and to straight into the heat of the Victorian kitchen.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour finishes today but you can go back and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!!
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