Some background: I’ve been a huge fan of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management since, well, forever. I even have not one but three copies of it. One abridged version from the 1980s, another, old version that belonged to my grandmother and that crumbles to dust if I ever lift it out of its plastic wrapping, and finally a digital version from the Gutenberg Project on my Kindle.
I knew the name Eliza Acton as being that of another cookery writer from around the same era, but that was all. When I saw a novel about her, I thought it was next best thing to a novel about Mrs Beeton, so I was thrilled to receive a review copy from the publisher.
This is a long-winded way to say I was primed to like this novel from the start. But I was astonished by how much I LOVED reading it.
First, as pure story, The Language of Food is brilliant. The domestic details and the different story threads are gripping and come alive on the page. The narrative of how Eliza finds herself in the kitchens after her father’s financial ruin and sudden fall from their social position is fascinating. Eliza faces financial difficulties and professional setbacks with her publisher with determination. It is wonderful to watch her discover her passion and vocation in cooking. Ann lifts herself from miserable poverty through hard work and intelligence, and becomes not just an inspired and gifted help but a muse to Eliza.
This is girl power at its best. Any woman must be thrilled by the independence, intelligence and creativity of these two wonderful women. For me, I just fell in love with them both. It is almost pure fiction of course (little is known about Eliza and the novel is built around the spare facts that are known). She was a poet first and a cook second, but the poetry runs through her cookery writing.
While reading The Language of Food, I went online to dig out some Eliza Acton recipes from Modern Cookery and was delighted to realise that the lyrical but down-to-earth voice of the novel, which I loved so much, was the same voice as Eliza’s own in her original recipes.
Abbs captures Eliza’s voice, and the poetry of her style. I savoured every word, every page, every scene. It is so beautifully written. There is a luminous, Vermeer-like quality in the way the novel shines a light on Ann and Eliza in the kitchen, as they lovingly taste, test and study ingredients and dishes. It was a joy to immerse myself in and I wished it would never end.
My only quibble, if I had to find one, would be the lack of actual recipes. The chapters are named according to an ingredient or recipe relevant to the chapter’s contents. I would have loved if each chapter had started (or finished) with an actual recipe, quoted directly from the original text. In fact, it’s a sign of how engaged I was with this book that not only have I found myself pondering Eliza and Ann’s actual lives, I’ve even found myself imagining the author’s discussions with the editor or publisher about whether or not to put actual recipes in the book…. Yeah, I think I got a bit carried away on this one…
It’s an understatement to say I’m grateful to have received an ARC in exchange for a review. The Language of Food was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the last couple of years, and one of the most memorable. It’s bound to be a bestseller.
Finally, the cover and title are marvellous. Perfect for this book.
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Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Make sure you get the 1200-page unabridged version. The abridged version, at some 600 pages, is only the recipes.