Eliza Acton is a poet who’s never boiled an egg.
But she’s about to break the mould of traditional cookbooks And change the course of cookery writing forever.
England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes a new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady.’ Instead, she’s asked to write a cookery book.
Eliza is horrified but her financial situation leaves her no choice. Although she’s never 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 daughter of local paupers. Over the next ten years, Eliza and Ann change the course of cookery writing forever.
“A portrait of Victorian domestic life that is both encompassing and finely detailed… Recipe-loving readers will appreciate the detailed descriptions of Victorian dishes like apple Hedgehog and Buttered Celery on Toast; fans of women’s history will find plenty to admire in the way Ann and Eliza inspire one another to be true to themselves in a culture that has little use for intelligent single women” Historical Novel Society
Told in alternate voices by the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, The Language of Food is the most thought-provoking and compelling historical novel you’ll read this year. Abbs explores the enduring struggle for female freedom, the complexities of friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Format: Ebook, Audio, Hardback (3 February 2022)
Source: Copy received for review
My thanks to SJV of Simon & Schuster for the unexpected review copy and for Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for the tour invite. I’m delighted to be one of the bloggers starting off the blog tour today. When the book dropped through the letterbox, I was blown away by the stunning cover. Now having read it, I can confirm that the content is as fabulous as the outside.
Before receiving the book, I had never heard of Eliza Acton. I now know that she produced one of the first cookery books for the domestic reader giving precise instructions and a list of ingredients, something she noticed was lacking from books of that time. Her ideas were so innovative and successful that some of her recipes were apparently used by the famous Mrs Beeton in her own books.
The story is told in turn by Eliza and the younger Ann Kirby with whom she formed a friendship, despite their different backgrounds. Ann was initially employed as a scullery maid but her interest and cookery skills together with the fact that unlike many of her status, she could read and write made her invaluable to Eliza.
There is a whole cast of characters – some based on real people, others fictitious as explained in the author’s note. What comes over clearly through the author’s research is the stark difference between the rich and the poor and even those in between like the Actons. Set in the 1830’s, the vivid imagery of life at that time together with the poverty and hardships that the poor had to endure comes through clearly. Social standing, the treatment of the mentally ill, the expectation of women and their dependency upon men – these aspects of social history are part of the story and it gives that extra interest.
Eliza was an extremely independent character. Her family’s reduced circumstances forced her to put aside her dream of getting her poetry book published but she didn’t abandon her love of verse. Instead she incorporated her love of words into her recipes to make them stand out and be more appealing than other cookery books. She loved being in the kitchen at Bordyke House, the boarding house she rented with her mother, creating dishes and adapting foods from other cultures.
Beautifully written, the first person account from the two women provides insight and a connection to their characters. I engaged with both, but on balance, my favourite was Ann. She tried to do the very best for her family, was trusting and there were times when I was heartbroken for her when I could see the situation rather more clearly than her. Eliza was kind to Ann and a good employer but seemed rather too obsessed with her own interests to really be aware of the struggles and poverty that others like Ann and her family faced.
I loved this story and could quite happily have carried on reading more about Eliza and Ann. I did think that the ending came rather too quickly than I would have ideally wanted although on reflection this was probably the perfect time to bring their partnership to a conclusion. There is an epilogue as well as several pages of author notes, character notes, further reading and some of Eliza’s recipes, some of which sound quite appealing – however I think I will give the eels a miss!
This is not just a book about food and cooking – it is so much more than that and I have deliberately left out much of the story involving the characters so as not to spoil anyone’s enjoyment when they read it for themselves. This is certainly a book that I have no hesitation in recommending.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Annabel Abbs is the rising star of biographical historical novels. She grew up in Bristol, Sussex and Wales before studying English Literature at the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel The Joyce Girl won the Impress Prize and was a Guardian Reader’s Pick and her second novel Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley was a Times 2018 Book of the Year. She regularly appears on national and regional media, with recent appearances on Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and Sky News, and is popular on the literary festival circuit. She was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the Caledonia Novel Award and the Waverton GoodRead Award. Annabel lives in London with her husband and four children.
Abbs’s third novel, The Language of Food, the story of Eliza Acton, Britain’s first domestic goddess, publishes in the UK in February 2022 and is currently being translated into 14 languages.
“When I inherited a collection of antiquarian cookery books I suspected a story might be lurking in one of them. Researching and writing the story of Britain’s first domestic goddess has been a wonderful culinary adventure.” – Annabel Abbs