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Review: Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen, by Annabel Abbs
Morrow, 2021. 363 pp. $17

Eliza Acton, a respectable brewer’s daughter, has brought a second volume of poems to her publisher, Longman of London, only to be told that ladies shouldn’t write poems. (Read: The first book didn’t sell.) Not only won’t Mr. Longman publish her manuscript, he asks for something almost as déclassé, a cookery book, and tells her not to bother him again until she’s finished it.

He’s supposing that Miss Acton wouldn’t actually cook from her own recipes, for the year is 1835, and as Abbs makes clear, middle-class women aren’t supposed to show appetites of any sort. Miss Acton’s poetry, though hardly risqué in any tangible sense, is about longing rather than daffodils, intense feelings rather than Christian uplift. How wanton!

Longman’s assuming that, as managers of respectable households, ladies maintain a staff of servants, and the cook and scullery maid do the real cooking. He never considers the result, inevitably awful, nor does anyone else — meat roasted to the consistency of leather, like as not curried, with half-cooked potatoes drowning in grease.

Illustration from Eliza Acton’s Private Cookery for Modern Families, 1845 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Except Eliza, who has spent time in France and knows what food should taste like. But her mother will not hear of her besmirching the family escutcheon. Daughter must not descend into the kitchen herself and sully her hands, educated for finer pursuits, with anything so coarse a task as satisfying human appetite.

Worse, the family escutcheon has already suffered — Papa’s business has gone belly-up, and he’s fled to France, leaving wife and children to fend for themselves and pretend to the world that he has died. Since two sisters of Eliza’s have become governesses, a comedown necessary to prevent further financial embarrassment, and a third has married and produced a house full of children, Eliza has no room to divert from the path chosen for her.

So it is that mother and daughter rent a large house in a town near a watering hole and prepare to take in boarders. But that’s such a comedown too that Mother schemes to have her spinster daughter, already in her thirties, married off — and if, perchance, a wealthy widower came to stay at the boardinghouse while taking the waters, why, that would be perfect.

Part of Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen involves the mother-daughter power struggle, and whether daughter will find her voice to resist. And it’s not sure she wants to, because she recognizes that marrying a rich man would solve a lot of problems. But the larger story revolves around her insistence that she do the cooking, so that she may prepare a book for Mr. Longman and satisfy the poetry she finds in food. To assist her, she hires Ann Kirby, a local girl, and when Eliza discovers that Ann too finds poetry in food, a friendship and collaboration develops despite the social gulf between them.

What a charming story, told alternately from Eliza’s and Ann’s points of view. I confess I have a soft spot for Eliza Acton, whose cookbook provided me years ago with historical evidence for my book on the social history of the potato. But aside from Acton’s significance, as the story of a middle-class woman’s choices in Victorian England (few) and moral and emotional dilemmas (many), the novel flies off the page.

And she’s not the only point of focus, for Ann faces a set of problems far more complicated and harrowing than her employer’s, though cut from the same cloth. For instance, Ann’s mother suffers what we would now recognize as early-onset dementia, while her father is a disabled veteran.

Another pleasure of Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen is the prose, which conveys the place and time, yet also inner lives:

The eggs are still warm and stuck with feathers as I count them from the basket. I pour grated sugar from the earthenware jar, then take a freshly whetted knife and pare the rind from two lemons. The world slips away. I feel my eye, my nose, my palate yielding, and I think how satisfying it is to scrape at a lemon, to lose myself in its sharp bright song.
I have started to see poetry in the strangest of things: from the roughest nub of nutmeg to the pale parsnip seamed with oil. And this has made me wonder if I can write a cookery book that includes the truth and beauty of poetry.

On the downside, I find Eliza’s mother wanting depth. I wish the narrative revealed her thwarted desires, so that she came across as more than a corseted autocrat obsessed with reputation. You also sense that Eliza has a secret, and I think Abbs might have revealed it earlier, allowing it to complicate the emotional narrative, instead of concealing it for shock value later. The plot point it eventually provides delivers less than promised, and at the expense of fuller character development, including the potential to deepen Mother’s.

All the same, Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen makes pleasant reading, and I recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.