Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night

The great detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers is often mentioned in the 65 interviews which are the foundation of Reading Sheffield. She was an obvious choice for our list of authors and books to be reviewed by the Sheffield Hallam students we have been working with this year. We thought that Gaudy Night (1935), with all it has to say about women’s education and their role in the world, would be an interesting read for the students of today. Here are Ellie Jackson’s thoughts. But beware, for there are spoilers in her review.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers published her first novel in 1923 introducing Lord Peter Wimsey, with the publication of Gaudy Night in 1935 being another addition to the Wimsey-Vane saga. I have sought through many reviews on the internet in order to get a grasp of others’ opinions on the Wimsey-Vane saga, and come to the conclusion that many have thought Gaudy Night to be the culmination of the saga, although it is actually not the final piece of the chronicles. There is Busman’s Honeymoon from 1937 and then Dorothy Sayers began writing Thrones, Dominations but she later abandoned it and the novel was merely notes and fragments of the story after her death. The novel was later finished by Jill Paton Walsh, and published in 1998. Gaudy Night begins with a reunion at Shrewsbury College, a mysterious crime of poison pen letters and tormenting events in which famous mystery writer Harriet Vane, the protagonist of the novel previously proven innocent and saved by Lord Wimsey after the accusation of a murder she didn’t commit, investigates. The novel is full of gripping techniques of ‘whodunit’ and I found it rather difficult to put down after beginning. Dorothy was an English crime writer and poet, best known for her mystery novels (The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019). Dorothy Sayers is known as one of the ‘big four’ female detective writers from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction (GBSM, 2012) along with great writers such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. The golden age of detective fiction is still one of the most popular literary genres generally regarded as spanning from 1920 to 1940, and remains as a generic highpoint in literary fiction (UOO, 2022).

Before I began this project, I had never read or heard of Dorothy Sayers’ series of mystery novels. Truth be told, I had no particular interest in reading mystery fiction before commencing my project on Gaudy Night either. Often in my youth I found murder mystery novels to be particularly lightweight in comparison to other literary texts and novels I had read and enjoyed for their passion and emotion, ‘[giving] rise to no feelings or [evoking] no dream’ (Brody, 1985). They tend to be least focused on the emotional development and growth of the main character, and rather concerned with answering the question of ‘who committed the crime?’. It is also suggested that detective fiction is said to ‘continually invent stricter rules for itself’ and ‘it is careful only to leave no suspense, nothing unclear. Everything mysterious that it introduces, it makes coherent’ (Brody, 1985). For this reason, I have never enjoyed reading detective fiction as there is never room left for the readers’ imagination. Surprisingly, I thoroughly appreciated reading Gaudy Night and after witnessing the development of feminist ideas and how class divisions are being represented even within a mystery novel, I now have a completely different perspective for mystery fiction. Perhaps it is because I have matured and have more reading experiences now than I did the last time I attempted reading a mystery fiction, or because I found it refreshing to read something entirely different to anything I would usually choose. I found Gaudy Night to be less of a stereotypical detective novel, and was able to leave some ideas to the imagination. Regrettably, I did not read the thrilling series in order of events, and so jumping straight in at Gaudy Night I had to work harder to understand what was unfolding throughout the novel – however this did not hinder the pleasure of reading it. Despite having not read the complete saga, I have searched the internet for many in-depth reviews and criticisms for the previous novels, and found that in fact not reading the series in order is the most popular opinion when it comes to discovering the emotional intensity of Gaudy Night, and so the reader has no emotional investment already present for each of the characters. Sayers has a superb writing style that keeps the story flowing but also delivers humorous and thought-provoking comments to keep the mystery and development of characters and allows insight into the mind of the heroine and writer. In addition to such research, I found that Gaudy Night is the first to adopt a feminist ideology between all of the Wimsey novels, discussing the struggles and development of female characters toward equality and education. Sayers presents her heroine finally as a centre point in the Wimsey saga, a woman with detective qualities and employed to investigate a crime. Sayers does a wonderful job of creating a meaningful but complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter, in which the heroine does not conform to usual stereotypes for women in the time period and the male character respects such behaviour. I think she allows the reader to see the subtle and unspoken moments but also the significance of them. After researching many newspaper articles from the 20th century on Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night, The Times suggests ‘Dorothy Sayers in her early twenties was a focal point for the young people of literary importance of her time.’ (The Times Newspaper, issue no. 54037, 1958. Pg 13). Harriet is a successful author, wondering if mystery novels will ever rise to the level of literature, mirroring her creator.

Gaudy Night is absolutely a mystery novel, but it contains no actual murder, just a series of poison pen letters and the heroine of the story, Harriet, is asked to capture the culprit of these letters and practical jokes played by an individual attending Shrewsbury College. The perpetrator is found to be a servant, an individual seemingly invisible to the rest of the population of the College. Sayers represents the idea of class division by making the invisible servant visible, and reinforcing prejudices against class and femininity throughout the novel. Upon commencing research for this novel and author, I discovered the interview of Kath and Ken conducted by Reading Sheffield. As conversation is flowing, Ken begins to discuss the works of Dorothy Sayers, particularly Gaudy Night. He refers to it as a ‘fantastically written thing’, an opinion I would be inclined to agree with. He also makes a great point about the class distinctions and prejudices throughout the novel, relevant to the time frame in which it was written and the view others have on reading about more old-fashioned ideas and particularly rejecting them, and suggests that ‘if you can’t read a book because that puts you off, it deprives you of so much that’s been written’. Ken makes a valid observation, as most popular fiction from the 1930s contain old fashioned ideas and can be seen as controversial in modern literature. However it doesn’t take away the significance at the time, or the significance of the message throughout.

Gaudy Night was an absolute pleasure to read, and I can confirm I will be reading the complete saga.

Here is Ellie’s reading journey.

Bibliography-

Brody, M. (1985). The Haunting of “Gaudy Night”: Misreadings in a Work of Detective Fiction. Style, 19(1), 94–116. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42945532

Gerard Bianco Storyteller Marketing, 2012. DO YOU KNOW THE “BIG FOUR” FEMALE DETECTIVE WRITERS FROM THE “GOLDEN AGE”? https://gerardbianco.blogspot.com/2012/08/do-you-know-big-four-female-detective.html

The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019. About Dorothy L Sayers. https://www.sayers.org.uk/biography

The Times Newspaper, 1958. Miss Dorothy Sayers. Issue no. 54037. Pg 13.

The Golden Age of British Detective Fiction. University of Oxford, 2022. https://tinyurl.com/mpjtr8cn

Ellie Jackson’s reading journey

This year, we have again taken part in Sheffield Hallam University’s Ideas into Action initiative. We ask the students to write their own reading journey (a task they seem to enjoy, as they’re rarely given the opportunity to think about reading for pleasure) and to read and review a book or author popular with our original interviewees, all born at least 60 years before the students. (Click here for more information on these tasks.) It’s always interesting to see our material through the eyes of people born in this century, and we hope that the chance they get to look back increases their understanding of the world when their grandparents and great-grandparents were young. We hope to publish more of the students’ work in the next few weeks.

As a child, I was introduced to books from the first moment I can remember. I was born and raised in a small town on the outskirts of Nottingham, and moved to Sheffield in September 2020 to complete my degree in English Literature. I was taken to the library in our small town multiple times a week by my grandparents, with rows and rows of more books than I could count. This experience is encapsulated into my memory; my younger self being completely mesmerized by them. I later realized that the library probably had no more books than a couple of hundred, a miniscule amount as opposed to other libraries I have visited after this. And so my reading journey began at a young age; the earliest books I remember reading are the Tales of Beatrix Potter and the Winnie the Pooh collection. My parents would read them to me before bedtime each night over and over again. I was fascinated by how the pictures in the books came to life, from the authors’ writing and the way my parents would adopt a new tone for each character. In my room I had a bookcase of around two hundred books, and even more that were given a space in our spare bedroom as my parents would never throw them out, and I must have gotten at least five new for each birthday and Christmas.

Winnie the Pooh, by Ernest Howard Shepard (illustrator) (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

My grandparents have always had a vast impact on my life in general, but more so when it comes to my reading experiences. I never had a positive reading experience during my years at primary school, having to make my way up the reading stages with the Biff and Chip book collection was something I dreaded and remember asking my then teacher, if I could read The Wind in the Willows, or Peter Pan. I sped through the books, and I knew I could read more advanced ones. I was told that I was lacking in punctuation and quite far behind in writing skills than most of the other children in my school year, and that I needed extra curricular sessions with my English teacher after school. I became completely disheartened and despite knowing I was a great reader and it being my favourite pastime, I started reading less and less. My grandparents would collect me from school each day, and later informed me that they had noticed I wasn’t as interested in reading anymore, and no longer wanted to sit with my nose buried into a book before dinner. And so, instead of taking me to the library to borrow a book, they had taken me into their attic and let me have the choice of what I would like to read. From this day, I discovered multiple authors that have had a huge impact on my personal reading journey so far, such as Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, as well as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. After listening to many of the Readers’ Voices interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, I realized myself and Margaret Young both shared our first reading experiences and with our grandparents, as her grandfather was an ‘avid reader’ and grandmother read classic novels much like the ones I was introduced to by my own grandparents, ‘Dickens and so on’.

‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!’ An illustration by John McLenan from Great Expectations (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was searching through the Reading Sheffield website to find more of others’ reading journeys, I came across Gillian Applegate’s interview, and despite being born sixty-one years apart, I noticed we share a similar enjoyment in reading Charles Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. This story is one I remember well and also studied during my GCSEs and came across again during my first year of university. I enjoyed watching the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations almost as much as I enjoyed reading the book for the first time, and found a love for watching TV and film adaptations of other celebrated novels too. Gillian also discusses her love for historical novels, which definitely resonates with myself as I prefer to read classic, timeless novels such as Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, both of which I have appreciated in the past few years.

Enid Blyton’s work as a whole has inspired much of my reading journey, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood becoming my favorite books for years of my childhood after being read by my mum before bedtime. I also used Enid Blyton as a case in point within my Extended Project Qualification at A level, discussing her as an author but also arguments put out through the media about her work. I absolutely loved creating this project as her books had been a huge part of my childhood, and I achieved an A*.  Regrettably, in order to complete my degree, I have many great (and some, in my opinion not so great) books that I have to read, consequently causing a lack of reading for pleasure and rather for work purposes. An example of the books I haven’t enjoyed so much throughout my modules is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Both are great books for those who enjoy adventure fiction, and I loved the psychological analysis of both novels involving Freudian analysis. However I personally did not engage as well with these novels as I have with the others I have studied, such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. I hope to begin reading much more for myself from now on and to work on managing my workload of novels along with ones I am personally eager to read, as there are so many books still sat on my bookshelf that I feel guilty for neglecting, while picking up the same books I have been reading all year. I have recently commenced reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers for the other half of this project, and plan to purchase the rest of the collection to this book for my own reading pleasure.

Here are Ellie’s thoughts about Gaudy Night.

The Carnegie Letters (Part One)

By Val Hewson

Busy with our Sundae Opening project (more about this shortly), we’ve not been able to post anything here for a while. Many thanks to MS who put me in the way of the Carnegie letters about Sheffield. A great way to stoke up the blog again.

Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.

Andrew Carnegie, An American Four-in-Hand in Britain (1883).

In April 1904, Geo Hy Capper, of Fernleigh, Tinsley, wrote a letter to R A Franks of the Home Trust Company, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA, asking about ‘your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work’.

Image from the Carnegie Corporation of New York Records held by Columbia University Libraries. Details: https://dlc.library.columbia.edu/catalog/cul:7h44j0zqvd

Here is a transcription of the letter.

Tinsley Parish Council

Clerk’s Office, Fernleigh

Tinsley, April 23rd, 1904

Geo Hy Capper, Clerk to the Council

Mr. R. A. Franks,

Home Trust Company, Hoboken, N.J. U.S.A.

Dear Sir,

On Feb’y 23rd last I received from Mr. J. Bertram a letter announcing Mr Carnegie’s approval of the plans for Library [sic], which he is giving to Tinsley, & asking me to communicate with you for payment as the work proceeds. The Contract was let last night & building operations will now be commenced at once, so I shall be glad if you will kindly let know your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work.

              Waiting your esteemed reply,

                             Yours faithfully,

                                           Geo. Hy. Capper

George Henry Capper (1859-1924), who acted as clerk to Tinsley Parish Council, was the Sheffield-born manager of a steel rolling mill and a man of substance, as his confident letter shows. (That the letter is handwritten, by the signatory, is interesting. Typewriters were becoming common in offices at the turn of the century but the parish council evidently did not use one.) Robert Augustus Franks (1861?-1935), born in Liverpool, was an immigrant to the United States who had made a success of his new life. He was president of the Home Trust Company, a private bank set up by his friend, Scottish-American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), to manage Carnegie’s philanthropy, including the endowment of ‘free libraries’.

Andrew Carnegie, (seated, fourth from left), his daughter, Margaret, and wife, Louise, at the Carnegie Corporation’s first board meeting, 10 November 1911. Standing behind Carnegie is his secretary, James Bertram, and behind Margaret and Louise Carnegie, Robert Franks (public domain, Wikimedia Commons).

Carnegie’s contribution to libraries is well-known. At one point he was the richest man in the world, and he is said to have given away about 90% of his fortune, to support educational and cultural organisations. He believed that:

To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.

Andrew Carnegie, The Empire of Business (1902).

Carnegie started poor, emigrating to the USA in search of a better life, and he had little formal education. He reasoned that libraries gave people like him the chance to learn, to catch up. All in all, he helped found perhaps 3,000 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spending about $55m in the process. Most were located in the USA, but towns and cities around the world, including in the UK, benefitted from Carnegie’s generosity.

Around 1903, Tinsley, now a suburb of Sheffield but then an independent township, was awarded £1,500 by Carnegie for its free library, to be built on the corner of Bawtry Road, on a site donated by Earl Fitzwilliam, the local aristocrat. Mr Carnegie’s secretary had written to the council on 18 November, setting out the terms of the offer:

Dear Sir – Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate.

Sheffield Telegraph, 17 December 1903.

The money might have been refused, as there was a feeling in Tinsley that Carnegie the employer oppressed the working man libraries were intended to help. There was also a suggestion that local business, rather than business based 3,000 miles away, should pay (which might have been connected to the curious fact that steel was the business of both Carnegie and Tinsley). In the end, the parish council voted almost unanimously to accept Carnegie’s offer. You can read the full story starting here.

Tinsley Carnegie Library opened to the public just over a year after Capper’s letter, on 7 June 1905, and the whole affair, from initial application to opening ceremony, took perhaps two years. The contract Capper refers to must have been the one with the local building firm, Gray and Sons, and the plans approved by Carnegie were the design by respected local architects, Holmes and Watson, which can be seen in Sheffield City Archives.

Tinsley spent Carnegie’s £1,500 well (and managed the budget well – there was an overspend of a mere 9s 10d). The Sheffield Telegraph reported from the opening ceremony:

The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution…besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village.

Sheffield Telegraph, 8 June 1905

Tinsley Carnegie Library around 1970 (courtesy of Picture Sheffield, Ref. No. s26883)

And so it remained for 80 years, until in 1985 the library moved to a (less impressive) shop unit in a modern precinct just down the road. The building was then used as a family centre, but has stood empty and boarded up for some years now. It’s a tribute to the parish council, the architects and builders that the building remains, forlorn, water-damaged but still graceful after nearly 120 years. 

Tinsley Carnegie Library 2018

Columbia University Libraries also hold correspondence about Sheffield’s Walkley Carnegie Library, about which we’ll be writing shortly.

Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

By Val Hewson

The writer Romer Wilson, born in Sheffield in 1891, is now almost forgotten. Her name appears in a few databases and blogs, and she has brief Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia entries. A novelist who also wrote short stories, verse and a play, and an anthologist of tales for children, she was generally well regarded in her lifetime. She seems, however, to have received almost no critical attention since her early death in 1930. We found her, by chance, through her father, Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909), whose name came up in our research into Sheffield Libraries.

Our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, has posted an article about Romer Wilson’s novel, Latterday Symphony (Nonesuch Press, London, 1927), here. We are researching her life, and while there is much to discover, we know enough to offer a good introduction to Sheffield’s forgotten novelist.    

The first thing to know is that ‘Romer Wilson’ is not her name. On official records, Romer Wilson is Florence Roma Muir Wilson, eldest child of Arnold and Amy Letitia Muir Wilson. On her marriage, she became Florence Roma Muir O’Brien. According to correspondence archived at Girton College, Cambridge, her friends called her, not Florence, a popular name of the time, but Roma. Why Roma we cannot know, but it is interesting that her parents visited Rome on their honeymoon. Romer and Roma, invented and real, pen-name and given name. Perhaps Roma felt that Romer, which could so easily be a man’s name, would be an advantage in her career. (Indeed, critics did occasionally assume that they were reviewing the work of a man.)

Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, where Romer Wilson was born

‘A dark old manor house on the edge of the moors just outside Sheffield’ was Romer Wilson’s home for most of her childhood, until it was sold on the death of her father in 1909.[i] This was Whiteley Wood Hall, a 17th century house with Victorian additions, stables and extensive grounds, in Fulwood, a suburb in south-west Sheffield. Romer was born on Saturday 26 December 1891 in Parkholme, a much smaller suburban villa in Collegiate Crescent, in the desirable Broomhall area just outside the town centre.[ii] Her father, on the way up in the world, bought the Hall in 1893, when she was about two years old, for somewhere between £7,000 and £9,000 (a sum beyond the imaginings of most Sheffield residents at the time). The Hall had important historical associations: Thomas Boulsover (1705 – 1788), the inventor of Sheffield Plate, and Samuel Plimsoll MP (1824 – 1898), famous for the Plimsoll line on ships, had both lived there. The house was demolished in 1959, with the grounds and outbuildings becoming a Girlguiding outdoor activity centre. Today all around is park and common land, well-used and easily accessible. Its relative remoteness in Romer’s day perhaps contributed to her depictions of wild, even hostile moorland in her books, Greenlow (Collins, London, 1927) and All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte (Chatto & Windus, London, 1928), from where this quotation comes:

West and north and south the moors hang above the West Riding of Yorkshire. They rise up bleak and black and brooding, a thousand feet, two thousand feet above the valleys. Empty and silent, without trees or lakes, without wide rivers, without grand impressive mountains, they roll away from this world.

All Alone (Introduction to Haworth – A Journey from To-Day)

Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, built 1662 by Alexandra Ashton, demolished 1959. Stood in its own woods, commanding a view over the Porter Valley. Home of Thomas Boulsover, inventor of Sheffield Plate, who died here in 1788, and Samuel Plimsoll
Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, Fulwood, Sheffield. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref no: y01697

Dark, remote and ancient Whiteley Wood Hall may have been, but Romer and her younger sister Natalie (born in 1893) and brother Leslie (born in 1899) had a privileged childhood. There were servants, parties and fetes, holidays abroad, chauffeur-driven motor cars, outings to the theatre, music lessons and private education.    

This comfortable life was due to the efforts of her father, Arnold Muir Wilson. A remarkably frank obituary said of him:

… at all times a theatrical personality. … Self-made, frank almost to the point of brutal bluntness to friend and foe, assertive and dauntless, relentless as a sleuthhound in business, with a boundless capacity for work and an astonishing capacity for turning unlikely circumstances to his own advantage. … a want of self-control, an almost reckless impulsiveness of action and a disregard … for the feelings of others. … one could never definitely conclude that Mr Muir Wilson had any clear creed or abstract principle, or that he was seriously in earnest … gossipy … in private he was a good fellow and an entertaining companion …

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Monday 4 October 1909
Councillor Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909)
Arnold Muir Wilson. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref. no. y08151.

Wilson was in many ways the classic Victorian success story. He was a prominent solicitor and a Conservative councillor for over 20 years, with Parliamentary ambitions. He had started in trade, helping out as a child in his father’s barber shop on Snig Hill in the town centre. The Wilsons evidently prospered, opening various new businesses, and in time Wilson switched from trade to profession, thus rising up a social class or two. We know little of his education (other than a period in Germany), but his professional training was through Clifford’s Inn, where he won prizes.[iii] He opened his own law firm and was much in demand. He had business interests too, owning property, land and a share in Sheffield’s newest theatre, the Lyceum. He even contrived an appointment as honorary consul for Serbia in 1898, which presumably appealed to both his vanity and his eye for an opportunity.

Around 1906, however, Wilson fell ill, consulting a ‘brain specialist’. His illness seemed to exacerbate an already volatile character. He attacked a magistrate in court, for which he had to issue a public apology. When a by-election was called in Attercliffe in 1909, dismayed not to be chosen as the Conservative candidate, he stood as an independent but lost and promptly took the official Conservative candidate to court, alleging assault and damage. The case was dismissed. After this, Wilson’s health declined further, and he went abroad, saying he would never return alive. He was right: he had a complete breakdown in Vancouver and died soon after in hospital. His body was brought back to Sheffield and quietly buried in the General Cemetery. ‘Never, probably, was a man who had played so prominent a part in public life buried in so private a manner,’ said the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Monday 25 October 1909). He left almost £50,000, mostly in trust for his family, and instructed that his property, including Whiteley Wood Hall, be sold. His wife and children evidently moved to a smaller property nearby.   

Around this time, Romer was coming to the end of her schooldays. She had been privately educated until she was 15, when she was sent to West Heath, a boarding school in Richmond on Thames, for four years.[iv] After that, in 1911 she went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read law.[v] Socially this was apparently a happy time, with Romer making many friends including the economic historian, Eileen Power (1889 – 1940), social reformer Margery Spring Rice (1887 – 1970) and the novelist Emily (‘Topsy’) Coursolles Jones (1883 – 1966), who seems as forgotten as Romer herself. Academically, she was less happy: she spoke of ‘considerable boredom’ and passed her exams ‘with mediocre honours’ in 1914. A tutor suggested she do some writing, and she started by producing ‘rubbish for a typewritten private magazine’.

This then was the beginning of Romer Wilson’s literary career. There’s a suggestion of the accidental about it: a young woman doing a little writing to occupy her time in between social activities. She did not need to work after all. Or did the tutor’s suggestion accord with a wish of her own? At all events, she was soon working on a novel, against the background of war.

Part Two of Romer Wilson’s story will follow shortly.


[i] Quoted, but not attributed, in the entry on Romer Wilson in the Dictionary of National Biography.  

[ii] Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, is now owned by Sheffield Hallam University.

[iii] Clifford’s Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery to which all solicitors belonged before the 20th century.

[iv] A more famous pupil, many years later, was Lady Diana Spencer.

[v] Law was an interesting choice. Was it a tribute to her father? No woman was allowed to practise law in the UK until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, five years after Romer finished her university course.

How did your Nan cook Christmas dinner?

By Val Hewson

In December 2021, I gave a talk in Sheffield Central Library about what vintage recipe books can tell us about our heritage, both individual and shared. Here are my slides and notes from our Events page, along with a related paper written for the Inheriting the Family project on Research.     

During the talk I asked the audience to recall the cookery books important to them. About 20 people responded on cards, anonymously – an unscientific, but interesting, survey. They quoted a wide range of books, from Mrs Beeton to Nigella, domestic goddesses both, from the 19th to the 21st centuries, from kitchen ranges to smart ovens.

The cards suggest that we identify recipe books with their authors – Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Marguerite Patten and the rest. The recalled titles are often not quite right, half-forgotten while the authors stick in our minds. They are acquaintances, if not friends.

Marguerite Patten (1915-2015), for instance, appears twice on the cards. She worked for the Ministry of Food during World War Two and then became a regular on radio and television.   

My first recipe book was by Marguerite Patten. Everyday Cook Book in Colour.[i] Sold second hand by the local library! Started a lifelong love of cookery.   

Marguerite Patten. WW2 Home front / Rationing recipes (not exact title). Could be Victory Cookbook. Has many recipes for non-meat meals/vegetarian meals.[ii]

The Observer journalist, Katherine Whitehorn (1928-2021), conjures up for a whole generation memories of leaving home, being a student, the first job, getting married and making do:

Cooking in a Bedsitter by Katherine Whitehorn.[iii] Given to me late 1960s or early 1970. I had left university and was working and flat sharing in London. This is the 1st cookery book I owned.

Cooking in a Bedsitter, often reprinted, must have been tucked into suitcases by many anxious parents.

Then we have Elizabeth David (1913-1992), whose championship of French and Italian cuisine fired a revolution in British food.    

Elizabeth David. French Provincial Cooking.[iv] This is more than just recipes – can sense the location and smells and sights and people.

To illustrate the point:

… the most enjoyable of French country meals; unexacting ones, ordered and served with the minimum of fuss. An omelette, perhaps, followed by the sausages which were a speciality of the local butcher, a vegetable dish and some cheese; or perhaps snails and a homely stew, intended probably for the patron’s own dinner but gracefully surrendered; or a vegetable soup, a slice or two of country-cured ham and a beautiful big green artichoke; and on another occasion, a langouste with a mayonnaise which was among the best I have ever tasted, because of the fine quality of the Provençal oil which had gone into it, and which was followed by a dish of tender young string beans of that intense green and delicate flavour which only southern-grown beans seem to acquire.

Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking, introduction (Kindle edition).

Unsurprisingly, Delia Smith, Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson all feature on the cards too. They are among our most familiar television cooks, with Delia and Nigella, if not Mary, needing only first names. Delia gets three mentions altogether, more than anyone else.

Mary Berry. Her recipes are straightforward and easy to follow.

Have bought lots of cookery books over the years but the one I always go to and is my favourite is Delia’s Cookery Course. I also have Mary Berry’s Cakes, which I use often.[v]

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess.[vi]

The first of all celebrity cooks is named just once, still an icon 160 years after the publication of her Book of Household Management.[vii] Often imagined as an old lady in black bombazine, another Queen Victoria, Isabella Beeton died from complications in childbirth in 1865, aged 28, and never knew of her fame.   

Isabella Beeton, by Maull & Polyblank, 1857 (National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence).
Engraved title page of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Wellcome Library copy, 1861 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Mrs Beeton – lots of plain, uncomplicated recipes which don’t require a huge range of ingredients (unlike many of the modern, contemporary ones!)

At this point, you may be asking where the men are. On the whole, they are absent.   

1000 Recipe Cook Book. Delia Christmas Book. Nigel Slater’s 30 minute Recipes.[viii]

Not all the books quoted are by celebrity cooks. Good Housekeeping has published dozens of books, ranging from the encyclopaedic to the pamphlet, since it was founded in the USA in 1885 and the UK in 1922. Here we have (along with an honourable mention for Woman’s Weekly).

Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.[ix] Bought by my mother-in-law when first married in 1973. The book I used with really good instructions which I used a lot when I was young was Woman’s Weekly.

and the unfortunately unidentifiable:

Good Housekeeping book.   

Three more books which are warmly recommended are:

Readers Digest Farmhouse Cookery Book.[x] They give information and the background of the different recipes. Lots of different categories, so a simple index.

Marks & Spencer c 1971/2.[xi] Can’t remember title! A4 paperback. Now has no cover, stored in a ring file binder. Used every week!

1970. Dairy Book of Cooking.[xii] From the milkman. Also remember Be-Ro.

Ah yes. Be-Ro. The books of baking recipes produced since the 1920s by this flour manufacturer are by some way the most popular with the Central Library audience.

Thomas Bell founded a wholesale grocery firm near the Tyne quays and railway station in Newcastle in the 1880s. Among his top-selling brands were ‘Bells Royal’ baking powder and a self raising flour. Following the death of Edward VII, it became illegal to use the Royal name. As a result, Bell decided to take the first couple of letters from the each of the two words of the brand name and turn them into the more catchy sounding ‘Be-Ro’.

Be-Ro – Home

Be-Ro ran demonstration events to promote their products and, when people asked for the recipes, the recipe books were written. There have been about 40 editions so far, and they seem to be both well-remembered and loved.

Be-Ro Home Recipes, published 1978. I bought this when I got married. The only recipe book I have kept after 7 house moves. Simple ingredients available. Recipes can be adapted – ingredients added. All you need to feed a small family.

The Be Ro Cookery Book. I was born in 1957. The Love of Cooking.[xiii] Sonia Allison. Bought for me in 1970s by my aunt as a good basic cookbook and still used today. Also loved by my daughter.

Be-Ro book. Good Housekeeping complete. 1975ish. Foodaid Book, celebrity contributed. (Terry Wogan, Delia Smith)

BeRo. Still my ‘go to‘ for basic recipes.

The Be-Ro cookery book. I still have one of my mums books, which I use regularly for scones and pastry – I love it!

It is at this point that I admit to fellow feeling. The Be-Ro book published around 1957 is the only cookery book I associate with my mum, and the gingham-aproned girl pictured on the cover has always been secure in my memory.

Once again, I realise that recipe books have a remarkable ability to awaken memories and to start conversations.


[i] Patten, Marguerite, Everyday Cook Book in Colour (London, Hamlyn Books, 1969).

[ii] Patten, Marguerite, The Victory Cookbook (London, Hamlyn, 1995).

[iii] Whitehorn, Katherine, Kitchen in the Corner: a Complete Guide to Bedsitter Cookery (London, Macgibbon & Kee, 1961). Re-titled and re-published: Cooking in a Bedsitter (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1963). 

[iv] David, Elizabeth, French Provincial Cooking (London, Michael Joseph, 1960).

[v] Smith, Delia, Delia’s Complete Cookery Course (London, BBC, 1982). Mary Berry has written several books of cake recipes including: Fast Cakes: Easy Bakes in Minutes (London, Headline Home, 2018); My Kitchen Table – 100 Cakes & Bakes (London, BBC Books, 2011); and Mary Berry’s Simple Cakes (London, BBC Books, 2014).

[vi] Lawson, Nigella, How to be a domestic goddess : baking and the art of comfort cooking (London, Chatto & Windus, 2014).

[vii] Beeton, Isabella, Beeton’s Book of Household Management (London, S O Beeton Publishing, 1861).

[viii] Barrett, Isabelle and Harrop, Jane (eds), 1000 Recipe Cookbook: Recipes for all occasions (London, Octopus, 1960). Smith, Delia, Delia Smith’s Christmas (London, BBC Books, 1990). Slater, Nigel, The 30-Minute Cook: The Best of the World’s Quick Cooking (London, Michael Joseph, 1994).

[ix] Good Housekeeping Institute, Good Housekeeping Cookery Book (London, Ebury Press, 1972).

[x] Reader’s Digest Association (ed), Farmhouse cookery: recipes from the country kitchen (London, The Association, 1980).

[xi] Hard to identify. The Marks and Spencer archive lists several cookery books from 1977 onwards, including: Wright, Jeni, St Michael Cookery Library: Cooking for Special Occasions (Sundial Books Ltd, 1977) and Selden, Elizabeth, St Michael Cookery Library: Family Meals (Sundial Books, 1977).

[xii] Allison, Sonia, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery (London, Wolfe Publishing, 1968). For the Milk Marketing Board? Sonia Allison rates a second mention below.

[xiii] Allison, Sonia, The Love of Cooking (London, Collins, 1972).

Chris Hopkins’ Reading Journey, part 2: Milly-Molly-Mandy, a Giant Reading Cushion, and a Book Sale

By Chris Hopkins

Chris Hopkins is an Emeritus Professor of Sheffield Hallam University. An expert on the British novel in the first half of the twentieth century, he is the author of Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole: Novel, Play, Film (Liverpool University Press, 2018) and editor of the Walter Greenwood: Not Just Love on the Dole web/blogsite. The first part of his reading journey is here.

In Part 1, I recalled a more-or-less specific reading memory about one time and place where I read, and about one publication, Treasure. Part 2 will range across three separate reading memories, centring more on libraries, books, and bookshops from the nineteen-sixties until the nineteen-seventies. Each memory is sharp at the centre, but fuzzy round the edges.

When I was reading Treasure, and I’m sure before, I certainly recall going often in the afternoon to East Sheen Public Library with my younger sister and mother. I recall that my younger sister liked to borrow the Milly-Molly-Mandy books by Joyce Lankester Brisley to be read from at bedtime. I also recall that this was not a favourite with my mother because she disliked having to read out the strings of cumulative repetition which are a key device in the books, and which also inevitably involve frequent readings out of Milly-Molly-Mandy’s own name. For example, in the first story (‘Milly-Molly-Mandy Goes Errands’) of the first book (Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories,1928), Milly-Molly-Mandy is asked to do more and more errands by her family all in one trip to the village, and she has to keep repeating them in her head to make sure she remembers them. After four pages of accumulation Milly-Molly-Mandy has arrived at this string:

Trowel for Farver, eggs for Muvver, string for Grandpa, red wool for Grandma, chicken-feed for Uncle, needles for Aunty, and I do hope there won’t be anything else!

Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories (1928), p.5, Macmillan Children’s Books, kindle edition.

Of course, these repetitions are the entertaining things about the story-telling in these books, and I know that many people have fond memories of them. Lucy Mangan in her own excellent reading journey article in the Guardian (15/2/2018) has indeed rightly argued that every Milly-Molly-Mandy story is a virtuoso exercise in structure and sequenced detail: My life as a bookworm: what children can teach us about how to read | Children and teenagers | The Guardian .

Nevertheless, my memory is that my mother did not enjoy reading them aloud, though generally I’m pretty certain she enjoyed reading aloud and was herself certainly a keen reader. I would much rather recall a different memory of bed-time reading, but sadly this is the only one I can find in my head. I am absolutely sure I would have had my choice of bed-time story too, but I cannot recall a single choice I made! Still, below I have a more characteristic memory of my mother and books.

I think my next reading memory is of my GIANT READING CUSHION. My elder sister bought that for me, I think because she thought my habitual lying-on-my-stomach-on-the-floor-reading-position (see my reading journey Part 1) must be uncomfortable. I’m not sure this had bothered me, but I was quickly converted to the giant reading cushion, and did most of my reading stomach-down on it for the next ten years or so. It was a square brown cushion, comfortably stuffed, measuring about three feet by three feet, and it came from Habitat. My mother thought the brown colour was a bit dull, so in a project which must have taken some time and dedication, she made it a cover of brightly coloured and patterned patchwork squares. That brightened it up (though again I don’t think I was bothered that much by the brown – oh dear was I completely aesthetically insensitive in those days? – but did appreciate the energy put into personalising my reading environment). I certainly took it to university with me, and did much of my reading on my BA (Eng. Lit, of course) on its comforting base. By the time of my MA (Eng. Lit again …), I seem to have parted company with it, but I don’t remember when or where. Perhaps it just fell apart from age and was humanely disposed of? Anyway, it wouldn’t have fitted into my MA study-bedroom, which was distinctly smaller than my undergrad ones. I wish I had a photo, but I don’t think one exists.

My third and final reading memory for this part of my reading journey is of W.H. Smith’s sales table near the front entrance in the branch in Richmond-upon-Thames (it’s still there and in business). I don’t know whether Smith’s had a permanent sale in those days (early nineteen-seventies), but in my memory there seemed to be a book-sale every time we went to Richmond. We were certainly still users of public libraries in East Sheen and Richmond, and I was a keen user of my school library, but nevertheless my mother would generally buy me my choice of book from the table – well, anything up to about 35 pence (this may not be a correct memory, but I think then that non-sale paperbacks often cost something like 50 to 75 pence).  I usually went for archaeology (before I was gratefully received into Eng. Lit, I was going to be an archaeologist – an interest I retain), though I sometimes wandered into zoology. I remember buying and reading with great pleasure a book on Przewalski’s Horse – I suspect translated from Polish. I think I would remember the cover photograph, but searches on online booksellers have not so far turned up anything I recognised (for an account of this noble creature see for starters the Wikipedia entry: Przewalski’s horse – Wikipedia).

However, I do still have on my book-shelves two books my mother kindly bought me from that Smith’s table. Here they are (both published in 1973, both hardbacks, and with a non-sale price of £1.50!). I still think they are nice books and am pleased to have kept them.

Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol

By Val Hewson

More on literary food. Here is the tale of Sheffield Literary Club’s Christmas dinners.

Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol? Yes, well may you pause. It means ‘when it’s Christmas’. Notice ‘Yeol’, which is more usually written as ‘Yule’. The phrase is taken from the menu for a Christmas feast organised by the Sheffield Literary Club in the early 1930s. ‘Feast’ is the operative word: this was no simple roast dinner.

The Literary Club started life as the ‘Sheffield Poetry Club’ in 1923 and, with the change of name perhaps recording wider interests, lasted until the 1960s. It was a largely female and middle-class group, with members having to pay an annual subscription of at least 5/-. The Club had high ideals. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1923 commented:

Here is an opportunity for Sheffielders to refute the ancient taunt that Sheffield is unliterary, that it is ‘at the very nadir of culture’.

The original prospectus promised that:

… poetical plays will be read by lovers of drama; recitals will be given by elocutionists, of the less known good poetry; papers, and discussion on them will cultivate the essay form and encourage debate; original verse-making will be encouraged by inviting the authors to read their works.

The Club’s literary tastes were conservative. In the early years members discussed Austen, Byron, Milton and Tennyson at meetings. They shunned the avant-garde. This all deserves a blog of its own (and one day I will write it) but for now let’s focus on Christmas.  

As my colleague Mary Grover has observed, ‘nostalgia for a pre-industrial world was central to the Club’s original identity’.[i] Perhaps it was even nostalgia for a world which never existed. The 1923 prospectus promised a Christmas supper ‘at which all the beautiful English customs will be revived’ and Club papers show that there was an Old Customs committee. It was ‘Merrie England’ with a vengeance, reminiscent of the ideas beloved of Professor Welch and mocked by his subordinate Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim (1954):

‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…’ He paused and swayed …His head seemed to be swelling and growing lighter …

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), Kindle edition, loc 4151.

The first Christmas supper in 1923 seems to have been modest enough but through the 1920s and 1930s the celebrations got more and more elaborate. The event was usually described as ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’ [the Christmas dinner of the literary club and its committee], and there were toasts, mummers, a gesteur, the Mayster of Ye Feste, Fader Cristenmæsse and more.

Here is the menu, with appropriate Shakespearean quotations, from around 1935:

Hu Thei Don in Cutlerstoune [Sheffield] Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol

Fare

(‘Dost thou understand thus much English?’)

Fortune speed us! Thus set we on.

Sewe [Soup]

‘He is pure air and fire.’

‘He’s of the colour of the nutmeg.’ And of the heat of ginger.’

‘Good sooth, she is the queen of curds and cream.’

Fisch [fish]

‘Must I bite?’                                     ‘Yes, certainly.’

Turkey

’Tis no matter for his swellings nor his turkey-cocks, God pless you, Aunchient Pistol! You scurvy, lousy knave, God pless you!’

Ye Heved of Ye Boore [The Boar’s Head]

‘Whose tushes never sheathed, he whetteth still.’

‘Why, I pray you, is not pig great? The pig or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.’

Plume-poding [plum pudding]

‘Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year.’

‘I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see: Three pound of sugar; five pound of currants; rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates; none, that’s out of my notes; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many raisins o’ the sun.’

‘O that ever I was born!’

Sherries – Sack                                                  Ale – posset      

‘Shall I have some water? Come Kate and wash!’

‘Desist, and drink.’

‘I could not find him at the Elephant,

Yet there he was!’

‘Ye Heved of Ye Boore’, ‘plume-poding’ and the rest were all part of a performance in which the members played a part. At the start,

Ye gests and clubbefelawen schal standen, eche behindan hys siege, and ye Mayster of ye Feste schal pronownce ye Bletsung … And all ye companinie schal seyen ‘AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN! … [The guests and club members will stand behind their chairs, and the Master of the Feast will give the blessing … and the company will say ‘Amen, Amen and Amen!’]

In time Fader Cristenmæsse arrives. The Uschere sing:

A jolly wassail Bowl,

A wassail of good ale

Well fare the butler’s soul

That setteth this for sale!

Our jolly wassail! Our jolly wassail!’

‘I have many towns and countries to visit and must start with Cutlerstoune,’ says Cristenmæsse, and goes on, no doubt to popular acclaim in Yorkshire:

Nay, but to cry truce with jesting, I do love the North

Hath not our greatest trouvère,

Your own poet of Somersby [Tennyson], written

‘That bright and fierce and fickle is the South

And dark and true and tender is the North.

Say to her I do but wanton in the South

But in the North long since my nest is made.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Princess: O Swallow.

The Feste finally ends after a short break ‘for a man somewhæt to strechen his shanken’ [for everyone to stretch their legs] and a Toast to ‘Absent Friends’.

Presumably it was the Old Customs committee that lovingly and happily researched, composed and argued over this. There is ritual, bell-ringing, singing, quotations from Shakespeare and other Greats, Latin tags and Elizabethan, Middle and Old and – surely! – cod English. ‘Clubbefelawen’? ‘Erthenobbes?’ [Club members and potatoes to you.]

As might be expected, World War II put a stop to all this, and the custom was never revived in post-war austerity. By then the general sentiment was for making the new world, rather than re-making the old. What did the Club members feel about the Festes? I like to think that some enjoyed the playacting, while others took the evening desperately seriously and still others groaned at the thought of it.

Clubbefelawen with Ye Mayster of Ye Feste (City Librarian, J P Lamb) 3rd from the left, front row. No-one looks very jolly.

[i] Mary Grover, unpublished notes.

Wodehouse Serves Up A Feast

By Val Hewson

After posting our Edible England blogs for Heritage Open Days 2021, we found that we have more to say on literary food. By the way, there are spoilers below, though I’m not sure this matters much in P G Wodehouse.

It begins with a Prairie Oyster. After a ‘rather cheery little supper’ the night before, Bertie Wooster is trying to read Types of Ethical Theory, which his terrifyingly intellectual fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, feels will improve him:

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ …

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything. …

‘Thank you, sir. My name is Jeeves.’

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge (1916).

Bertie is now in safe hands:

‘Good morning, sir,’ said Jeeves. He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect.

P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)

It is fortunate that Jeeves is ‘so dashed competent’, given Bertie’s and his friends’ incompetence.

Strand magazine 1921 illustration by Arthur Wallis Mills for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

In Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922), Bertie has acquired another terrifying fiancée, Honoria (her laugh is famously ‘like the Scotch express going under a bridge’). Her father, Sir Roderick, a nerve specialist or in Bertie’s words, ‘a sort of janitor to a loony-bin’, wants to ‘satisfy himself that [Bertie is] perfectly normal’. Bertie is instructed by his Aunt Agatha to give Sir Roderick lunch.

‘Please remember that he drinks no wine, strongly disapproves of smoking, and can only eat the simplest food, owing to an impaired digestion. Do not offer him coffee, for he considers it the root of half the nerve-trouble in the world.’

P G Wodehouse, Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922)

Bertie is rebuked for suggesting a ‘dog-biscuit and a glass of water’. On the day, Jeeves serves ‘cold consommé, a cutlet, and a savoury, sir. With lemon-squash, iced.’ Bertie has left the choice to Jeeves – a sign of how much master relies on manservant. The lunch is exquisitely awkward, with Bertie rambling nervously. And when three cats, a salmon and a stolen hat intrude, Sir Roderick, who fears cats, stalks out. ‘No wedding bells for me, what?’ says Bertie, realising that Jeeves has engineered the situation to save him from Honoria Glossop. Wodehouse’s menu tells us that a Wooster – Glossop match is not to be.  

In Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), Bertie’s friend Bingo falls for Mabel, a waitress at ‘one of those blighted tea-and-bun shops’:

Bingo studied the menu devoutly. ‘I’ll have a cup of cocoa, cold veal and ham pie, slice of fruit cake, and a macaroon. Same for you, Bertie?’ I gazed at the man, revolted. … ‘Or how about a bit of hot steak-pudding, with a sparkling limado to wash it down?’ said Bingo. You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly! A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them, and Mabel hopped it.

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), chapter 1.

T. D. Skidmore’s 1921 Cosmopolitan illustration for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

Again the food tells us that Bingo and Mabel are not meant for each other. Jeeves must sort the mess out. In this case he turns out to have a personal interest, having an ‘understanding’ with both Mabel and Bingo’s uncle’s cook, Miss Watson. It all ends happily, of course: Bingo is freed from an unsuitable attachment; Jeeves and Mabel can get together; and Bingo’s uncle, Lord Bittlesham, who ‘devotes himself almost entirely to the pleasures of the table’ gets engaged to Miss Watson, on whose services he ‘sets a high value …’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 1).

Bingo, being Bingo, soon falls in love with another waitress, over lunch with Bertie at the Senior Liberal club, where ‘the cooking’s the best in London’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 17):

‘How would this do you, Bingo?’ I said at length. ‘A few plovers’ eggs to weigh in with, a cup of soup, a touch of cold salmon, some cold curry, and a splash of gooseberry tart and cream with a bit of cheese to finish?’ … I looked up and found that his attention was elsewhere. He was gazing at the waitress…

Happily, this waitress turns out to be more suitable – she is the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks, working as a waitress merely to get material for her new book – and soon she and Bingo are married.   

One of the most important minor characters in Wodehouse is intimately connected with food: the French chef, Anatole, ‘with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 20). Anatole works for Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia and is a ‘monarch of his profession’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 4). Bertie’s friend, Tuppy Glossop, says:     

… the thing that I admire so enormously about Anatole is that, though a Frenchman, he does not, like so many of these chefs, confine himself exclusively to French dishes, but is always willing and ready to weigh in with some good old simple English fare such as this steak-and-kidney pie to which I have alluded.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

But things begin to go wrong when, at Bertie’s behest, Tuppy Glossop refuses his dinner:

‘Let us get this straight. Tonight, at dinner, when the butler offers me a ris de veau à la financiere, or whatever it may be, hot from Anatole’s hands, you wish me to push it away untasted?’

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

Tuppy is persuaded because he can raid the larder later:

‘There is something cold there … A steak-and-kidney pie. … One of Anatole’s ripest.  …’.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8

Bertie persuades Aunt Dahlia and Gussie Fink-Nottle to forego dinner too for various reasons. But, unlike Jeeves’ schemes, it doesn’t work. ‘The whole thing more than a bit like Christmas dinner on Devil’s Island’, (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! chapter 9) as nonnettes de poulet Agnès Sorel and cèpes à la Rossini are refused. Anatole, like all his race and profession, is temperamental and naturally gives notice:

‘I hear that when the first two courses came back to the kitchen practically untouched, his feelings were so hurt that he cried like a child. And when the rest of the dinner followed, he came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a studied and calculated insult …’  

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 11.

After much farce, including Bertie getting engaged to yet another girl, Madeline Bassett, Jeeves contrives to make everything ‘oojah-cum-spiff’ again, with a fire bell, a bicycle and a key.

Strand magazine 1922 illustration for Scoring for Jeeves by Arthur Wallis Mills. Public domain.

Bertie ascribes his valet’s brilliance to diet, to fish.

‘It’s brain,’ I said, ‘pure brain! What do you do to get like that, Jeeves? I believe you must eat a lot of fish, or something. Do you eat a lot of fish, Jeeves?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Oh, well, then, it’s just a gift, I take it; and if you aren’t born that way there’s no use worrying.’

P G Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919).

Food is clearly important in P G Wodehouse. He uses food as image, often hilariously: ‘she looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho! Jeeves, chapter 20). Food offers a framework for Bertie’s life – breakfast from Jeeves, lunch at the Drones and so on – and for Wodehouse to write his set-pieces, like the disastrous dinner cooked by Anatole. Wodehouse describes food – the hearty food of his childhood and the rich French dishes popular in the Edwardian era – with obvious relish. And food may be an indicator: characters with unconventional tastes in food like Sir Roderick are to be treated with caution, while those with a good appetite for ‘proper’ food, like Tuppy and Bingo, are approved of.

Here is a recipe for a Prairie Oyster. It is said to be a cure for a hangover. Mix together a raw egg or yolk, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of vinegar, a dash of tomato juice (optional) and salt and pepper. The drink is swallowed in one go, with the egg/yolk whole. Jeeves apparently adds red pepper and perhaps a secret ingredient.

Pineapple Chunks and Sardines

By Val Hewson

On a school trip to London, when I was about 17, we stayed overnight in a boarding school. The dormitory was just as all the stories described: small cubicles, curtains to divide them, narrow beds and small lockers. We smuggled in, not food, but a bottle of wine. Well, we were pretty grown up, you know. Not so grown up, however, that we remembered a corkscrew. (Here’s a tip: you can dig out a cork with a nail file, but it’s a messy, slow business so don’t try it unless you have to.) The next morning, some of us smuggled the empty bottle out and disposed of it in a bin on the Underground, while others distracted our teacher. Looking back, I wonder if she knew all about it and was kind enough not to say anything.

This was the closest I ever got to a midnight feast. It has been fun to read about them again for Heritage Open Days 2021 and Edible England.

Food is often mentioned in the classic school story. Noisy dining rooms with teachers or prefects serving the meal from the head of the table; going out for lunch or a picnic with parents at half-term; tuckboxes filled with goodies; teashops in town on half-holiday; muffins toasted over the fire in your study; scrumptious teas with the visiting lacrosse team you’ve just thrashed; Frühstück, Mittagessen and Abendessen in the trilingual Chalet School; and of course midnight feasts.

Enid Blyton’s feasts are typical. Here is an example from her St Clare’s series (which I enjoyed reading for the first time in over fifty years for this blog):

‘Let’s have a midnight feast!’ said Pat, suddenly. ‘… I don’t know why food tastes so much nicer in the middle of the night than in the daytime, but it does!’ … ‘Each girl had better bring one thing – a cake – or ginger beer – or chocolate.’

The most lavish contribution was Kathleen’s! She brought a really marvellous cake, with almond icing all over it, and pink and yellow sugar roses on the top.

‘Golly! Pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé’s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger beer!’ said Janet. ‘Talk about a feast!’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

The midnight feast in repeated in most of the novels in the St Clare’s series. Blyton varies the theme: sausages fried on an oil stove; a summer feast by the outdoor pool, with a swim first; theft from the cupboard where the goodies are stored; and the French teacher, Mam’zelle, encountering a sleepwalker, locking up three girls under the impression that they are burglars and failing completely to spot the actual feast.

Blyton clearly enjoys this: the girls contributing biscuits, cakes, sausages and at least one elaborate cake from a tuck-box or the baker’s in town; choosing a venue far away from any teachers’ rooms; secreting everything away in handy cupboards; setting the alarm clock and putting it under someone’s pillow; creeping around in the dark to avoid waking those who are not invited; narrow escapes from discovery and even being caught out.

The food the girls enjoy so much is always the same: sardines and tinned pineapple and biscuits and sausages and cakes frosted with sugar rosettes on top and pork pies and Nestlé’s milk and prawns and ginger beer and chocolate.

Feeling queasy? Well, dear reader, I wrote the list deliberately:

‘Look – take a bite of a sardine sandwich, and then a bite of a pork pie, and then a spoonful of Nestlé’s milk,’ said Pat. ‘It tastes gorgeous.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

Unsurprisingly, some of the girls feel ill the next day:

Matron had some most disgusting medicine. She dosed the girls generously and they groaned when she made them lick the spoon round. … ‘I know these symptoms,’ said Matron. ‘You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 9

The girls do not, however, learn this lesson at least. In The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944):

They ate everything. Carlotta even ate sardines and pineapple together. Alison tried prawns dipped in ginger beer, which Pat and Isabel said were ‘simply super’, but they made her feel sick taken that way. However, the others didn’t mind, and mixed all the food together with surprising results.

‘Nobody would dream that sardines pressed into gingerbread cake would taste so nice,’ said Janet.

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

When two girls are sent to Matron the next day for refusing breakfast and dinner, Matron is not fooled:

‘You are both suffering from Too-Much-To-Eat. A dose of medicine will soon put that right.’

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

The food all seems typical of the period and place (mid-20th century Britain): tinned fruit, tinned fish, fruit cake with icing and ‘lashings of ginger beer’, as Blyton’s Famous Five would put it. It makes the adult stomach curdle but it is one of Blyton’s favourite jokes, calculated to make schoolgirls of the time long for a midnight feast and groan in sympathy at the visit to Matron the next day. 

It’s not, however, just about indigestible combinations of favourite foods. For some poorer readers, the quantity and range of the food described must have been unimaginable. And there is no reference to rationing, even though the St Clare’s series was written and published during World War Two. Perhaps Enid Blyton chose to shield her readers, or was reminding them of happier times (unlike Elinor M Brent-Dyer with her Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol). In reality, when the twins arrived at St Clare’s, sugar, meat, fats, bacon, and some tinned foods were all rationed and a wartime midnight feast would have been a poor thing.

Leaving aside the fun, midnight feasts are one of the ways in which the girls’ characters are formed in Blyton’s books, along with games, lessons, exams, classroom tricks, plays and concerts, parental visits and more. Her St Clare’s is a ‘sensible,’ single-sex boarding school, priding itself on bringing out the best in its girls. The series starts with the arrival of Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, aged about 13, and follows them and their class from the first form to the fifth (that is, from the age of 13 to 17, or so). The sequence is incomplete, however, with three books set in the first form, and one each in the second, fourth and fifth. What happened, you wonder, to the third and sixth forms? After Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945), we hear no more of Pat, Isabel and their friends. Enid Blyton starts the similar but arguably more polished, 6-book Malory Towers series (1946-51). Its main character, Darrell Rivers, is a stronger, more convincing character than the two-dimensional and often absent from the action Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan.

The St Clare’s novels follow the familiar path of school stories. They start at the beginning of the term or year, with old friends re-uniting and a few new girls, or maybe a teacher, to generate plot. The newcomers have difficulty adjusting, or an established pupil gets into trouble. By the end of the term, some girls will have settled, accepted by the school community, while others will not come up to the St Clare’s standard and leave. (In a way, it’s survival of the fittest.) Mischief is accepted:

‘…at some time or another most schoolgirls attend a midnight feast! Do not take too serious a view of it!’

‘In my school days such a thing was not even thought of!’ said Mam’zelle. ‘Ah, we knew how to work, we French girls!’

‘But did you know how to play, Mam’zelle?’ said Miss Theobald softly.

Enid Blyton, The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), chapter 6.

Cheating, stealing, not owning up, pride, malice, bullying, silliness and excessive interest in one’s appearance, however, are generally condemned, by both staff and girls. Being straightforward, honest and honourable are the St Clare’s way. Foreign students, of course, find this difficult – the French girl, Claudine, is sceptical of the English sense of honour:

‘You English girls, you are so serious and solemn and so very, very honourable. The good Miss Theobald, she said to me this morning that one thing I must take back to France with me , one only – the sense of honour.’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 30.

By the fifth form, however, Claudine is beginning to respect the code. To the adult and/or the 21st century reader, the school’s judgements on failure to live up to expectations seem harsh but Blyton’s is a strict moral universe.

‘You are a hard and spiteful woman,’ went on Miss Theobald’s solemn voice [to a temporary Matron who has been unkind to her own children]. ‘This boy and girl need help and comfort, but they would never get it from you!’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 22.

‘[Prudence] has a lot of lessons to learn in life,’ said Miss Roberts, seriously. ‘She has been taught a very big one here, and has learnt for the first time to see herself as she really is – and for two or three weeks she has to undergo the ordeal of knowing that others see her as she is, too. Ah, well – I don’t know how she will turn out. She’s a problem – and I’m glad I haven’t got to solve it!’

Enid Blyton, Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), chapter 20.

The people I know who went to boarding schools generally hated them, and have memories of poor food, strict discipline and even a sub-standard education. Pineapple chunks and sardines are just a lovely dream.

Reading the Recipes

By Val Hewson

In this Heritage Open Days blog, I find that a vintage recipe book unlocks my memory.

I am no cook. I enjoy food but am not particularly interested in the art of preparing it. There are people who read recipe books just for pleasure. Their favourites are worn – loved? – with wrinkled, stained, torn pages. Recipe cards, cuttings from magazines, scraps of paper fall from them. My recipe books sit, clean and mostly unused, on their shelf. But there is one which, though I don’t have a copy, is a stop on my reading journey: Be-Ro Home Recipes (Thomas Bell & Son Ltd, 1957).

My mum had a copy of the Be-Ro book when I was a small child. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was one of the few books in the house, perhaps one of the first I ever saw, and I suppose this is why it is so clear in my mind. The solid Be-Ro logo. The recipe titles in a font that mimics handwriting. Black and white illustrations of cakes, biscuits and pies. Line drawings of women pouring, mixing, beating (and, I see, the only man to feature, shown sitting back, relaxing, as his wife or girlfriend unpacks a picnic basket). Clearest of all to me, the cover photo of a young woman, smiling in her blue blouse and red and white checked apron. Her pose is awkward, half-turning, the Be-Ro book in her left hand and a mixing bowl, measuring jug, cake tin, eggs and, of course, Be-Ro flour on the table in front of her.

Thomas Bell & Son was a Newcastle firm, and this somehow made it special to me as a Geordie. The name came about from a shortening of ‘Bells Royal’, the original name for the company’s self-raising flour and baking powder. In the 1920s, Bells produced the first of their recipe books and distributed them free. This proved to be a brilliant way to establish the brand. There have been about 40 editions over the last hundred years – with updated ingredients and recipes but similar in format – and the name Be-Ro is still familiar.

At least, in my experience, the name is familiar in the north of England and in the Midlands but much less so in the south. When I mentioned it to my Sheffield neighbours, all of a certain age, all northerners, they nodded.

Be-Ro!

I’ve still got a Be-Ro book.  

It helped me learn the basics – making pastry or a sponge cake and that sort of thing. Techniques. And then you could make other things.

Regulo. Do you remember Regulo? My grandkids don’t know what I mean. They laugh.

My mum was a very good cook, who served an excellent Sunday lunch and had a light hand with cakes and pies. She made the best egg custard I’ve ever tasted. But she was not a great one for cookery books. Be-Ro is the only one I remember. My dad liked the food he had always known so there was little call for innovation or experiment. My mum’s skill came from long practice, handed on from her mother or elder sisters. At least, I suppose they taught her. She never said and I never asked.

I do know that our Christmas Cake recipe came from Be-Ro, although my mum always added extra cherries, because I loved them. She never iced the cake, which Be-Ro suggested, as none of us liked icing much. Once made, the cake was put away in a tin until Christmas. A second cake was usually made for my birthday a few months later. Plain fruit cake, perhaps with a slice of cheese, is still my cake of choice.  

Christmas Cake

12 ozs Be-Ro self-raising flour

One teaspoonful mixed spice

4 ozs ground almonds

8 ozs currants

8 ozs sultanas

8 ozs raisins (optional)

4 ozs cherries (halved)

4 ozs peel (chopped)

8 ozs butter

8 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs, beaten with

8 tablespoonsfuls milk

1.   Clean and mix the fruit.

2.   Mix flour, spice and ground almonds.

3.   Beat butter and sugar to a cream in a warm bowl.

4.   Beat eggs and milk together.

5.   Stir in (alternately a little at a time) the flour mixture and eggs and milk, with the butter and sugar.

6.   Add the fruit last.

7.   Mix thoroughly. If a darker cake is desired, add one teaspoonful of gravy browning.

8.   Use a large round cake tin (8” in diameter) lined with greased paper.

9.   Bake about 4 hours, the first hour in a moderate oven (350°-375° F. Regulo 3-4) and then a slow oven (250°-300° F. Regulo 1-2)

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

As I turn the pages, other recipes from 1957 look familiar: scones, drop scones, girdle cakes (‘griddle cakes’ in our house), ginger cakes, sly cake, jam tarts, mince pies, rock cakes, custard tarts and maids of honour. Until I started reading, I had forgotten that my mum used to make all of these. With changing fashions, most of them have disappeared from more recent editions, replaced by carrot cake, lemon drizzle cake and banoffee pancakes.

When she was baking, I was usually allowed to press down the edge of the pastry on the tart my mum was making and to make neat airholes with a fork. She used to let me have some pastry to play with. Kneeling on a chair to reach the table, I would roll the pastry out and turn it and roll it and turn it, until it was grey and sticky. It would be a ‘cake for the birds’, we pretended.

I don’t know what happened to my mum’s Be-Ro. Perhaps it fell apart with use and was thrown out. Or it got lost when she moved house. In her later years, she no longer cooked much, and in any case, after so long, she must have had the recipes by heart.  

Perhaps I should have a go.

Three Rules for Pastry Making

1. Handle it lightly.

2. Keep it cool.

3. Bake it in a HOT oven.

Cool hands, a cool slap, and water as cold as possible help you to produce the best results. Use the finger-tips, as they are the coolest part of the hands. Always mix with a knife. Add the water gradually, using as little as possible, as the pastry should be very stiff. After adding water, avoid adding more flour, as this spoils pastry.

Pastry requires a HOT OVEN. Bake on the top shelf, as this part is the hottest. 

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman for lending me the Be-Ro book, which you can see on display during September at Sheffield Central Library in our Heritage At Home exhibition. The Be-Ro story can be found here.