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).

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.

An Appetite to Read

By Mary Grover

We could not write about literary food without looking at our own Sheffield readers. Here from the interviews we recorded with Sheffielders born between 1920 and 1945…

When the Reading Sheffield team asked Sheffield readers what they liked to read, we often learned about what they liked to eat and how they combined eating and reading.

Comics, in particular, were described as a kind of food. Frank Burgin ‘ate comics’ and Josie Hall describes how her father ‘used to come home from work with a big pile of second-hand comics, and it was like manna from heaven: I just used to fall on them.’ 

For most of our readers, reading was an appetite, if not a craving.

Josie’s Mum had to wrest her book from her hand in order to get her to the lunch table: it was food or the book. Josie talks about reading as an addiction.

Oh yes, I’ve never smoked in my life but I know people who have and I actually do, I can, go into a panic if I haven’t got any reading material to hand or a book.  I have to take one everywhere, dentist’s, doctor’s, all waiting rooms and I can just blank off.  Even while the children have been playing on slot machines at the seaside I had to be in a corner, reading this book.  People must think I’m insane.  I panic if I haven’t got a book and I just think, “Yes, they’re your cigarettes”.  Where other people have to have a cigarette I have to have a book.  And I know which I’d rather choose. (Laughs) It’s a lot healthier.

Josie Hall

For a working woman or a mother with a day ahead full of housework and childcare, a solitary meal could be a precious opportunity to combine the compulsion to read with the necessity of eating. What Josie chose to eat for lunch was governed by whether it could be combined with holding a book:

I always have a sandwich at lunchtime and I know that the attraction of the sandwich is that I can read while I’m having lunch.

Doreen Gill who left school at fifteen to work as a cashier at Firth Brown’s used to read at her desk in the lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’. The crumbs of her sandwich would creep in between the pages of Nevil Shute novel, a story by Edgar Allen Poe or a play by Terence Rattigan.

Doreen Gill

For the young servant in the vicarage of the Sheffield district of Park, the attraction of the lunch hour was that she used to have the house to herself while the housekeeper slumbered. ‘She was a proper giant to me’. Jessie Robinson at the age of 14 would tiptoe up to the study of the absent vicar and explore his copies of ‘the London papers’. When she was caught getting above her station in this way she was redirected by the giant herself to the vicar’s own copies of Dickens. 

St John’s Park Vicarage, Jessie’s grim workplace (reproduced by permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives)

‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her, even her resentment gave me a gift and I love Dickens’ characters.  .. she let me take them home.

So Dickens was suitable food for a working class girl while the London papers weren’t.

Perhaps the most remarkable way in which a meal provided an environment in which books could be accessed was the experience of the fifteen-year-old Frank Burgin who found himself in late 1940s eating dinner in a grand house near Stratford-upon-Avon and discussing his reactions to an Ernest Hemingway novel with his fellow apprentices.

Frank Burgin

‘A holiday was it?’ asked Loveday, his interviewer.

Oh God, no.  It was a course. You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

A few weeks before the weekend away Frank got given an Ernest Hemingway, the title of which now escapes him, but the memory of that evening does not.

I talked about it. I presented it. I can remember doing it. I’m sure very very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue-tied and say, ‘Aye, well it were crap’, like some did.

When Frank was asked why he thought the training officer had encouraged the boys to read, he replied,

It was to get us away from the back page of the ’Star’ and things like that. I mean they hadn’t invented page 3 then. No, it was all done to make us think. Some of us did think. It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was there. I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.

The posh catering, the discovery that he could talk in public about a novel he had read and the fact that a training officer thought it worth the boy’s while to read the novel changed the way Frank thought about reading and he became an avid reader. Somehow his tepid reaction to Hemingway prompted him to explore other pre-war writers and he came across the novels of Graham Greene, ‘who I did relate to’.

Frank, the boy who ‘ate comics’ became not only a wide reader but a student of physics. Having left school at 14 he was the only one of our readers to have gained a PhD.

Perhaps the most heartfelt appreciation of a set-text I have ever heard, was from a student who used a food metaphor. When I first started teaching the Sheffield Further Education College in the 1980s, I was lucky enough to have an English Literature class full of women who had returned to education after years of cooking, cleaning and caring for children. The GCSE set-text was J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. When we had finished reading it through, one woman sighed appreciatively and announced, ‘Now that’s a right meat and potato pie of a book’. She knew what had ‘gone into’ that play and savoured the skills of the dramatist who had crafted it.

Here’s a recipe I found earlier: Meat and Potato Pie with a Chunky Suet Crust.

Any Bread, Cake or Pie?: Walter Greenwood’s Hungry Thirties

As a contrast to his blogs on the privileged Evelyn Waugh, Emeritus Professor Chris Hopkins writes about hunger in Depression-hit Salford.

Walter Greenwood (1903-1974) is mainly remembered for his novel, Love on the Dole (1933), subsequently adapted into a very successful play (1935) and then a film version (1941). That novel certainly has references to the severe deprivation of Salford people in the nineteen-thirties. The working-class intellectual, Larry Meath, often thinks about the systematic problem people have even when in skilled work:

Forty-five bob a week … so that you might have a hovel for shelter, an insufficiency of food, and five bob over for to clothe yourself and the missis in shoddy.

Love on the Dole, Vintage edition in kindle version, p. 150; all subsequent page references are to this edition.

Other characters know the truth of this experientially, if not in the abstract, and that things have got even worse since unemployment has bitten since the Depression in 1929. Mrs Hardcastle laments that with her husband and son both out of work, she cannot pay off the instalment she owes on her son Harry’s suit, since ‘there ain’t a bite of food in house for their teas’ (p. 164). At the novel’s protest march against cuts to the dole and the meanness of the Means Test regulations, the marchers carry placards saying, ‘Not a Penny off the Dole’ and ‘Hands Off the People’s Food’ (p.201). This sustained sense of not having of enough to eat is there throughout the novel, in a low-key way: it is part of the tragedy that it is what the people of Hanky Park have come to expect and accept as best they can.

However, Greenwood also wrote a story a few years later which focused wholly on the experience of hunger during the thirties, and especially on a very hungry child. The story was called Any Bread, Cake or Pie? and he wrote it in nineteen-thirty-seven for a new collection of short stories called The Cleft Stick (with illustrations by the artist Arthur Wragg, Selwyn & Blount, London, 1937).(1) The central character in the story is called Harry Waring, and in all conventional ways he is presented unsympathetically. He has learnt to fend for himself, and has become the ‘cock’ (that is champion fighter) of his whole school. Inside and outside school, his first instinct is always to use his physical strength and aggression to get what he wants. That is presumably what life in Hanky Park has taught him. His main ambition is to leave school, which he can do in two months’ time, when he is fourteen, so that he can become an apprentice at Marlowe’s engineering works, and ‘maybe then, when he was earning real wages … his days of hunger would be over’ (p.183). Nearly all his dreams, apart from being paid by Marlowe’s, are equally about food. He remembers a café where he had a memorable feed funded by the contents of a purse he found, If that happened again, he would have ‘steak and some onions; then a thick chunk of cake and some ice-cream … aye and some cigarettes and then I’d go to the pictures’ (p.188). He wishes he were older so he could rob shops with the help of a gun. He even tries to manufacture another found purse incident, except that this time he steals one from a woman’s pocket, only to find it contains only three ha’pence and a bundle of pawn-tickets. He cunningly thinks that if he returns it to the address on the pawn-tickets, he might get a reward greater than the three ha’pence. Alas, this goes wrong when the woman’s husband answers the door, grabs the purse and slams the door.

All he can do is to continue to use his wits, his lack of scruple, and his muscle to try to get more to eat:

YOUNG HARRY WARING WAS RAVENOUSLY HUNGRY. HE ALWAYS was hungry. He had sat all the afternoon in the classroom with that awful feeling of emptiness distracting him from what the teacher had been saying. He had been rebuked for inattention, but he did not care. For two pins he felt he would have bashed the teacher who was a small weedy individual whereas Harry was ‘cock’ of the school: he could fight and beat any of the other boys, and to be admitted to membership of his gang in North Street was a much-sought-after-privilege.

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 183.

Harry is clearly not alone in having to look after himself and in being an under-fed growing child – he searches for food with his small gang of other boys, and that group meet many other boys all out on the streets seeking any chance to eke out their inadequate diet at home. Harry is a bully, and thinks nothing of thieving from shops (he manages to eat some raw bacon scraps he grabs from a grocer’s), and from other (also ill-fed) boys, to assuage his constant hunger. The boys have learnt that they can sometimes beg uneaten scraps of ‘bait’ (packed lunch) from the men who are in work by chanting ‘bread, cake or pie’ outside Marlowe’s works when the hooter signals the end of the working day. However, today is Thursday and the pickings are likely to be poor – the remains of the weekend joint have been eaten in sandwiches earlier in the week, and ‘today the most you could hope for was a few pieces of bread and butter, dry from having been immured all day in the pocket of a jacket hung up in the engineering shop’ (p.187). One boy is lucky and is given a package by a man leaving the works – the boy is sharing it out when Harry steals the whole package and runs off with it: ‘it tasted good. Beef-dripping sandwiches with plenty of salt on. But it only put a keener edge on his appetite’ (p.187).

In his efforts to get food at Marlowe’s he misses tea at home, but returns asking if his tea has been kept for him. His mother has done her best, but is pre-occupied with finishing the washing job which will bring in some money:

She answered that his ration was in the cupboard, that he would find tea in the pot, but that there wasn’t any milk left. He found two thick slices of bread and margarine on a plate. He ate them sulkily … .

Walter Greenwood, Any Bread, Cake or Pie?, p. 188.

At the end of the story when all his strategies have given him only a few scraps, we leave him at night-time and see him not so much as a selfish bully – though he is that due to his circumstances and upbringing – but as the hungry child he also is, weeping from hunger: ‘His head sank on to his crooked arm, and he began to blubber unrestrainedly: “I’m ‘ungery … I’m ‘ungery …’ (ellipses sic, p.193).

The illustration is on unnumbered pages between pp. 184 and 185 of the story (photograph taken by the author from the copy of the book in his collection).

Here is the double-page illustration which the Sheffield-trained artist Arthur Wragg (1903-1976) drew to go with the story. It is a phantasmagoric, expressionist illustration which shows in one scene the contents of Harry’s day as it is reflected in his mind – a scene full of images of his travels through Hanky Park since his dawn paper-round, and of the food he has wanted, but has not been able to eat: eggs and bacon, pies, fish and chips. The dejected figure at the centre of the image is the defeated Harry, cock of the school, but still very hungry, and weeping for hunger.

Chris Hopkins’ blog about Walter Greenwood is here.

NOTES

Note 1. For the only published article discussing this work by Greenwood and Wragg see: Full article: ‘The Pictures … Are Even More Stark Than the Prose’ (Sheffield Telegraph, 2 December 1937): word and image in Walter Greenwood and Arthur Wragg’s The Cleft Stick (1937) (tandfonline.com). Note 2. Harry’s inability to concentrate at school due to hunger should be something only from history, but recurrent reports from teachers and a report sponsored by Kellogg’s suggest that it is an issue which has returned. See R2_Kellogg_A_Lost_Education.pdf (kelloggs.co.uk) (2013) and reports in the Guardian such as this one from 2019: Tired, hungry and shamed: pupil poverty ‘stops learning’ | Education | The Guardian.

Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘the Period of Soya Beans and Basic English’(Part 2)

Posted on  by Val Hewson

By Chris Hopkins

Here is Part 2 of our literary food blog on Evelyn Waugh, by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, Revised Edition, 1959.

In November 1943, having been unwillingly transferred from the Marines to the Royal Horse Guards, and after having tried unsuccessfully to join the SAS, Waugh was sent on a parachuting course, though he was then forty years old. He actually enjoyed very much the sensation of jumping from an aircraft. However, in landing from one jump, he fractured his leg, and was given a period of leave to recover (eventually extended unpaid until June 1944) during which he began a new novel, to be published as Brideshead Revisited in 1945. (1) It is a novel filled with nostalgia and about nostalgia, but by no means without a critical if idiosyncratic theological framework. Even before this, in a diary entry for 29 August 1943, Waugh had written of his now changed feelings about Army life and of his urgent need to return to his work as a writer. It is perhaps particularly significant that he used a metaphor based on wine-production and cellarage to talk about how he saw the relationship between his experience and his writing at this point:

I dislike the Army. I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body. I wrote to Frank [Pakenham] very early in the war to say that its chief use would be to cure artists of the illusion that they were men of action.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, p. 548; also quoted in Eade, pp. 320-1).
In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

The vintages must be used at the correct time if they are not to spoil. Unlike his novels of the thirties and even his 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags, this new novel is not mainly about the now, about the modern and modish, but was to be a reflection, Proustian in some respects, on the decades of the twenties and thirties, and their relationship to the wartime present, as well as on various specific lives in the light of eternity and ‘divine grace’ (Preface, location 2). Perhaps in terms of the novel’s larger ambitions, its treatments of food and drink are not primary, but they are nevertheless prominent, and a key part of the work’s atmosphere. As Waugh saw, looking back from the perspective of nineteen-fifty-nine, what he and many others experienced as privations of personal pleasure and indeed style influenced the way the novel recalled the recent past. Here are some of Waugh’s reflections in 1959 on the time when he wrote the novel:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book

Evelyn Waugh, Preface, location 8.

The connections Waugh makes between food and wine and other matters of style is notable. Nineteen forty-four is the period of ‘soya beans’ and of Basic English, both, in Waugh’s view, drastic reductions to full and proper ways of living. The Soy Info Centre’s invaluable time-line on the History of Soya Beans in Britain and Ireland explains that:

During and after World War II soy flour is used extensively as a substitute for meat, milk, eggs and flour in a vast array of foodstuffs … [it] developed the image of a bad-tasting ersatz foodstuff, and the English came to dislike any food with the name ‘soy’ attached to it, in part because of poor product formulations and the use of low-quality soy flour (2).

Basic English was clearly considered by Waugh a linguistic or stylistic equivalent to soya beans, wholly unable to substitute for the real thing. The idea of Basic English was formulated by Charles Kay Ogden in his book, Basic English: a General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1932). Basic English was not intended to replace English as a natural language, but to be used by speakers of English as a second language, and to make international communication in English clearer and simpler. This second aim was associated during the war with an idea that Basic English could help sustain world peace in a post-war world. Basic English simplified English by reducing the number of words, both verbs and nouns, while retaining a more-or-less ‘natural’ word-order. Ogden argued that most everyday communication could be readily managed with only eighteen verbs and a core vocabulary of two-thousand words. These precepts are still in practical use – notably in the Simple English Wikipedia (3). Orwell based the ‘constructed language’ of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949) on Basic English, fearing its potential for restricting not just free speech, but the expression of free meaning. Clearly, Waugh too saw Basic English as an impoverishment of natural English, and a sign of the times.

Brideshead Revisited certainly does use a more purple prose than Waugh had ever used before (except in the way of parody), but as Waugh realised, this was not just an incidental feature, but something deeply embedded in the conception of the novel. Here for example is the nostalgic opening of chapter one of Book One, which follows on from the much more austere Prologue, and which describes Captain Charles Ryder’s unexpected return to Brideshead when the Army sends his unit there:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were cloudy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of particular splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest (location 229). (4)

Strictly-speaking, purple prose is always a critical term, indicating a prose style which is so excessively decorative that it inevitably fails to hold the reader’s attention or to construct a clear meaning. In that sense, Waugh’s prose here is not purple, because it surely does work superbly in its context, but it is perhaps nearly as rich and ornamental as you can get before turning purple.

It was Waugh himself who made the connection between rationing, food and style in the novel in his Preface, and indeed there is a richness about the description of food in the novel which is equivalent in many ways to the novel’s love of the nostalgic, emotional and rhetorical charge of the past. Of course, the food recalled was indeed at the time a Remembrance of Things Past. Here is the most elaborate description of food, (French) cooking, and wines in the novel. As a foil to Charles Ryder’s knowledgeable enjoyment of this superb meal in Paris is Rex Mottram, who pays for the meal, but does not at all understand its quality:

I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille [sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (locations 2420 and 2470). (5)

Perhaps one would not want to consume such prose all the time, but given the drabness of wartime rationing (which of course went on into the later nineteen-fifties), this response is not mere gluttony, but a heroic recreation of fine food, of food as art (even if Waugh’s own war was not entirely deprived of some decent food and wines – though I personally suspect that entire bottle each of 1920 Dow’s may have been a mistake, in terms of both style and appreciation of the virtues I imagine it to have possessed).

Read Part 1 here.

NOTES

Note 1. See Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, pp. 321- 327 for some of Eade’s account of Waugh’s military career during this period, including a quotation from a letter to Laura Waugh about his enjoyment of parachuting.

Note 2. See History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the United Kingdom and Ireland (1613-2015) – SoyInfo Center, based on a book of the same title by William Shurtleff and Akiko Ayoyagi (Soy Info Centre, 2015), which can be downloaded in full from the site.

Note 3. Information drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Basic English, which also gives links to Basic English word-lists still in use in various contexts and indeed in the Simple English Wikipedia. See: Basic English – Wikipedia.

Note 4. Some indication of the nature of Waugh’s post-war editing can be seen by comparing the 1945 original of this quotation with the 1959 revision:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

(Readers Union with Chapman and Hall unrevised edition, London, 1949, p.15; 1945 editions are not that easy to obtain, being quite collectable; I have underlined textual differences between the 1945 and 1959 versions here, and again in Note 5).

Note 5. In the 1945 version, the first quoted paragraph is identical, but the second had a considerable expansion which spoke of the impossibility of describing a fine wine in its own terms, and saw all such accounts as influenced by the describer’s own emotions:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (p. 135).

A concise overview of the textual complexities of Brideshead Revisited across its manuscripts and editions is given in Robert Murray Davis’ ‘Notes Towards a Variorum Edition of Brideshead Revisited’, in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 2, part 3, p.4 (12/1/1968).

Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘My Last Case of Claret’ (Part 1)

By Chris Hopkins

Today our literary food blog is taken over by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, for a two-parter on Evelyn Waugh.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, revised edition, 1959.

Philip Eade, one of Waugh’s most recent biographers, writes that Waugh was ‘repelled’ by ‘the abysmal wartime food as a result of which he experienced real hunger for the first time in his life’ (1). He and a fellow officer refused to eat the sheep’s heart served to them in one billet in March 1942 – they were told they must then find their own food in future (2). Some, of course, might consider these experiences a potentially beneficial experience for an author whose social attitudes were not always inclusive. However, like many others with the wherewithal, Waugh did his best to ameliorate wartime conditions wherever possible, and being myself fond of fine cooking, I am inclined to sympathise to an extent with his wartime food and wine cravings, at least. Sometimes, especially early in the war, his pessimistic culinary expectations were not met. Eade reports that when in early December 1940 Waugh went to join the Royal Marines at Chatham as a lieutenant (his application having received ‘strong’ support from Winston Churchill), he wrote to his wife Laura about a welcome surprise:

The food is absolutely excellent … on the first evening there was a cold supper on account of a play which was being given to us in our own theatre. I was led to the supper table with profuse apologies, and found lobster, fresh salmon, cold birds, hams, brawn, exactly like the cold table at the St James’s. Afterwards, several rounds of excellent vintage port. (p. 284).

In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

Things were, of course to get worse, as pre-war cellars and stocks were eaten into.

Lieutenant and then Captain Evelyn Waugh’s diary for the war years refer to meals taken as a guest at friends’ houses, as well as in restaurants and at his club, White’s. Some meals are judged as good, others as bad, but generally little further detail of what was eaten is given. However, what he and fellow diners drink is always recorded in detail, as are any cigars smoked. For example, here is part of his diary entry for the weeks from 1 April to Saturday 11 April, 1942:

[arrived at a dinner-party] rather tipsy from drinking champagne at White’s [club], where wine is now rationed – no port in the bar and only one glass in the coffee room (pp.519-20).

Or for 12 October 1942:

I have reached my last Havana cigars – fifty left in reserve. And my last case of claret (p. 529).

Or for 24 October, 1942:

Basil and I drank a bottle of Dows 1920 before dinner and another after it (p.529).

Or for 3 April, 1944:

drank a great deal of good wine which is getting scarcer daily but still procurable by those who take the trouble (p.561).

Part of the diary entry for 4 May 1944 is an exception, for the whole menu and accompanying wines are detailed, perhaps because Waugh as host is (justifiably) proud of its splendour, four years into rationing:

That night —- and John Sutro dined with me. I gave them a fine dinner – gulls’ eggs, consommé, partridge, haddock on toast, Perrier Jouet ’28, nearly a bottle a head, liqueur brandy, Partaga cigars – an unusual feast for these times (p. 562).

In uniform. Evelyn Waugh by Howard Coster. Circa 1940. National Portrait Gallery collection. Creative Commons licence.

Waugh generally-speaking seems to have managed to find wine and more-or-less decent food throughout the war, no doubt because he had the right contacts, and spent some of his literary income on the matter. In his diary entry for his thirty-ninth birthday, in addition to parenthood, he certainly thought wine (and cigars) worth mentioning and seemed to have enjoyed both on the majority of days in that war-time year:

A good year. I have begotten a fine daughter, published a successful book [Put Out More Flags], drunk 300 bottles of wine, and smoked 300 or more Havana cigars. I have got back to soldiering among friends … health excellent except when impaired by wine.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, 28 October 1942, p. 530. Also quoted by Eade. p. 315).

However, this does not mean he was not feeling the effects of rationing (as well as wine) – he was a bon viveur with a strong liking for French wines and cuisine in particular – and Europe was, of course, completely cut off for most of the war so that new supplies of many luxuries were often unobtainable. In Part 2 of this blog, we shall see how rationing affected not just Waugh’s dining habits (to an extent), but also his literary style.

Read Part 2 here.

NOTES

Note 1. Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, p.73, in a kindle edition. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given in the text.

Note 2. The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1976, p.531, entry for Saturday 20th March 1942. All subsequent diary references are to the same edition and page numbers will be given in the text.

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.