Review: The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

When I was little my Mum had a huge volume of Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Household Management. She may still have it, I suppose. I can’t remember what we used it for – some of her recipe books fell open to the most frequently used page – but it was always there, this massive tome, containing everything you needed to know about household management, including recipes. I didn’t know, because I’d not read about the subject before I read The Language of Love, that at least a third of these recipes were pinched from Eliza Acton’s book of recipes.

What a cheek, eh? Mrs B is the person who put ingredients lists at the beginning of a recipe but Eliza Acton was the person who created a separate ingredients list in the first place.

The Language of Love begins with the discovery of Mrs Beeton’s act of intellectual property theft and, as such, could give you the impression that it will be a more crime-based volume of warring home cooks. It isn’t. Instead, we go back in time to the writing of Eliza Acton’s book, which took her ten years to complete, with the help of her servant Ann. This book tells their collaborative story.

Abbs has had fun filling in the gaps of all we don’t know, including a strong backstory and family history for Ann, who remains almost completely unknown by history. At the end of the book, she describes what we do know about Acton’s life, and how she has made leaps of imagination to tell a story. It’s a fun read, and brings to life the issues facing unmarried women of middle classes in Victorian times, as well as trying to shine a light on the lives of the poor.

Acton’s father has declared bankruptcy and gone abroad while his wife and child Eliza take in boarders in Tonbridge. Acton has three sisters, two of them respectable governesses and the other married to a doctor, and Acton’s mother is keen that Acton marry a rich man to rescue them all from the horrors of making a respectable living. Instead Acton, who opens the book seeking publication of a book of poems (she has already published one) is told by the publisher that she should write a cookbook and although she initially baulks at the idea, she comes round to the idea of producing something useful to help housewives all over England. This is the time when the first processed foods were being developed (there is an amusing moment where Eliza expresses disgust at custard powder) and there were no agreed standards so there was all kinds of stuff in the bread, for example. Acton wanted to make a difference to the lives of people poorer than her.

Her efforts to do good are regarded sceptically by her servant Ann, who comes from a hovel, her mother in the asylum, her one-legged father reliant on charity and a job in the church graveyard. She knows the horrors of being poor won’t be easily relieved by making a decent loaf but she is also grateful for the food and wages she receives, and for her employer trusting her to help and develop their recipes. So the book is about their relationship, their secrets, and their work.

Having grown up in Kent, I enjoyed the setting especially the mention of Barming Asylum, which is now a conference centre where my Mum worked for a few years. I also loved the cover – isn’t it beautiful?

And it’s written well. My only quibble was that I would have liked to see more interaction between Acton and some of the secondary characters who were based on real people. It may well be that Abbs can follow up this book by looking more at these characters – Lady Judith Montefiore and Fanny Kelly were particularly interesting to me and I think there’s a lot of scope for more there. It also ends rather abruptly, which was a shame.

The Language of Food is published by Simon and Schuster on 3 February and I am grateful to the publishers and Netgalley for this advance copy.

Buy it at Waterstones

Buy it at Bookshop.org

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