Book review: The Bloomsbury Cookbook

bloomsburyFor Christmas one of the (many) books I received was Jans Ondaatje Rolls’ The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly keen cook, but this is much more than a recipe book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The rationale behind the book is that the Bloomsbury group, with their friendships and enthusiasm for communal living and intense talk, often did so over food. Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that ‘A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ If their food was inspirational to their conversation, their work and their lives, this is the book to demonstrate that. From tea and biscuits to game, there is a Bloomsbury recipe for every occasion you might imagine, and some you couldn’t.

I’d never really noticed before how much talk of food there is in the novels of Woolf and E. M. Forster, among others, though I had noticed Vanessa Bell’s proclivity for painting still life fruit, eggs etc. Forster commented onfood the food which appears in Woolf’s novels, pointing out her sensuous awareness of taste, creating a kind of epicurean realism for literary ends; given Woolf’s concern with women’s lives (and after all, food preparation was primarily the concern of women), this sets aspects of her novels in a slightly different light. Most of the figures who appear in the cookbook had domestic staff, of course, so if they cooked themselves it was for pleasure, perhaps even an affectation, but Woolf’s enthusiasm for baking bread and Bell’s desire to feed and care for her family, Carrington’s nourishing of Lytton Strachey, demonstrate aspects of their lives which are perhaps less radical than they might have wished.

This is quite an odd book: not academic, not really biographical, it is more VB2of an assortment – like an old recipe book, perhaps, full of titbits, of gossip, anecdotes and suggestions as well as recipes. A consistent narrative of the lives of the Bloomsberries is constructed through the chronological development of the book, divided into chapters based on time periods, and as such it is remarkably wide-ranging. There is plenty here which doesn’t relate at all to cookery,  and some of the links are rather tenuous, but it is written with such joy in food and conversation, and such good humour (there are some very funny anecdotes I hadn’t come across before) that it is a great read. One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the illustrations: it is lavishly full of full-page colour reproductions of paintings, especially by Bell and Duncan Grant, as well as photographs, book covers, pages of recipe books etc. bloomsbury cookbook

The recipes come from various sources, as Rolls points out in her introduction; some from original cookery books belonging to relevant figures, others from contemporary recipes, while a few are of her own devising. I might even try a few, especially the cakes. Rolls points out the appeal of recreating these recipes:

The intimacy of handling the same ingredients, sharing the same smells, textures and tastes as they did, is the closest one can come to dinner tete-a-tete with Bloomsbury.

Using food and cookery as a central domestic theme provides a new wayNPG Ax140432; Lady Ottoline Morrell; Maria Huxley (nÈe Nys); Lytton Strachey; Duncan Grant; Vanessa Bell (nÈe Stephen) by Unknown photographer of looking at these well-researched figures, then. The recent ‘Life in Squares’ indicates that there is still a great deal of interest in the personal lives of the Bloomsbury group, and what is more personal than cooking, eating and sharing food? It might make them seem more ordinary, growing vegetables, preparing them, cooking, eating; but it was all done with such panache and relish, according to Rolls, that it only continues the appeal of the group.

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Life in Squares

Life-in-SquaresWatching ‘Life in Squares’, the new BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, is a matter of watching people self-consciously try to be unconventional, which is slightly painful. Somehow the ‘liberated’ approach in which, as Vanessa Bell says, if we are not free we might as well be our parents (that is, Victorians), seems stifling and uncomfortable much of the time, and I suspect that really is how it was. Freedom doesn’t lead to happiness, is the moral of this series, even if it does lead to changing society and great art.

The title is taken from Dorothy Parker’s quip that the Bloomsbury set ‘lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’, or something like that. The first and the last of these are emphasised more tbellhan the painting, or writing, in ‘Life in Squares’, despite claims that this series was not simply prurient about the lives of those involved (‘sniffing the bedsheets’, according to Virginia Nicholson, a descendant). There is a lot of sex, and conversation, much of it trite, and although we are occasionally reminded of art (a shot of Vanessa Bell painting, Virginia Woolf mentioning her writing) the priority is on relationships.

The so-called ‘Bloomsbury Group’ were a collection of artists, writers, critics, publishers etc (many of them related) who, in the early twentieth century, rebelled against the stuffiness of society, trying to change everything about how we saw the world. Indeed the opening scenes are very late-Victorian, giving the viewer a real sense of what they – especially the Stephen sisters Vanessa and Virginia – wanted to escape from. The first episode set up this sense of a new generation forWoolf (1)ging the way ahead, from the sisters throwing their corsets out of the window to a genuine sense of the women’s desire for what men had – education, freedom, power. This sense is lost somewhat by the second episode, though, as relationships become increasingly tangled and we see ahead to their future beyond the heady days of youth and freedom.

Everything is very loaded; references to future events – Woolf’s depression and eventual suicide; her bisexuality; the death of Vanessa’s son Julian; the future marriage of ‘Bunny’ Garnett and Angelica Bell – these are all alluded to in a way which makes those who know about the events nod knowingly. This seems heavy-handed sometimes, as well as charleston-3_1910932ithe way in which the characters appear so much what I expected that they are almost caricatures of themselves. The series is clearly attempting to do the characters justice, but with insufficient focus on their art it’s difficult to achieve that. The focus on Vanessa Bell is nice, though: it can’t have been easy being Virginia Woolf’s less-famous sister, apart from anything else, so it’s refreshing to see Bell, with her muted sadness, as a central figure (and I have always enjoyed her paintings). The aesthetics are wonderful, too; the clothes, the houses, reflect the post-Victorian-ness of the time, and no doubt will bring further visitors to Charleston, the Bells’ country home. It also perhaps asks the viewer to reflect on whether these somewhat naive fledgling attempts to forge a new kind of society, and a new kind of art, were successful, worthwhile, or doomed from the start. It will be interesting to see if the final episode brings any answers to these questions.

Christina Rossetti’s Gothic

31XvJYSEdGL__I am very excited because my monograph, Christina Rossetti’s Gothic, is published today by Bloomsbury. This book has been a long time coming: it is based on my Ph.D. research, and has been through much rewriting, rethinking and editing to get to this stage. The process of turning a thesis into a book is often a confusing one, but ultimately it has been one that I have enjoyed and learned a lot from.

The book blurb says:

The poetry of Christina Rossetti is often described as ‘gothic’ and yet this term has rarely been examined in the specific case of Rossetti’s work. Based on new readings of the full range of her writings, from ‘Goblin Market’ to the devotional poems and prose works, this book explores Rossetti’s use of Gothic forms and images to consider her as a Gothic writer. Christina Rossetti’s Gothic analyses the poet’s use of the grotesque and the spectral and the Christian roots and Pre-Raphaelite influences of Rossetti’s deployment of Gothic tropes.

Contents: Introduction \ 1. The Spectrality of Rossettian Gothic \ 2. Early Influences: Rossetti and the Gothic of Maturin \ 3. ‘Goblin Market’ and Gothic \ 4. Rossetti, Ruskin and the Moral Grotesque \ 5. Shadows of Heaven: Rossetti’s Prose Works \ Bibliography \ Index.

I have worked on Rossetti for about six years now, and have been reading her poetry for much longer. The impetus behind my research was that so much criticism of her work considers her primarily as shadowed by the Pre-Raphaelites, or as a delicate, sentimental lady-poet whose work is rather sweet instead of fierce. ‘Goblin Market’ has attracted the most attention, of course, and that is quite a fierce p95d30/huch/1282/hk0122oem, but many of her other poems are read, or misread, as sentimental, and this is not the whole picture. Rossetti was very keen on Gothic novels as an adolescent, and these influence her early work directly, when she engages with the novels of Maturin in her poems, and then takes the aesthetics and tropes of Gothic forward into her later work, combining it with her Tractarian faith to create something quite unexpected. Ultimately, I argue in my book, Rossetti sees the world itself as Gothic, and Heaven as the ideal beyond it to which we should aim.

There are many excellent books on Rossetti available, from biographies to scholarly works which engage with particular aspects of her work, and I owe an enormous debt to these writers, though they are too numerous to name.

From my work on Rossetti springs my next project, on graveyard poetry, because through my work on Rossetti’s poetry I became interested in the interactions and relations between poetry and Gothic. I don’t think I can quite bring myself to leave Rossetti behind, however.

The book is available on Amazon.