Swaying at the Stove

Rosemary Hill

  • Elizabeth David: A Biography by Lisa Chaney
    Pan, 482 pp, £10.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 330 36762 5
  • Waiting at the Kitchen Table. Elizabeth David: The Authorised Biography by Artemis Cooper
    Viking, 364 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 7181 4224 1

When Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, many of the ingredients it called for were unobtainable. But even after meat came off the ration, few people can have had much practical need for a traditional Turkish recipe for stuffing a whole sheep. That was not the point. Saturated with description, of figs and aubergines, of fishing boats at anchor in Marseille and paella pans left out to dry in Spanish courtyards, Mediterranean Food brought a beakerful of the warm South to chilly, postwar England.

The manuscript had been rejected by several more literal-minded publishers before John Lehmann, the editor of New Writing, took it on at the recommendation of his assistant, Julia Strachey, Lytton Strachey’s niece. So it was as a literary work, with a lingering glow of Bloomsbury behind it, that David’s first book made its appearance. To draw the jacket and illustrations Lehmann chose John Minton. It was a good choice. Minton, like John Piper, John Craxton and the others sometimes called Neo-Romantics, was an artist who brought a healing lyricism to the English landscape of the late Forties and Fifties. David’s work belonged to the same tradition: it was more about evocation than ingredients and, however foreign the ostensible subject-matter, more about home than abroad.

David was taken seriously in Britain in a way that no previous writer on food had been. She was credited with transforming the national diet and she gave cookery a place in high culture. Evelyn Waugh admired her writing and she was praised, often wildly overpraised, as an author. Lisa Chaney goes so far as to describe her as a highly complex and driven artist. David also managed to make domestic cookery glamorous. No comfortable Mrs Beetonish connotations attached to her striking, much photographed good looks.

The compound of character and circumstance that made her such a figure, though she was far from being the only or even, it could be argued, the best food writer of her generation, emerges from these two biographies. For those of us to whom the very fact of Elizabeth David is a constant reproach – so elegant, so intelligent and always able to do something delicious but simple with an oxtail and a few nasturtium flowers – there is a degree of unworthy comfort to be derived from the facts of her life. Bad-tempered, obsessive and a heavy drinker, she quite liked Uncle Ben’s rice and preferred instant coffee. Though neither the authorised nor the unauthorised Life sets out to debunk her, both books, especially Cooper’s, are candid. In the end there is something endearing as well as reassuring in the image of David swaying at the stove with ash from her untipped Gauloise dropping into the paella.

One friend called her ‘a sort of Lord Chesterfield of food’ but she was more of a Gertrude Jekyll. She reinvented cookery on Arts and Crafts lines as Jekyll reinvented gardening, taking a craft that came dangerously close to manual labour and transforming it into a liberal art. The same thing was happening at about the same time to ceramics. Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, first published in 1940 and hugely popular after the war, offered a similar idyll in its description of the humble lives of Oriental peasant craftsmen to the one David evoked in the olive groves of Greece, appealing to readers who had no more intention of building their own tunnel kilns than David’s had of stuffing a sheep.

David came from the class of English gentry, unorthodox and autocratic, that had been a driving force since the days of the Great Exhibition in reforming every aspect of British life from architecture to corsetry. Born Elizabeth Gwynne in 1913 and christened in the chapel of the Palace of Westminster, she grew up at Wootton Place in Sussex, a Jacobean manor house extended during her childhood by Detmar Blow on Ruskinian principles. Her father, Rupert, was Conservative MP for Eastbourne, occupying himself otherwise with country pastimes: shooting, riding and adultery. Her mother Stella was the daughter of Viscount Ridley, Lord Salisbury’s Home Secretary. It was the women who brought panache to the family: Stella used to travel to Jamaica by banana boat with her friend Princess Marie-Louise and an aunt played the harp at Lenin’s funeral.

When David was ten her father, of whom she remained proud, died. Whether this had anything to do with her later ambivalence about men, or her tendency to gravitate towards raffish, unreliable lovers, is a question neither biographer explores. After Gwynne’s death his children, of whom four daughters survived infancy, were left to the intermittent care of their mother, whose interest in them was benign but slight. David’s passion for cooking never had much to do with domestic comfort or a desire to nurture. Of the sisters only Priscilla went on to live a conventional family life. Diana, as Cooper discovers, committed suicide in middle age, while Felicité and Elizabeth remained childless, the latter militantly so.

The nursery food at Wootton Place, as elsewhere in England at the time, was bland and bad. Adult food, too, was infected by the Edwardian culture of euphemism which tortured furniture and female bodies into implausible shapes, built distended country houses with special ‘bachelor wings’ for surplus uncles and served meringues in the shape of mushrooms. David, like the members of the Bloomsbury Group, reacted against that world, with its neurotic separation of sense from experience, but it took time for her rebellion to focus on food. Women of her class did not cook. Her grandmother could boast that she had never seen the inside of her own kitchen and David herself left home without knowing how to make a cup of tea.

Her first attempt at a career was the stage, but it was the wrong outlet for the combination of sensuality and reserve that made her, and eventually her writing, so attractive. Leslie French remembered her playing a lady-in-waiting in Twelfth Night: ‘you never saw a lady waiting so well or so violently; she had terrific poise, so much poise I feared she would topple over backwards.’ In private life David was less restrained. She never seems to have needed the advice she later got from Norman Douglas to do as she pleased ‘and send everybody to hell’, and stepped outside the social pale with barely a backward glance. As a deb, bored by the Season, she was already telling her sister Pris that ‘very soon’ if Mummie isn’t ‘jolly careful ... I shall become some man’s mistress and live with him’. Soon enough she took up with Charles Gibson Cowan, an actor and writer of rumpled good looks and working-class origins, whose appeal had a frisson of rough trade.

It was with Cowan that David embarked on the most dramatic episode of her life. Just how naive it was to set off for Greece in a small boat, as she and Cowan did in the summer of 1939, is a point neither biographer adequately addresses. By whatever combination of ill-luck and ill-judgment, the pair found themselves in Marseille when Poland was invaded. Realising, eventually, that they were in danger, they decided to sail for Corsica. From there they went to Italy, just as the Italians entered the war. Arrested at sea and held in Sicily for a month, they went, when released, by way of Athens to the island of Syros, whence they fled again, ahead of the Germans, to Crete. In its combination of daring and sangfroid the story reads like a remake of Casablanca with the cast of Brief Encounter – Elizabeth made scenes at strategic moments, while Charles, despite the risk of aerial machine-gunning, notes the ‘perfectly wonderful’ view of the Cyclades.

In Alexandria they parted. Elizabeth spent the rest of the war in Egypt, where she worked for the Ministry of Information and had love affairs. After one of them she wrote to Cowan, who wanted to see her again, that she should prefer not to meet, ‘I never want to feel a scrap of emotion for the rest of my life.’ The following year, apparently in pursuit of this ideal, she married Tony David, an officer in the Indian Army. He emerges as a dim but affable wastrel whose devotion to his wife met with a lukewarm response at the best of times – and they did not last long. She went to India with him after the war, hated it and came back to England alone.

It was in the bitter winter of 1946-47, in a drab hotel in Ross-on-Wye, where she had retreated with George Lassalle, an old flame from Cairo whose marriage had also been a flop, that David began to write Mediterranean Food. She had become increasingly interested in food during her six years of enforced travel, teaching herself to cook, mostly by talking to people and jotting down recipes. In Greece she had improvised a Christmas pudding to entertain the inquisitive Syriotes. Back in Britain she wrote about food with the full force of emotion recollected in austerity, with nostalgia and a sensuality that was positively shocking at a time when making do with bad food was a patriotic duty.

There is often an erotic element in her writing. Her pleasure in food was certainly connected with her enjoyment of sex. It may not, as Cooper says, have been literally true that when they were at sea Cowan used to tie David naked to the mast and whip her, but the mere possibility explains a lot about her ability to make ‘an omelette and a glass of wine’ sound so exciting. Deflected sexuality was another element in the tradition of pastoral romance to which Mediterranean Food belonged. Like Leach’s Japan and William Morris’s Middle Ages, it offered if not an innocent then a simpler world, ‘small and white and clean’, the sort of other Eden with which the English and at times the Scots have consoled themselves ever since they became too powerful as nations to be quite easy in their minds.

David’s reputation grew steadily from 1950 and she used her initial success to campaign for the reform of English cookery. Whatever may have been exaggerated in her reputation there is no overestimating the dreariness of postwar cooking as most people experienced it. Cooper includes some truly lowering suggestions from the Gas Board for ‘Huffkins’ and ‘Fidget Pie’. David took on the makers of convenience food and the industrial bakeries. She pointed out in articles and books that good food could be cheap and easy to make while bad food was often laborious and uneconomic. She became ever more methodical and scholarly about collecting recipes and investigating techniques, making research trips to France and Italy.

The central event of the second part of her life was the creation of the public figure of Elizabeth David, a compound of her own character and postwar ideas of femininity on which she played unselfconsciously but to great effect. She always behaved, as Cooper says, ‘like a married woman’. The menages of her early career were tidied away for the readers behind the bland assurance that ‘Mrs David has kept house in France, Italy, Greece and Egypt’. After the war, more women were cooking for themselves than ever before. Many of those who had employed a cook could now no longer do so; those who had worked outside the home were being urged back into it. ‘The housewife’ was strenuously promoted as an ideal type, with the fitted kitchen the latest thing in suburban interior design.

David’s style marked her out as an anti-housewife. Her ability to raise cookery to the status of an artistic pastime had its origin in the fact that she was so obviously a woman who chose to cook, but didn’t have to. Against the pinny-wearing Ideal Home model she presented an alternative, acceptable to upper-middle-class women, readers of Vogue, and men. Her kitchen, whose contents were auctioned by Phillips after her death, was filled with bits of good china and old furniture, quite innocent of Formica. Being self-taught had made her cooking more original – she found out about food from first principles by following her own tastes – but it also gave the whole notion of cooking some piquancy. She came to it as freshly as William Morris did to weaving, and with some of the same naivety, rediscovering the joys of an ancient craft with no conception of the drudgery associated with it.

Class was terribly important to David’s appeal and the contention that she was an élitist is not, pace Cooper, ‘absurd’. Although she was sincere in her desire to improve everybody’s diet it had to be on her terms. Terence Conran, an admirer, actually brought good, simple design within the reach of a wide public. David dismissed Habitat as ‘Shabbytat’ and ran her own shop on such patrician and unbusinesslike lines that to avoid disaster she had, finally, to be eased out. The apparent simplicity of her methods and ingredients, as with Gertrude Jekyll’s artful ‘cottage gardens’, assumed shared tastes and values. Anybody might be able to afford to cook David’s recipes, but not everybody would understand – the instructions were far from precise – or appreciate them.

French Provincial Cooking, published in 1960, was a much more practicable proposition than Mediterranean Food, yet there was certainly a snobbish tinge to the growing cult of Elizabeth David. As the Fifties wore on and austerity wore off, the range of food in the shops improved. More people travelled to the Continent, bringing back earthenware and espadrilles and competing madly to be simpler than their friends. ‘Why not,’ Flanders and Swann suggested in ‘Design for Living’, hitting the disingenuous element in all this head-on, ‘get hold of an ordinary Northumbrian spoke-shaver’s coracle ... and hang it up as a guitar-tidy for parties?’

David’s life revolved increasingly around her work, to which she took an increasingly scholarly approach. Her marriage finally sputtered out, and the house in Halsey Street in Chelsea filled up with books until only the kitchen and bedroom were usable. She continued to drink hard, to have intense friendships with women – which often ended in quarrels – and to love men who let her down. Her sister Felicité rented the top part of the house, a somewhat pathetic figure who typed her sister’s books, helped with the research and admired her success without aspiring to it.

In 1976 Felicité was taken to hospital, suffering from, among other things, malnutrition. The awful irony of the great cook with a starving sister in the attic was not lost on David, who dreaded people finding out. Yet Felicité’s plight was perhaps not as much a direct comment on her admittedly selfish and overbearing sister as a negative image of the same picture. For whatever oblique reason, eating was of neurotic significance for both. Neither Chaney nor Cooper makes simplistic deductions about the role food played in their subject’s psychological make-up, but it was the one thing that never failed her.

David always said that there was no point writing her biography because everything important about her was in her own books. The more Cooper and Chaney amplify the facts the more they confirm the essential truth of that. Certainly all that was most attractive about her was in her work. Biography, however, provides context and it was context that made David what she was. Cooper’s ‘authorisation’ means that her version is to be preferred when it comes to specifics and the naming of lovers. She has a cool, light touch – the literary equivalent of good pastry-making – that suits her subject without indulging her. Chaney is more inclined to overegg, putting in too much and rushing things towards the end. This is a pity, for she has more subtle insights into David’s background than Cooper and, to make up for the lack of personal documents, has talked at greater length to friends. One of them, David’s doctor Patrick Woodcock, points out that ‘in her way she knew herself to be a great comic figure.’ It would have helped if David’s biographers had shared that perception.

After the failure of her last important love affair, David suffered a cerebral haemorrhage from which neither her sense of taste nor, she said, her libido ever fully recovered. She became physically ever frailer until her death in 1992. Although her fame continued to the end, it was on the books of the Fifties and Sixties, and the transformation of postwar cookery, that it rested. Some followers were disappointed that her interest in later years turned to English cooking and the mature comforts of English Bread and Yeast Cookery, published in 1977. To research it she returned to the Sussex of her childhood. She also rejoined, explicitly, the antiquarian tradition of which she had always been a part. In her use of the writings of Kenelm Digby and Eliza Acton, in her appeal for a lost integrity of English life, she brought the Gothic Revival to food and her own work full circle.