On 23 April 1977 Philip Larkin came to lunch at Barbara Pym’s cottage in Finstock, near Oxford. She and her sister had only been living there a short while, after Pym’s retirement from her post in Fetter Lane as assistant editor of Africa; and it was Larkin’s first and, as it turned out, his only visit. After her years in the wilderness, Pym’s novel Quartet in Autumn had at last been accepted for publication: Larkin and David Cecil had independently named her as their choice of ‘most undervalued writer’ in the 75th-anniversary number of the TLS. As Pym’s diary records, they had kipper pâté to start, after sherry; and then ‘veal done with peppers and tomatoes, Pommes Anna, and celery and cheese (he didn’t eat any Brie and we thought perhaps he only likes plain food). He’s shy but very responsive and jokey. He left about 3.30 in his large Rover car (pale tobacco colour).’ The faded paint of the car looked just as she describes it; the car itself was not in fact a Rover but a very second-hand Austin, the largest model – Larkin being well over six feet tall – and was liable spontaneously to catch fire. Changing gears was not his thing, and he valued its automatic gearbox, unfortunately of an early and unreliable type. These matters are in Larkin’s letters, which take the same pleasure in small fact as Pym’s diaries. How commonplace it would be if all we could read about in that diary entry was their current books and poems, and how each was getting on with them, and what they thought about literature today. The occasion would not have been memorable. As it is, it is. And largely because of the food.
I have wondered what Pommes Anna were, or are, since first reading Pym’s diary, and culinary sources have not been helpful; The Barbara Pym Cookery Book gives the answer. The potatoes are sliced thinly, dried in a cloth ‘to remove excessive starch’ (that sounds a bit odd) and layered in an oven dish with butter or marge (Barbara learnt her cooking in the war years) and freshly ground black pepper. Cooking time (325°), at least an hour and a half. I always thought those were called pommes galette, described, oddly enough, in A.S. Byatt’s first (and to my mind best) novel, not in a culinary context but as a dashing simile for dead winter leaves, compacted in layers by the frost, feuilles d’automne galette, as one might say. But, to return to our muttons, it may well be that pommes galette are done in the same sort of way as these Pommes Anna, but with melted cheese.
Anything by Barbara Pym reminds us how much pleasure food in fiction, or at least in a literary context, can give; and it suggests that the experience of real eating can in some contexts be literary too. Hazlitt always remembered Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse because he read it at an inn while eating cold chicken and drinking particularly good coffee out of a silver pot. Toad, of The Wind in the Willows, would not be such a personality if he had not, at a very low point in his fortunes, responded to the wonderful smell of hot cabbage in the ‘bubble and squeak between two plates’ which the gaoler’s daughter had left in his cell. He is much too miserable actually to eat it, but its aroma talks to him of freedom and ‘deeds yet to be done’; and when the kindly girl later brings him tea and hot buttered toast he sips and nibbles, sits up and begins to feel better. Observe the cunning sequence in which Kenneth Grahame presents the effect of food on emotion: first an olfactory promise and suggestiveness, then the real thing, and in basic form. Hot buttered toast is surely what one would dream of on a desert island, rather than caviar and Krug. After serving on a windjammer on one of the last of those three-month sailing voyages to Australia, Eric Newby found he wanted to eat nothing so much as toast, which he pursued and devoured in prodigious quantity.
Being an invalid, even if a self-made one, Mr Woodhouse’s interest in food in Emma is specially keen. One of his chief pleasures in life is recommending dishes to his friends, such as lightly boiled eggs, but only as they are done by his own housekeeper. Another of his pleasures is sending away from the dinner table dishes which he fears might give his guests indigestion. The reader may groan and salivate with disappointment when poor Mrs Bates and her daughter see the asparagus and the sweetbreads borne away because, just as they began to eat, their host conceived that they were not done enough, not quite safe to eat. However, they valued Mr Woodhouse’s kindness, and their free meals as his guests, and so got over their disappointment as manfully as they could. (Mr Woodhouse had a point, though. Asparagus should surely be thoroughly cooked until really tender and mouth-melting, whereas restaurants serve it nouvelle-cuisine fashion, practically raw: no doubt because the colour looks better.)
It is true that food, like literature and sex, is in one sense a cerebral rather than a visceral experience. If the asparagus is bright green and looks good, then it is so: at least for most eaters. Restaurants work on this basis, making choice, description and context all important: the grub as grub would probably be far better at home, but the mind wants a change. In several of Ian Fleming’s thrillers James Bond (who is much more interested in food and drink than in sex and killing people) derides the lyric menus of the American eatery, promising flaky-fresh sole and dawn-tender steak: he never orders anything with his bourbon but eggs benedict, or scrambled eggs and bacon. But there is also poetry in the genuinely exotic. Paul Levy once held out reverently to me between his finger and thumb a small object, of indeterminate colour, and urged me to bite it. It tasted of nothing at all, but when I pointed this out he brushed the objection away with tolerant disdain. ‘That is smoked garlic from the Moscow market,’ he told me. ‘I flew home with it yesterday.’ There was no more to be said.
With her other admirer, and accidental saviour, Pym did enjoy some literary chat, but she also noticed what there was to eat.
19 May. Tea with Lord David Cecil. A comfortable agreeable room with green walls and some nice portraits. They are so easy to talk to, the time flew. We had lapsang tea, brown toast, redcurrant jelly and ginger cake. He told me he had been inspired to write after reading Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (just as I had been inspired by Crome Yellow). He said that Anthony Powell and I were the only novelists he would buy without reading first. A.P. was his fag at Eton ... said he thought comedy was out of fashion now – not well thought of – we agreed on this.
20 May. Seeing a handsome Dorset woman at a petrol pump I thought a Hardy heroine of today might well follow such an occupation. Tess for instance.
Hardy is said to have modelled Tess on a waitress seen in a Weymouth teashop, the sort of place that Pym herself loved to haunt, but neither Tess nor Hardy’s other heroines do much in the way of eating and drinking. Food, like sex, would not have been appropriate for a female character at the time. Unlike food, however, sex can be most present in a novel when it is never directly mentioned: Pym’s novels in this way are as full of sex as Hardy’s. Sex is a little personal mystery which may or may not be taking place, as Jane finds when she vainly interrogates Prudence about the exact nature of her relations with her admirer. What we do know is that when poor Prudence is left high and dry she comforts herself by cooking a solitary meal in her flat – a poussin and a salad nicely dressed with garlic and olive oil – and then finds herself too miserable to eat it.
Steely Virginia Woolf used food ideologically in her books. The great boeuf en daube of To the Lighthouse embodies the texture of the life of a bourgeois family: cook has been two days making it; Mrs Ramsay presides over it; but it is tiresome Mr Ramsay, sulky and self-important at the top of the table, for whom everything has been done, and little he cares. In A Room of One’s Own a Cambridge college invites the author to a heavenly meal, a stately procession of dishes in which the potatoes are ‘thin as coins but not so hard’, the partridges in their béarnaise sauce are ‘dappled like the flanks of a doe’ and the final confection, not to be insulted by the word ‘pudding’, ‘rises all sugar from the waves’. This masculine opulence is presented in sardonic contrast (the date was 1935) with the wholesome fare of a women’s college, where Woolf had to be revived after a grim dinner with something strong out of a bottle.
Food fixes the memory: our own personal one and the one we keep for books. Those meals stood out in Virginia Woolf’s mind, emphasising her awareness of the current state of sexual inequality. Equally pointed in its own way, and as memorable, is poor Becky Sharp’s horrid experience at dinner with the Sedleys in Vanity Fair. The curry is so hot that her tears flow, and seeing this young Jos offers her chillies, which she gratefully accepts because they sound so cool. There is a roar of laughter at her ensuing distress, its heartlessness showing what the family are like, as well as making the little adventuress herself much more human. At one of Pym’s memorable supper parties, in her last and most poignant novel, A Few Green Leaves, a Good Food Guide inspector who used to be a Church of England clergyman recalls ‘a memorable sole nantua’; eaten at a London clergy house, and prepared, as it happens, by the equally memorable gay housekeeper whom we met in the earlier novel, A Glass of Blessings. Pym’s sense of the talk on these occasions is especially apt, indeed almost surrealistic. It is as if pots and pans and other domestic objects were flying awkwardly through the air, as a quiet matron in another novel once notices, some to be caught and returned, some not. On this occasion, the talk having turned to the restaurant inspector’s need for exercise in the course of his exacting job, the rector’s sister recommends long walks, and observes that she often sees fox’s dung while walking in the woods. ‘It’s grey,’ she goes on to tell them, ‘and pointed at both ends.’
In another novel some young male is made to remember with a shock ‘how sharp the nicest women are’. The nearest Pym’s diary comes to sharpness, in a culinary context, was christening a kind of milk jelly ‘Maschler pudding’. This was because Tom Maschler, who had been her editor at Cape, turned down her latest novel at the end of the Sixties on the grounds that it was ‘the kind of thing people no longer wanted to read’. Barbara had no malice, but sharp in her novels and diary she wonderfully was, and the editors have had the brilliant idea of placing suitable quotations between the recipes, to set the pots and pans flying. There we have Emma Howick’s failed omelette – had she omitted to add the needful tablespoon of water? – but as she was making it just for herself and was hungry she didn’t care. And Mrs Cleveland in Crampton Hodnet, who reflects that the young talk about divorce and remarriage ‘as if it were nothing more complicated than mincing up the cold beef and making it into a shepherd’s pie’.
Characters can be what they eat, as I have discovered when trying my own hand at comedy novels, for it helps the would-be novelist to know from the inside, as it were, what his people are up to. As John Francis more elegantly puts it in his Introduction, ‘you feel Pym knew more about her characters than is necessary for us to know, but that these reserves are expended only if essential for her art.’ As Johnson observed to Boswell, you cannot know a person until you ‘have eaten and drunk with him’; and Boswell goes on to report just what he had to eat at the Doctor’s house: ‘a very good soup, a boiled leg of lamb and spinach, a veal pye, and a rice pudding’. What about the drink? Not mentioned, possibly because at that stage of his life Johnson had given up wine and drank dish after dish of tea instead.
Johnson’s point, or its implication, can be as vital for the novelist as for the biographer. The novelist who knows his character’s public and private being and habits is wiser not to reveal his knowledge directly, at least not all of it. In this way Jane Austen knew her Emma, and Tolstoy came to know Anna. When the novelist’s art has made the reader confident of that, he can do the rest for himself. Alain de Botton, a young writer of highly original intelligence, presents in his latest novel, Kiss and Tell, the stylised imaginary biography of an entirely ordinary young woman.Isabel is seen, naturally, in terms of her office, what she buys in the superstore, her fondness for chips and ketchup at Garfunkel’s, and for cooking herself chicken paprika, and later, of ‘the onset of a mild stomach flu, which sent her to bed and a bowl of clear soup shortly after her return home’. So far so good. Here we have what Larkin called ‘a real girl in a real place, in every sense empirically true’. But of course the author does not stop there. Cunningly, he avoids the bedroom, though not the bathroom, and all we know of her possibly more intimate relations with her would-be biographer is that she ‘woke up one morning and got tired of being understood’.
We know what she ate, however (including how she picked her nose, what she found there and what she did with it), and among other overkills her biographer cannot resist surveying her eating habits in terms of his knowledge of more celebrated biographees, and theirs. ‘Sartre had a horror of shellfish ... Forster’s biographers overlook his favourite foods (aubergines, spotted dick) because they choose to locate the essence of his identity in whom he slept with or voted for (young men, the liberals)’. ‘But even within the appetitive realm,’ the author concludes with mock pomposity, ‘meaningful ways of eating would have to be separated from purely contingent ones.’ His book is delightful, but there is no romance in it, and eating – when, where, with whom? – is nothing if not romantic; while of course the whole point of Larkin’s ‘real girl in a real place’ is that the poem makes of her a hauntingly and meticulously romantic figure. As much so as Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn, who was seen in terms of her warm-handled racquet, and her father’s Euonymus. The true romantic eye needs only the accuracy of its own fascinations. ‘It was by loving her that he knew her,’ remarks Henry James of Balzac’s relation with one of his more pestilential characters, ‘not by knowing her that he loved.’
Pym’s characters are in their own way just as romantic, food and drink helping to make them so. She was fascinated by people in cafés and by what they were eating (‘curry and tea at 4 p.m. A late lunch or an early supper?’). She herself would have loved this book, compiled as it is by her sister and a close friend, and beautifully decorated by Frankie Pollak, a stained-glass expert who has made a cover like a jewel, but a jewel composed of lemons and ripe tomatoes with their green stems attached. Ensconced among them is a striped cat who might well be there in honour of Barbara’s own Minerva, a sagacious animal whose preferred diet was ‘custard and fried tomatoskins’.