Mary Russell Mitford was a remarkable woman of letters. Her father was a less than admirable character from a Thackeray or Trollope novel. A man who can squander £70,000 in a lifetime in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century on little more than gambling of various kinds and, of course, personal luxuries must be described as quite remarkable as well.
He was clever, selfish, unprincipled and extravagant, with an unhappy love of speculation, and an equally unfortunate skill at whist. He squandered altogether in his lifetime about £70,000 and, finally, became entirely dependent upon his daughter's literary earnings. William Harness, who knew the family well, and was Miss Mitford's lifelong friend, heartily disliked him and called him "a detestable old humbug" but his many failings never succeeded in alienating the affections of his wife and daughter.It seems his highly talented and very hard working daughter adored him and her invalid mother and, apparently, did not mind wrecking her own health by very hard work, writing for money and running a house that seems to have been quite charming and completely insanitary.
She wrote plays that were produced in London by and with leading actors such as Charles Kemble and dramatic poetry. But the need to earn money with her pen turned her attention to what became her most successful literary output: sketches about village life.
Her inimitable series of country sketches, drawn from her own experiences at Three Mile Cross, entitled 'Our Village,' began to appear in 1819 in the 'Lady's Magazine,' a little-known periodical, whose sale was thereby increased from 250 to 2,000. She had previously offered them to Thomas Campbell for the 'New Monthly Magazine,' but he rejected them as unsuitable for the dignity of his pages. The sketches had enormous success and were collected in five volumes, published respectively every other year from 1824 to 1832. Editions of the whole first appeared in 1843.Miss Mitford and her village became so popular that her house and other landmarks were pointed out by passing coachmen and tours were organized to see Three Mile Cross otherwise known as Our Village. She became part of the literary scene though she stayed in the village with some visits to London. Her health became worse and worse, partly because of overwork, partly because of living conditions and partly because of a series of accidents.
After her parents died she removed to a somewhat more sanitary cottage, owned by her friend Lady Russell of Swallowfield Park and continued writing stories, sketches, letters and several volumes of autobiographical gossip, which I shall find and read. Undoubtedly, it will be entertaining. All this despite being partially paralyzed after yet another carriage accident.
Our Village is enchanting reading. It is not exactly nostalgic in that a good deal of what she describes is hard living and hard working. It is also life that was already disappearing when she wrote about it (as is so often the case) with spreading industrialization and a growing reluctance on the part of the rural population to know its place in life. But the description of various flower, berry and nut collecting, of the games of cricket, the vivid description of the various characters, young and old, will stay with the reader of these sketches and will draw that reader back again and again.
October is full of battle anniversaries and this one is extremely important. The history of this country and, let us not mince matters, of Europe changed on October 14, 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy and his French/Viking army defeated Harold Godwinson and his Anglo-Saxon army. The battle lasted the whole day, which as this article points out, is a long time for mediaeval engagements. Both sides fought valiantly, with the Normans finally securing victory by pretending to retreat.
The article has one of those jocular titles that we have all become used to: Battle of Hastings 950 year anniversary: the 9 things you might not know. Well, the first thing we might not know is that the anniversary falls on Saturday as it does not - it falls on Friday, that is today. The second thing we might not know, though too many people believe it, is that it was the last successful invasion of England. For some reason Henry Tudor's invasion with a French army, bolstered by some traitors and William of Orange bringing over far more Hollanders than expected are always forgotten.
Today, we must think of the Battle of Hastings, its place in the various changes in Europe in the eleventh century, the Viking expansion and the history of England as it emerged from the continuing battle between the Normans and Saxons. Here is another account and a more detailed one. But, perhaps, the best written and most imaginative interpretation of the tale are the first four stories and poems in Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill.
Yes, I am talking about the Battle of Lepanto, which took place 445 years ago yesterday. Sorry to have missed the exact anniversary but it is only a semi-significant one. As we can read in the Britannica: "The battle marked the first significant victory for a Christian naval force over a Turkish fleet and the climax of the age of galley warfare in the Mediterranean." The Battle of Salamis may have been as important but others, big though they were, are second-rank.
I wrote about its significance before but find it hard to resist the call of G. K. Chesterton's poetry though he claimed more than either the battle or Don John of Austria had actually achieved. But, really, who cares? This is a poem, not a history book.
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
The story is quite fascinating and puts to pay the notion that somehow politics was a much more gentlemanly affair when it was run by “gentlemen”. The Salisbury/Northcote fight with Churchill was anything but gentlemanly. In the end, Churchill lost not because he was a nicer person but because, seduced by apparent party adulation, he could not envisage anybody outmanoeuvring him as Salisbury did. Lord Randolph Churchill, it seems, believed that he was indispensable – the most dangerous delusion any politician can have.In the end, as we know, Lord Randolph lost the battle because he forgot about Goschen. In 1886 the enfant terrible of the Conservative Party resigned from the Chancellorship, assuming that he was irreplaceable. Lord Salisbury disillusioned him on the subject.
So, cookery books, their history and the history of food that they describe. Readers (if there are any left) will recall that I find the history of food and historic recipes quite fascinating and often read cookery books and books about cooks and cookery writers for pleasure. Recently I was thinking that books which provide interesting background to the food and recipes fall into three very obvious categories: books that is a pleasure to read but one never cooks from and I have to admit all of Elizabeth David's books are in that category, books that are interesting merely for their recipes, and the third and best category of all, the ones that are a pleasure to read and whose recipes one tries out and uses over and over again.
One such book is George Lang's The Cuisine of Hungary that gives a fascinating history of food in Hungary, talks of the various regional specialities and customs surrounding them. And when one has read all that one can cook the food. My own copy has sadly become a badly stained collection of pages that seem to fall out whenever I pick up the volume to cook or bake something from it.
Another rather surprising book in that category is Elinor Fettiplace's Receipt Book, edited by Hilary Spurling. It is a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century recipes put together by Lady Fettiplace in the early years of the latter and handed down in the family till it arrived in the hands of John Spurling who handed it over to his wife. It is a fascinating piece of social history based on those receipts and marginalia but I have cooked a good deal from it.
Elisabeth Ayrton's The Cookery of England, I believe, will fall into the third category as well. I have just finished reading it with great interest. She has collected traditional recipes of various parts of England (she has also another book about England's regional food) and of various period from both published and unpublished sources. As it happens, the publication of cookery books has been of importance in England since the sixteenth century and women authors produced notable examples from an early period. Ms Ayrton has also looked at domestic accounts of a few large houses to calculate how much was used of what ingredient and how much was bought from outside.
This is not as detailed a books as Hilary Spurling's, which concentrates on the cooking and distilling of just one household for a century or so. Ms Ayrton ranges further geographically and historically, having as her aim, the need to show that English food was not always bad or uninteresting. The book was first published in 1974 when this still seemed a rather outlandish idea. Since then, as we know, people have been rediscovering traditional English food and updating it to more modern tastes. We have Elisabeth Ayrton and Hilary Spurling (as well as Elizabeth David and sundry others) to thank for that interest and development.
Meanwhile, there are some interesting fish soups, an eighteenth century recipe of celery in cream as well as an intriguing hot cucumber in cream to try. And that is before I get to the glory of English cooking: pies and cakes.
One could argue that this has little to do with conservative history except that the government of this country in 1939 was Conservative under a Conservative Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who had to lead the country into war, something that he had tried to avoid. By summer 1939 he knew that was a lost cause but he still tried to win some time and, who knew, perhaps ....
Everyone knows about September 1, 1939 when the German army crossed into Poland, September 3, when Britain declared war followed by a reluctant France as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. But how many people know about the next step in Poland: the country's invasion from the east by the Soviet army on September 17 just as Stalin and Hitler had agreed. Here is the photograph that sums it all up: a German and a Soviet officer shaking hands. One can see the about to be dismembered body of Poland between them:
Write my Spectator article. At 11 am (a bad hour) Vita comes to tell me that Russia has invaded Poland and is striking towards Vilna We are so dumbfounded by this news that there is a wave of despair over Sissinghurst. I do not think the Russians will go beyond her old frontier [sic] or wish to declare war on us. But of course it is a terrific blow and makes our victory even more uncertain.He then makes a series of analytical points and predictions most of which are wrong though some not. I love those diaries dearly and Nicolson's other writings but the man was often an ass. Did he not gather from Maisky what the agreement between Hitler and Stalin might have been about?
Chips Channon was not surprised. He had never liked the Bolsheviks, considering them, if anything worse than the Nazis. He was also PPS to Rab Butler at the Foreign Office at the time and may have had more accurate information about events than Nicolson. On the whole Chips managed to get fairly accurate information in or out of his lowly office. His published entry for September 17 reads:
A glorious September day in Kelvedon where I bathed in the pool, and then in a bath towel rang up the FO to be told the grim news that the Russians had definitely invaded Poland. Now the Nazis and the Bolsheviks have combined to destroy civilization and the outlook for the world looks ghastly.The detail about him being in his bath towel when he hears the fateful news is priceless but the phrase "had definitely invaded" would indicate that something of the kind was expected.
On October 10 Chips wrote:
Russia helps herself to a new country every day and no-one minds. It is only German crimes that raise indignation in the minds of the English.Well, why not? German crimes should raise indignation but it might have been useful if Russian (or, to be precise, Soviet) crimes had also been noted then and later. I am now reading David Satter's book about the bloody end of the Yeltsin era and the even more bloody rise of Putin to absolute power with a couple of invasions on the way, not to mention two horrendous wars in Chechnya, and the same cry can be uttered: no-one minds. Or, at least, very few people then or now.
In view of my plans to campaign for the publication of the full version of Chips Channon's diaries I have started re-reading them. I have a copy (much used ) of the 1967 version but the 1993 version has no changes, merely a short new introduction by Robert Rhodes James. Though the newly found late diaries are mentioned they are not added as too many people were still alive (actually not that many by 1993 but both Paul Channon and Robert Rhodes James had been scarred by the original reception of the book).
The moment one starts reading those entries one becomes engrossed. The people and events are fascinating and Chips's descriptions are enthralling. Some of the people are little known these days and so one cannot be sure whether he is right or wrong in his judgements (were those peeresses really so dowdy?) but others are historically important figures and then one can weigh up whether one agrees with him or not.
His adoration of Chamberlain is a little surprising not because the man was evil personified as some people would have it - he was not but a very capable and well-meaning politician - but because there is no evidence that he had the personality, which could excite adoration. Even in this case Chips mentions several times that the government had become a one man show, which is not healthy, and enumerates the speeches that are not all that good in his opinion.
More interesting is his dislike for the constantly seething "Glamour Boys", as he calls them, around Eden who plot to no particular end and who sometimes go into a huddle with the Soviet ambassador Maisky,
the Ambassador of torture, murder and every crime in the calendar.,as Chips wrote on May 3, 1939.
Ah yes, I hear people say, but what of his own lenient attitude to the Nazi regime. Indeed, he was not really harsh enough about them but it is not true that he was always lenient or even pro-Nazi. That is a big subject and I need to write a separate post about it. For the moment I shall keep to the subject of Chips on some of his colleagues in the House of Commons.
He is particularly interesting on Eden, whom he likes personally and whose charm he freely acknowledges but whose abilities he considers rather mediocre and whom he fears because of his lack of control in his international likes and dislikes. His prediction is that Eden's career will continue to be catastrophic, something that was seen to be completely wrong for a while but was eventually proved to be correct. For this, if no other reason, one would like to read Chips's late diaries, which must cover the Suez fiasco and the final collapse of that career.
Meanwhile, here is a quote that made me laugh out loud. It is from his entry for May 10, 1939, after Hitler had "let Chamberlain down" by marching into Prague and Mussolini reneged on the Anglo-Italian Agreement by marching into Albania. War seems inevitable but Chips, as PPS to RAB Butler, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, is still a little hopeful. Even he is losing hope of peace for much longer. This is the wonderful entry:
All morning at the FO intriguing and arranging matters, and the hours passed in a confusion of secret telephone calls and conversations. The startling thing about my intrigues is that they always come off.On the whole that was probably true though eventually he did not manage to keep his job but then neither did RAB. It does, however, explain why Chips had such a multitude of enemies as well as friends.