Browsing through the shelves of a second-hand bookshop I came across a copy of Agnes Jekyll's Kitchen Essays as reprinted by Persephone Books. This is a fascinating collection of essays about food and cooking, originally published for a year in The Times and collected, in response to popular demand, as a volume in 1922.
Intrigued by the essays themselves and the name of the author, I proceeded to search for information. Mr Google yielded a certain amount, mostly to do with the book in my hands, which had already informed me that Agnes Jekyll was "the daughter of the Pre-Raphaelite patron William Graham", married to soldier-diplomat Herbert Jekyll and "the guests at her first dinner party [the subject of one of her essays] were Browning, Burne-Jones and Ruskin". She was also Gertrude Jekyll's sister-in-law and the biographer of that formidable lady described Agnes as "an artist-housekeeper".
All very interesting but that does not, for example, explain why Lady Jekyll, as she became, was also Dame Agnes Jekyll. Even the publishers say vaguely that she was " created DBE for her involvement in numerous good causes".
I abandoned Mr Google and the internet and went back in true conservative fashion to the printed word, the Dictionary of National Biography, to be quite precise. Its entry on Agnes Jekyll was, naturally enough, shorter than that on her sister-in-law but full of information.
To start with, dates. Dame Agnes Jekyll was born in Ayrshire in 1861 and died at her home near Godalming in 1937. Her father was a Liberal MP as well as an art collector and her husband, Sir Herbert Jekyll was in the Royal Engineers with an extensive political and diplomatic career on the practical side. Among other assignments he was sent to inspect fortifications in Ceylon and Singapore and his wife travelled with him each time, whether to Paris, Dublin, Gibraltar or further afield.
They settled near Godalming where Lady Jekyll became a well known political and artistic hostess with what was considered to be an exceptional aptitude for presentation of food and wine as well as general housekeeping. But that was not all.
The mystery of her Damehood is explained. She was given a DBE in the New Year Honours of 1918 for her war work, which consisted partly of the chairmanship of St John of Jerusalem's warehouse for hospital supplies in Clerkenwell. Apparently she prided herself on answering every demand for supplies promptly. She was also one of the first volunteers to provide ambulance service when the air raids on London started.
Her public career neither began nor ended with the First World War. From 1884 to her death she was a member of the East End maternity hospital committee. For ten years she was chairwoman of the visiting committee of the Borstal Institution for Girls at Aylesbury and, according to the DNB, served frequently on juries if women were in the dock. I find this hard to understand as I do not think one can choose either the frequency of one's jury service or the cases on which one sits.
From 1925 she was a magistrate on the Guildford Bench and sat on the panel of children's courts. In response to her obituary, published in The Times on January 29, 1937, a letter described her as "exceptionally able amateur" and added that she would have been a great public servant had she been a man. That, one must admit, is a curious comment and shows how early the notion that public servants are only those who make a professional and paid career out of it. Amateur Dame Agnes may have been but she was a great public servant, all the greater for not getting any money for her various activities.
The lady of the house, in Agnes Jekyll's estimation, has to run matters herself, be aware of the food that is prepared, think ahead about provisions and inject new ideas and menus. It is up to the cook to deal with the practical matters though there is one delightful essay with some helpful recipes, entitled "In the Cook's Absence".
Other essays deal with new names and ideas for old recipes, favourite or otherwise (Gigot de six heures being somewhat more complicated but also more attractive than roast mutton with caper sauce), tea time dainties, dinners before theatre and suppers after, cooking for bachelors and for those who have found themselves considerably poorer after the war, picnics in winter as the average English hostelry was as unspeakable then as it remained for many decades afterwards, Christmas and Easter goodies, Italian food, cooking for the too fat or the too thin, and breakfast food.
What emerges is a clear picture of a hastily changing society or, maybe, a society that tried to return to pre-war norms and failed to do so, not least because the people themselves no longer liked those. In a number of essays the author talks about the pleasure of serving food in bright and heat-preserving pottery dishes (marmites for soup turn up repeatedly in the recipes) rather than on silver that, presumably, made every dish, regardless of what it was intended to be, tepid and somewhat tasteless. Finding bright pottery for the table and the kitchen, patterned table cloths and napkins was no longer just for bohemians but for the respectable middle classes as well.
At the same time the recipes are difficult: they tend to be far too complicated, made possible by the continuing presence of servants in the kitchen, aspic is still much used and the number of dishes that require the use of a salamander before serving is high. I may consider making one or two of the dishes. On the other hand, I know I shall re-read the book at some future date and enjoy the style and the descriptions, even the mild witticisms as much as I did the first time round.
The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.It comes from his essay The History of Freedom in Antiquity.
Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth Field that brought to end the reign of the Plantagenets and introduced a completely new dynasty which led to other dynasties though none of it can be seen as entirely legitimate. History Today has reprinted an article from 1985 about the actual battle and the various problems that surround it. In fact, as far as TH can make out, next to nothing is known about it.
What seems rather extraordinary is that the author of the article should so easily accept the Tudor myth of Richard III, the relentless tyrant and usurper.Surely, Polydore Virgil's account, written many years later and under the reign of Henry VII who was not known for his tolerance of people that doubted his right to the throne, cannot be taken as gospel truth and neither can the account of the supposed hunchback (not shown in the portrait that is a copy of one made in his life time) and monster given us by Sir Thomas More.
Here are a couple of links to previous postings on the subject: a report on a trip to the fifteenth century, courtesy of the RSC and on Shakespeare's handling of some thorny issues and the story of a trip to Leicester which mingles German expressionism with that city's celebration of the man their predecessors saw as the rightful king.
This picture of Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the truly great political writers of modern history, was found on a Facebook site, entitled Federalist Papers. It sums what is wrong with a great deal of modern politics and predicts the failure of liberal constitutionalism in its ability to deal with mass democracy.
The novel I have in mind is The Mystery of the Human Bookcase and it is not, pace its title, a horror story in the Poe mould but a very straightforward detective yarn with two excellent characters: Kirker Cameron, New York Commissioner of Police who, unusually, is not there for political reasons but because he is good at his job, having been trained at the Paris Sûreté and worked with Scotland Yard and Jerome Bland, the District Attorney who is not as smart or imaginative as Cameron but is completely honest and contemptuous of politics.
Anyway, they have found the body and discovered that it was, apparently, that of a well-known thriller writer, despised by Mr Bland and rather liked by Mr Cameron, who gives the following explanation:
Man was so made that he must torment himself with mysteries and enigmas and thus the detective story always had been popular. It was the most ancient form of self-torment, and, as Bland might remember, the first three ever written could be found in the Aeneid, Herodotus and the Jewish Apocrypha.This novel was first published in 1931 but one cannot help wondering whether the author had seen Dorothy L. Sayers's introduction to the first volume of Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery and Horror. It starts with the words:
The art of self-tormenting is an ancient one, with a long and honourable tradition. Man, not satisfied with the mental confusion and unhappiness to be derived from contemplating the cruelties of life and the riddle of the universe, delights to occupy his leisure moments with puzzles and bugaboos.In the next paragraph she says:
Both the detective-story proper and the pure tale of horror are very ancient in origin. All native folk-lore has its ghost tales, while the first four detective stories in this book hail respectively from the Jewish Aporcypha, Herodotus, and the Aeneid.They are: The History of Bel and The History of Susanna from the Apocryphal Scriptures, The Story of Hercules and Cacus from The Aeneid, Book VIII and The Story of Rhampsinitus' Treasure-House from Herodotus Book II.
An extraordinary amount of excitement and patriotic fervour was erupting around me as I was reading Peter Whittle’s Being British – What’s Wrong With It?. Team GB (an expression that would have been guaranteed to bring nausea to any right-thinking or, for that matter, left-thinking of the old school person before the vocabulary of Cool Britannia permeated public discourse) was winning medals. All doubts about the pharaonic and overweening arrogance that created the mega-farce of the London Olympics for which we shall be paying for decades to come have been dispelled, at least momentarily. Britain was winning medals and nothing else could possibly matter. One person on another forum jubilantly wrote about the first couple of gold medals “because we are GREAT Britain” as if that was the definition of this country’s greatness.
It occurred to me, not for the first time, what a peculiar position sport occupies in our political and social consciousness. As far as sport is concerned all the virtues, so eloquently extolled by Peter Whittle in his book, that have been abandoned or made to seem embarrassing, become acceptable. People are allowed to wave flags and cheer their country (though some problems arise with people who appear to think that certain sportsmen and women are Scottish if they win and British if they lose). Even the BBC joins in.
There is another difference: for a short time the people who are presented as heroes and role models are not vacuous celebrities but people who have, necessarily, kept the old virtues of hard work, self-discipline and aspiration. This will not last. Soon we shall go back to endless gossip about celebrities, including loutish footballers, and the accepted “virtues” of instant gratification and celebrity for no apparent reason. Of course, Olympic medal winners are not particularly useful as role models in another way: very few people can achieve those standards. If we do want children and young people to aspire to achievement we need to present them with models they can emulate with some hope of success.
The cult of celebrity is not particularly new as a swift reading of past publications can tell us but as Peter Whittle points out, its overwhelming importance that excludes and dismisses the more traditional virtues that allowed people to achieve things in life is something new and immensely harmful to several generations of children in this country who find themselves unable to compete either with their coaevals from other countries or from the private educational sector.
Other problems raised in Being British – What’s Wrong With It? are the deliberate destruction by the self-hating political elite of pride in one’s country and one’s culture, the whole idea of multiculturalism related to it, mass immigration that is both cause and effect of it, the dismissal of working class virtues, their destruction through all the above and the overwhelming and rapacious welfare state, and, above all, complete ignorance of the country’s history. Of these I personally consider the last to be the most important. (Well, I would, wouldn’t I?) Not knowing or understanding the past means an inability to understand the present or to imagine a future.
Once or twice I found myself vigorously shaking my head in disagreement. For instance, history tells one that riots were a reasonably frequent part of English life till late in the nineteenth century as was criminality. All too often when Britishness is invoked the reference is to a relatively short period of around 100 – 120 years from around 1820 to the beginning of the Second World War, when the state took over the running of people’s lives, never properly letting go again and stifling all the many very good qualities that those people possessed. Nor am I impressed by any sentimental feeling towards the 1950s. A swift look at the films and books of the period will show a decade of greyness and depression despite the political hype (for how else would one describe Harold Macmillan’s famous comment about never having so good and one of net emigration. People did not simply talk about wishing to leave as they appear to do now according to the author of Being British but actually did so in large numbers.
Nevertheless, the main argument of the books is entirely accurate. Britain has created many good things in the country and in the world though often those who did the creating were the ones who found many of the solid British virtues tiresome and stifling, a curious contradiction noted by George Orwell many years ago, but those achievements have been deliberately denied and belittled by a weird self-hating elite. The people of the country have been deprived of their history, of their pride and self-respect. Given that this is a country and a culture that has been admired and emulated across the world (though not the NHS) it is strange and disturbing to see its denigration at home.
However, Peter Whittle (who is, incidentally, a good friend as well as the Director of the New Culture Forum) sees many causes for hope. The future might be brighter than the immediate past. People seem to be refusing to knuckle under: they remain stubbornly proud of their country and its achievements, they want to learn about its history and they are waking up to the importance and necessity of all that has been taken away from them. Let me recommend this book to anyone who is perturbed by what has been going on and would like to see the hopeful signs to develop into something more lasting.
It is well known to all Wodehouse aficionados, of whom Tory Historian is one, that Bertie Wooster once wrote a column in his Aunt Dahlia's weekly journal, Milady's Boudoir, entitled "What the Well-Dressed Man is Wearing". In the same way this article could be called "What the Well-Read MP is Reading".
In fact, it is called rather prosaically Keith Simpson's Summer Reading List and is a long list of books that Mr Simpson, Chairman of the Conservative History Group, thinks MPs might enjoy reading on their summer hols.
Few real surprises. As Mr Simpson says, there is a natural bias towards politics, history and conflict with a few lighter touches at the end, though at least two of these are books written by wives and daughters of politicians. The biography of W. T. Stead will be on TH's reading list, despite the mediocre reviews as will, possibly the books about China in the thirties.
The history of the Intelligence Division of the War Office, on the other hand, sounds fascinating.
The death of the man whom many considered to be the finest military historian of our age was announced yesterday. Sir John Keegan, author of several books of great importance, journalist and critic, died at the age of 78 after a long illness. That it was nobly born I can testify to, having met him once and, indeed, sat next to him at dinner. All I can add to the many obituaries that will undoubtedly appear in the next several days is that the man was absolutely charming to talk to. (And yes, I am aware of the fact that many highly knowledgeable people consider his analysis of what was going on in the various wars fought at the moment was less impressive than his historical writing but it is as an historian that we honour and remember him.)
Here are two obituaries: in the Daily Telegraph whose columnist he was for so many years and in History Today.
Thomas Gainsborough, one of the most English of artists and a man who helped to create an image of England and the English died on August 2, 1788. Here are two self-portraits, one, in the National Portrait Gallery, a straightforward one and the other, in the National Gallery, of the artist and his family.