A good way of learning about the past

Posted by Helen Tuesday, August 28, 2012 , ,

It is not great literature that tells us how people lived at any time, it is the secondary or what is rather disdainfully referred to as genre version of it. Detective stories are, apart from everything else, a mine of useful information about the past. Then there are non-fiction books devoted to themes such as gardening or, most of all, cookery.

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.

In all that period she managed to run a large and hospitable home and bring up three children. Of course, there were servants of different variety. The essays show an interesting society in which servants were still around but there were far fewer of them and they were becoming more noticeable as crucial members of the household.

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.


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