Monday, 17 December 2012

Some Christmas cheer... and a super-fruity mincemeat recipe

Christmas will be low-key in our house this year but I'm at last beginning to feel the tiniest bit festive. London is looking lovely, all lit up, and I've made a batch of mincemeat, which is about a hundred times nicer than the shop-bought kind. It's very easy - you just have to allow a little time for chopping and stirring (which is no problem if you have a food processor). I don't like mixed peel, so I substitute a mixture of chopped dried cherries and apricots.

You will need:

2 large or 3 medium-sized cooking apples, cored but not peeled
8 oz/225 g/2 cups shredded suet (I use the light vegetarian kind)
12 oz/350g/2 heaped cups raisins
8 oz/225g/2 scant cups sultanas
8 oz/225g/2 scant cups currants
8 oz/225g/2 scant cups chopped mixed candied peel -
  or the same quantity of sour dried cherries and dried apricots, chopped finely
12 oz/350g/2 heaped cups dark brown sugar
grated zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
2 oz/50g/1/2 cup flaked almonds, smashed up a little more
4 teaspoons mixed spice
grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons brandy (optional)
5 or 6 clean jam jars

Simply chop the apples - in a food processor if you have one - and then mix them up in a large bowl with the rest of the ingredients, except for the brandy. Cover the bowl with foil and leave it for a few hours so that everything steeps together, then place in a low oven (225 F/120 C/gas 1/4) for 2 - 3 hours so the suet melts. Your kitchen will now smell wonderfully Christmassy!

As the mixture cools, stir from time to time so the suet is evenly distributed. When it has cooled right down, add the brandy, then spoon into clean dry jars, cover with waxed discs and seal. Use in mincepies, as the basis for a Christmas cake, or in the wonderful Dan Lepard's apple and mincemeat pasties with brown sugar pastry. Best eaten within a few months, but I have kept jars from one Christmas to the next and it's been fine.

Happy Christmas, everyone. The end of this year seems to have been a sad one for all sorts of reasons, but here's hoping the Christmas rituals will bring some kind of comfort for anyone who's grieving, that getting together with family and friends will lighten up the darker days, and that spring doesn't seem too far away...  

Monday, 10 December 2012

Five favourite Edwardian memoirs

Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough
Researching Eugenie's Story, which is set in 1893, I found it essential to read memoirs written by women who'd lived through those times - both for the detail the books contained and perhaps even more importantly, to get a flavour of the language. Here are five I particularly enjoyed. If you're at all interested in the Downton Abbey world, the workings of grand English country houses and the etiquette of entertaining in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, you should find something on this list to tickle your fancy. (I'm keeping my very favourite book till last, by the way, so stick with it.) Where editions of these books are readily available, I've added a link to the Amazon UK site.

Blenheim Palace
First off we have The Glitter and the Gold, by the American-born Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan, who was married against her will at the behest of her pushy mother, Alva, to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, so becoming mistress of Blenheim Palace at the age of nineteen. This book provides a fascinating insight into the running of one of England's largest stately homes. Division of labour, for one thing, was acutely important. Consuelo once made the mistake of asking the butler to light the fire; he told her frostily he would summon a footman, whose job this was. After luncheon, the butler would leave a basket of tins on a side table, into which it was the Duchess had to pile the leftovers for distribution among the poor. She was considered dangerously progressive for sorting the meat, vegetables and pudding into separate tins rather than following tradition by jumbling them all up together. I love all of that sort of detail. I sometimes find the Duchess's tone a little laboured and self-conscious, but who could fail to sympathize with a young girl trapped in this huge mausoleum of a house with a husband for whom she had little initial attraction and later detested. Mealtimes were a particular ordeal. 'As a rule, neither of us spoke a word. I took to knitting in desperation and the butler read detective stories in the hall.'

Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon
Next on the list comes Discretions and Indiscretions, by the designer Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon. 'Lucile' (her professional name) was a hugely important figure in Edwardian society, along with her sister, the romantic novelist Elinor Glin. When Lucy's first husband deserted her, she turned to dressmaking for her society friends to support herself and her daughter, and eventually built a reputation that stretched beyond Britain to France and America. She revolutionized the fashion industry, both because of her innovative designs and because of the way she displayed her clothes: on living mannequins, gorgeous girls who became stars in their own right. 'I was the first dressmaker to bring joy and romance into clothes,' she proclaims. 'I was a pioneer. I loosed upon a startled London - a London of flannel underclothes, woollen stockings and voluminous petticoats - a cascade of chiffons, of draperies as lovely as those of Ancient Greece, of softly-rounded breasts (I brought in the brassiere in opposition to the hideous corset of the time...) and draped skirts which opened to reveal slender legs.'
    It was this book which brought home to me the true importance of clothes to an upper-class Edwardian girl of marriageable age - clothes which could decide her destiny - and Lady Duff Gordon's writing style influenced me enormously when I was trying to find Eugenie's 'voice'.

Seventy Years Young is the memoir of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall. Her irrepressible joie de vivre shine through every sentence of this captivating account. Growing up in Ireland, she married Arthur Plunkett, the eleventh Earl of Fingall, at the age of seventeen and lived with him as chatelaine of Killeen Castle, County Meath. Apparently the earl fell in love with her at first sight, on catching a glimpse of her in a Dublin street, and who can blame him? She could clearly charm the birds out of the trees. 'The grass grew higher in Meath,' she writes of her first year of marriage, 'deepened in green colour, the trees became heavier and darker, until at last I felt that the lush growth of everything was sending me asleep. It must have been in an effort to keep awake that I used to dance by myself under the beech trees those summer evenings. "I am alive," I would cry joyously. "I am alive! And no one can take that from me!"'
    As hunting was the main occupation during the winter months she had to learn to ride, which she found quite terrifying, although, 'The clothes were fun... To Busvine I went for a riding habit and much admired my own figure as I turned before the mirror while it was being fitted. No garment in the world showed off or gave away a figure like the riding habit of those days. And to Peal and Bartley for boots which must fit perfectly, not showing a wrinkle anywhere. Such bootmakers were geniuses, born not made, and Peal's genius was for the leg of a boot, Bartley's for the foot.'

Lady Cynthia Asquith
Lady Cynthia Asquith, nee Charteris, is another accomplished writer. She married Herbert Asquith, the son of the British Prime Minister (who confusingly has the same name). Her mother, Lady Mary Charteris, was one of the group of intellectuals known as the 'Souls' who dominated English society for about twenty-five years from the 1880s onwards, and Cynthia - who became a novelist and friend to writers such as D H Lawrence and J M Barrie, whose secretary she was - inherited her mother's intelligence and wit. I particularly enjoyed the second volume of her memoirs, Remember and Be Glad. She recalls the complicated house parties her mother used to organize, and the sparkling conversations of their illustrious guests: H G Wells, Arthur Balfour, the academic Sir Walter Raleigh, the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and many others. Besides a wonderfully entertaining account of her 'coming out', with all its arcane rules and regulations, in the chapter 'Country-house Visiting', she describes how it felt to attend a 'Friday-to-Monday' as a nervous young debutante.
'I see myself being convoyed by a butler across a wide expanse of well-kept lawn to where beneath the great flat branches of a magnificent cedar, my hostess dispenses tea. Through the mists of my shyness I see the pleasing sight of honey-in-the-comb, blackberry jelly and Devonshire cream. I peer into the silver kettle at my distorted reflection to see if my nose is shiny. It is...'
    We also learn the odd little fact that a post-visit thank-you letter was known as a 'Collins' (perhaps after the Collins Dictionary?) 'The prospect of having to write it darkened our whole visit. Painfully laboured rough copies left behind by mistake were sometimes found in blotting-books, and it must be admitted that certain hostesses did have the reprehensible habit of entertaining the guests of one party by reading alound unintentionally funny Collinses written by their previous guests.'

And so to my last and favourite book: Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat, grand-daughter of Charles Darwin and daughter of a strong-willed American, Maud du Puy, who arrived in England for a visit in 1882, married Darwin's second son, George, and never left. Like Cynthia Asquith, Gwen grew up in the late-Victorian/early Edwardian era, and this memoir is an account of her blissful childhood in Cambridge, and the long family visits to Down House in Kent, the home of her famous grandfather. The family lived in Newnham Grange, a large house on the river Cam. Gwen and her brothers and sister spent hours boating and swimming there alone from a very early age - her mother being convinced that her children couldn't possibly drown. The book is a complete delight. Illustrated by Gwen's own line drawings (she was an accomplished artist, later specializing in woodcuts), it captures the general spirit of the times as well as conjuring up a host of eccentric Darwin relatives.

Gwen Darwin, aged 12
 'Ladies were ladies in those days,' Gwen writes; 'they did not do things themselves, they told other people what to do and how to do it. My mother would have told anybody how to do anything: the cook how to skin a rabbit, or the groom how to harness a horse; though of course she had never done, or even observed, these operations herself.'
   Aunt Etty is one such lady who, having no children to bring up and a maid to cater to her every whim, took up ill health as her main interest in life. 'When there were colds about, she often wore a kind of gas-mask of her own invention. It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool and tied on like a snout, with elastic over her ears. In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion, oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.'
   This is a book to treasure and re-read. The best way to convince anyone of its merits is probably to let the writing speak for itself, so I'll end with one last extract, an account of an ill-fated family picnic.

'It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June. The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill. There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . . besides that all-penetrating wind. The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no Thermos flasks then); and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity. They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’ This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us; and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.'

I was delighted to come across this article recently by Gwen's grandson, William Pryor, which gives an insider's view of her life and her later relationships with members of the Bloomsbury group, notably Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa. I have reproduced the photograph of Gwen aged 12 from this post, with many thanks. For anyone wanting to find out more about the Edwardian era and these and many other characters who defined it, I can also heartily recommend Evangeline Holland's meticulously researched and beautifully written blog, Edwardian Promenade.

So, who have I left out? What would be on your list of favourite memoirs?