Food and nostalgia in the novels of Angela Thirkell

Jill N Levin provided this fascinating and thought-provoking insight into the use of food in the novels of Angela Thirkell. “Food, nostalgia, and the self in the novels of Angela Thirkell” originally appeared in the 1997 edition of the Angela Thirkell Society Journal.

Virginia Woolf began her married life not knowing how to cook. Cooking was not part of the education designed to prepare English ladies for the marriage market in her youth – and Woolf was a lady, like Angela Thirkell. Eventually both Woolf and Thirkell did learn at least a smattering: domesticity became fashionable (The Gentlewoman had declared, “It is no longer fashionable not to know how to cook a potato… Even a woman of such masculine genius as Madame Curie is an adept at domestic matters,”)1 and help became harder to get, and to keep, in the period between the wars, even for increasingly prosperous lady novelists like Thirkell and Woolf.

In “democratic” Australia, where Thirkell lived for ten years during her second marriage, even a Lady Help (in England a “daily”) was hard to find; Thirkell cooked by necessity, and washed up, and shopped, and scrubbed. Fortunately, she had taken lessons before she had left England; she and George Thirkell (her second husband) spent their honeymoon in Yorkshire, and while she was there she learned to cook. [Editor’s note – see also Margaret Mackail’s Diary, in October 1918 Margaret records: “Angela goes to cookery class every morning.”]

Front cover of the published diary of Margaret Mackail, Angela Thirkell's mother.

The cooking nearly extinguished the writer in her, she gave it the same emotional energy and importance she would later give to her writing. Marooned in provincial, masculinist Australia, which she called “a wonderful country for Warrant Officers,”2 she recreated passionately – and, her elder sons thought, rather grimly – the genteel codes of her late Victorian childhood and Edwardian girlhood, when she had been the favourite granddaughter of the painter Burne-Jones and the cosseted daughter of the classicist J. W. Mackail. In Australia, she gave dinner parties for the Melbourne elite, and “literary tea parties for fifty women” at which she “dared to mask the presence of the outside lavatory and other amenities by hanging carpets on a clothes line”.3

Both her elder sons, Graham Mclnnes and the novelist Colin MacInnes, wrote resentfully about these years: both expressed humiliation at her “perverse” dislike of Australia, and at her abandonment of their father.4 She expressed her resentments in turn: she wrote to Gordon Haight of Colin, her second son, that “a woman’s tender care can cease toward the child she bears … and mine has ceased”.5

But Graham and Colin were too young, and later too close, to understand. Thirkell’s passionate dislike of Australia – and her decision to leave it, and her second husband, behind – were the product of ten years of anguish and exhaustion, not just of snobbery and wounded pride. She was not the first to flee the life of the middle-class housewife, or to feel stifled by its mind-numbing labour and repetitive routine. Professional writing, which she began to do in a small way (for Melbourne papers and English magazines), was an escape – and a way to earn money when her husband’s business began to fail. It was “her own little sea-wall against the roaring family and the unfriendly Australian.”6 But it was also poorly paid labour of its own (“a penny a line from the Argus, three guineas for a fifteen-minute broadcast from the ABC”)7 – an addition to, not a replacement for, her normal domestic routine.

No wonder Colin could say when interviewing her for the BBC, “My chief recollection of you, darling…in my boyhood, is not of a writer but of somebody who was perpetually washing dishes, preparing meals for a family of seven – I think we were – weeding gardens, scrubbing”8, or that she herself should have decided in 1930, after George Thirkell’s business had completely collapsed, that she “must be the breadwinner, and she was going to England to get her book published,” as she told a friend.9

Thirkell’s first book

The book was Three Houses, a memoir of her childhood to the age of eight, and it is pervaded by references to food, the most potent signifier in the myth she creates of her own past, as a child in late Victorian England. In the first vignette she describes getting into her mother’s “big bed” on Sunday morning “till the dressing gong rang and the smell of sausages began to rise from the kitchen. Sunday sausages: what a world of emotion in the words. Sacred Sunday Sausages, I almost said”. Food then was “real”, substantial, better than it is now. In politics, manners, and fiction, it was a “Golden Age” for the upper middle class of artists and professionals she grew up among. Sausages were “fat and burst in the middle”; the loaves of brown and white bread and “occasional” shortbread her father brought home for tea were solid, satisfying.

Food in Three Houses signifies her special place within that Golden Age world as the favoured grandchild of Burne-Jones, who seated her next to himself at Sunday luncheon and allowed her “to blow into the froth of his beer to make a bird’s nest”, or to have all the delicious outside from the mashed potatoes when they had been browned in the oven. “Those halcyon days”, she suggests, vanished for ever with the War, and perhaps – though this is inference – with the advent of modernism as a cultural movement (which she scorned as “slim volumes of modern verse”). For the apprentice novelist, food marks the place where the personal and the political come together, the delights of the table mediate a nostalgia for childhood, for a self like Lawrence’s “stable ego of character”, for the politics, literature, art of the nineteenth century ; nourishment is sacred as the junction where the real and the fictional, art and life, history and myth meet.

Angela Thirkell's father, the writer and academic John William Mackail
Angela Thirkell’s father, John William Mackail, used with the kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

But writing was also breadwinning, and breadwinning was father: “When he left the house in the morning he used to tell us that he was going to earn the bread, and asked us what kind of bread we would like, white or brown.”11 Inescapably, it was also mother; the experience of Australia was always with Thirkell during the years of her career as a novelist (1930-1960). She imagined her books in the language of food and consumption: Wild Strawberries was “a strawberry soufflé, the title of Marling Hall was “only a label for another bottle from the same cellar”.12 For her, food was virtually equivalent to writing, and writing, to food: both had to be produced for demanding others from the materials at hand (not always adequate), and, like Laura Morland’s books, “in as good condition as her wits could compass and on the dot”.13 (Laura Morland, the only character to appear throughout the Barsetshire novels, is a widow who supports her four sons by writing “thrillers” about the world of high fashion; she is clearly a version of Thirkell herself.)

A popular novelist

A passage in High Rising underlines the fantasy of writing as being fed which pervades Three Houses. Mrs Morland chaffs both her publisher and herself when she jokes, half-seriously, that “Before I began being a female author, I always thought one’s publisher gave one a lot of free meals, but lunch twice a year is about the most I get out of you, and then I have to ask for it”.14 The fantasy was deeply held, but it was dispelled by the rigours of being a popular novelist. Like Mrs Morland’s, Thirkell’s public expected a book every year, and she fulfilled this expectation, but somewhat grudgingly: she never described her audience without a flicker of apparent contempt – not just in letters to friends, but within the novels themselves – (“one’s friends read real books” ). Some of this contempt is snobbery, some a characteristic mock-modesty, but some, surely, is the protest of the once cosseted child who resented her role as the endlessly gratifying, nurturing mother.

The Road to Gundagai, written by Angela Thirkell's eldest son, Graham McInnes, and published by Hamish Hamilton.

In his autobiography, Graham Mclnnes complains that he and Colin were pressed into service as waiters at the dinner parties that Thirkell gave for the Melbourne elite. In a long scene at the centre of her 1936 novel August Folly, the Tebbens’ (grown-up) son and daughter fill in for the daily help, prepare an elaborate meal, and serve it to their parents and the family’s guests. The parents are fantasy versions of Thirkell herself, writers who are fed and pampered by their children15 – much as Thirkell was fed in her childhood by Burne-Jones when he let her make “bird’s nests” in his beer. But, like Mrs Morland’s fantasy of hot and cold running lunches given her by her publisher, this parent-child reversal cannot be sustained. As the easy circumstances of the middle classes during the interwar years gave way to the privations of wartime, Thirkell again used food as the material embodiment of a lost world, and a recurrent, almost obsessive focus of attention.

The food in August Folly is relatively abstract, an occasion for sociability (as so often in women’s novels fictional women spend their lives pouring tea), rather than the concrete, material signifier that it was in Three Houses and that it becomes again in wartime and post-war Barsetshire.

The war years

Ration books were printed by the British government in 1939. Rationing of food, clothing, petrol, and furniture began in 1940, and lasted through the period of postwar austerity. The last controls were not removed until the summer of 1954. When bread rationing was imposed by the newly-elected Labour government in 1946, Churchill reminded the country that his government had avoided controls on bread even during the most difficult months of submarine warfare. In 1947-48, the food rations were reduced to well below the wartime average of 13oz. of meat, 8oz. of sugar, 1 quart of milk and 1 egg per week per person.16

Although rationed food supplies never ran out, and the principle of equal treatment was for the most part maintained, the basic rationed diet was below the standard to which the middle classes – i.e. Barsetshire – were accustomed, even during the “hungry thirties”.18 At the parties that form the staple of Thirkell’s wartime novels, the characters are unable “to keep away from the recurring subject of food”. At one dinner party in Peace Breaks Out (written during the hard winter of 1946-47), the imagination of food is particularly graphic:

A determined attempt was then made by the whole party to talk of books or pictures or music, but it was a complete failure. Books boiled down to cookery books, pictures appeared to be associated in most people’s minds with a vast canvas of a ham, a lobster, a brace of teal, a flask of wine, a cheese with some lifelike grubs on it, fresh strawberries with a giant ladybird, and a dead stag thrown carelessly across the lot … . As for music, Anne said boldly that music always made her hungry.19

[Editor’s note: We can imagine this painting, by Frans Snyders, to be in Angela Thirkell’s mind – but missing the strawberries.]

Front cover of Virago's edition of The Old Bank House by Angela Thirkell
The latest edition of “The Old Bank House”, published by Virago March 2024

In The Old Bank House, published two years later, conversation at a family dinner becomes an exercise in capping as the Grantlys and their parlourmaid compare their respective fantasies of meat: to her husband’s suggestion, “I was thinking of a real loin of pork with rich, crisp crackling and kidney under it,” Mrs Grantly rejoins, “How beautiful!…But I’d rather have a real porterhouse steak, well browned outside and blood simply gushing out of it when you cut it…” The parlourmaid Doris corrects them both, “as she removes the pig’s fry and the dirty plates,” with her memories of “reel fish and chips…Just come out of the sea…and you never got the taste of it afterwards”.20

Grumbling was a topos of the times in books and conversation,21 and Thirkell was known as a particularly skilful grumbler. But by the “sixth year of war” at least one critic thought her “preoccupation with…fine sherry and real flour…a little excessive”.22 In her review of Private Enterprise in 1947, a writer for the TLS comes close to suggesting that Thirkell’s fixation on food was less a topos than an obsession. “Barsetshire itself seems unusually bleak,” she observed, and “Mrs. Thirkell” and her fictional structure seem “to have been unduly affected by the depressing influences of rationing, form-filling, fuel shortage, and regulations”.23

The perception was shrewd and, if anything, underestimated the significance that food had borne throughout Thirkell’s writing. In Three Houses Angela recalled the seasonal fruit:

In the summer holidays heaped plates of figs and peaches and nectarines were always on the sideboard, bursting and oozing with their own richness, and a child could easily appropriate one, or two, or three without the theft being noticed. A little later the sweetbriar-tasting Ribstone Pippins took their place; and later, almonds and raisins.24

As long as Barsetshire was a world full of food, it was a happy place; when its food supplies were rationed, Thirkell felt the symbolic blow at least as keenly as the material one. She seems not to have been particularly deprived herself; indeed, Margaret Mitchell and other American friends sent her food parcels (“a big fruit cake and a big can of anchovies, a box of candy, guava jelly in cans, liver pate in cans, canned tomato sauce with onions”). But as early as 1939, the year the war began, her appetite (for food, not for writing) seems to have diminished. She began to lose weight, and remarked, “My clothes hang on me like a scarecrow”. Through the 1940s and 1950s, and to the end of her life, she was thin, almost gaunt – her enemies called her the “junior witch” – not the “very fine figure of a woman … with plenty of bust and everything” she described reminiscently in 1954.26 Her favourite supper when she was alone was a bowl of porridge.

the later years

After a holiday in Denmark, Angela described herself as “burst[ing] right out of my one good suit”; when it ended, she said she had again begun “starving hard and also miserably beginning” her next book “with the moral consciousness I am played out and done for”.27 In the same year she broke with her son Colin.28 She was lonely and in pain from the illness that would kill her; her sales were falling, and writing was “like pushing a garden-roller uphill,” as she wrote in 1958. Late in her life, after the break with Colin, she sacrificed some of the gratifications of motherhood, and even of eating; only the most etiolated satisfactions of writing remained. In the later novels, Barsetshire, which had complained only a few years before of its inability to get lobster, pork, steak, vegetables, milk, eggs, seems to subsist on air; tea parties remain, but the teas themselves are scarcely mentioned.

In a final rejection of the equation of motherhood and feeding, her childhood seems to have returned during her last illness, but in a bizarre, confused fashion, as when she told her youngest son, “I have just a little boy in me that’s saying, ‘Look Mummy! I’m dead’”. Still, her memories of childhood were her last sustenance; she seems to have been eating almost nothing just before she died, but when a friend sent her a book of Pre-Raphaelite memoirs, she said “Yes…a very happy childhood – I haven’t a single complaint or criticism to make of my early years”.29

References and notes

1. Jane Lewis describes the interwar years as dominated by “a formidable ideology of motherhood, childbearing, and childrearing,” and points out that “serious efforts were made by the Government and the press to force women out of the men’s jobs they had taken” during the war – and into domestic service in particular. Lewis, “In search of a real equality: women between the wars” in Class, society, and social change: a new view of the 1930s, ed. Frank Gloversmith, Sussex 1980, pp. 208-9.

2. Graham Mclnnes, The road to Gundagai (Hamish Hamilton 1965), p. 269.

3. Ibid. p. 267

4. James Campbell Mclnnes, a professional singer – alcoholic, probably homosexual, said to be physically abusive; she divorced him in 1919. Thirkell wrote a fictional version of the break-up in O, these men, these men! in 1935, the only one of her books not reprinted in her lifetime.

5. Letter to Gordon Haight, quoted in Margot Strickland, Angela Thirkell: portrait of a lady novelist (Duckworth 1977), p. 165. Many of AT’s papers were given to the Brotherton Library (University of Leeds) on the death of her youngest son, Lance Thirkell, in 1988.

6. McInnes p. 175.

7. Ibid. p. 275.

8. BBC interview transcript, p. 31. Their relationship was always troubled – he reminded her of her first husband – and there was a complete break a year later after Colin had been in trouble with the police (probably for a violation of the laws against homosexual acts) and had appeared drunk at her house.

9. Valentine Leeper, “Three papers on The Road to Gundagai” in Idiom, Sept/Oct 1971, p.5.

10. Three Houses was originally published by Oxford University Press in 1931, and has remained almost continuously in print since.

11. Three Houses.

12. In a letter to her publisher: Strickland, p. 136

13. Enter Sir Robert (Hamilton 1955) p. 260.

14. High Rising (Hamilton 1933) p. 146

15. August Folly (Hamilton 1936) pp. 138-78.

16. Walter L. Amstein, Britain yesterday and today: 1830 to the present (Toronto 1983), pp. 338-9.

17. Janet Roebuck, The making of modern English society from 1850 (New York 1973), p. 143.

18. Private Enterprise (Hamilton 1947), p. 217.

19. Peace Breaks Out (Hamilton 1947).

20. The Old Bank House (Hamilton 1949), pp 86-7.

21. Roebuck p. 144; see also Robert Hewison, Under siege: literary life in London 1939-1945 (London 1977); and Alan Sinfield, Literature, politics, and culture in postwar Britain (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989).

22. Unsigned review, TLS 24 Dec. 1944, p. 617.

23. Unsigned review, TLS 22 Nov. 1947.

24. Three Houses p. 98.

25. Strickland pp. 145,127.

26. BBC interview transcript, p. 33.

27. Strickland pp. 166-7.

28. See note 4 above.

29. Strickland pp. 172-3.


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