Thank you to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours and Simon & Schuster UK for the invitation to read and review this historical fiction /food novel by a new author to me, Annabel Abbs. I’m pleased to be sharing my review on publication day in the UK. Thank you to the publisher for a beautiful gifted proof copy, I’ve also ordered a signed special edition copy.
Eliza Acton is a poet who’s never boiled an egg.
But she’s about to break the mould of traditional cookbooks And change the course of cookery writing forever.
England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes a new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady.’ Instead, she’s asked to write a cookery book.
Eliza is horrified but her financial situation leaves her no choice. Although she’s never cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the daughter of local paupers. Over the next ten years, Eliza and Ann change the course of cookery writing forever.
Told in alternate voices by the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, The Language of Food is the most thought-provoking and compelling historical novel you’ll read this year. Abbs explores the enduring struggle for female freedom, the complexities of friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye.
Regular readers of my reviews will be aware that I enjoy reading well written historical fiction novels based on real people, and this book is an excellent example.
Inside the beautifully decorated cover is a book full of delicious descriptions for food, some recognisable in modern day cooking and others thankfully no longer served. However this isn’t a cookbook but may tell the story of how our modern cookbook was developed.
Life was very different for women during Victorian times, with gentlewomen expected to marry a man to look after them and their family. Women in poorer families usually worked in service to the wealthier families and faced starvation/death if they became too ill to work or their husband died.
Initially I felt sorry for Eliza when her family circumstances changed, however this seemed wrong when we discovered how destitute the Kirby family had become. Eliza and Ann meet at a time when both have experienced great changes, and they start to develop a ‘friendship’ around their mutual love of creating delicious meals for people to enjoy.
Both Eliza and Ann are keeping secrets, for fear of embarrassment for their families and themselves. Ann’s visits to see her parents are heartbreaking and I was surprised by Eliza’s secret.
But amongst the sadness and social expectations, Eliza and Ann work together to create tasty food, working hard to perfect recipes, to create a book suitable for use in kitchens across England. This is despite the fact, that Eliza has never done any cooking before, due to her social status. Annabel Abbs has created a book that should not be read if you are dieting, because the descriptions are so beautiful and vivid, you will be able to visualise the food as if it were in front of you.
I loved how the book celebrated the fact that women in Victorian times could strive to be creative and independent, despite the challenges they faced. This is a beautifully written book based on the life of Eliza Acton and I enjoyed reading the historical notes at the end of the book.
This was one of my two favourite (and five star) books of January 2022, and I’m eager to recommend it. I received two proof copies from Simon and Schuster, so I will be running a giveaway for the spare copy on my Twitter page (@karenkingston8) later this week (UK only due to shipping costs).
Annabel Abbs is the rising star of biographical historical novels. She grew up in Bristol, Sussex and Wales before studying English Literature at the University of East Anglia. Her debut novel The Joyce Girl won the Impress Prize and was a Guardian Reader’s Pick and her second novel Frieda: TheOriginal Lady Chatterley was a Times 2018 Book of the Year. She regularly appears on national and regional media, with recent appearances on Radio4 Woman’s Hour and Sky News, and is popular on the literary festival circuit. She was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, the Caledonia Novel Award and the Waverton GoodRead Award. Annabel lives in London with her husband and four children.
Abbs’s third novel, The Language of Food, the story of Eliza Acton, Britain’s first domestic goddess, publishes in the UK in February 2022 and is currently being translated into 14 languages.