Eliza Acton, despite having never before boiled an egg, became one of the world’s most successful cookery writers, revolutionizing cooking and cookbooks around the world. Her story is fascinating, uplifting and truly inspiring.
Told in alternate voices by the award-winning author of The Joyce Girl, and with recipes that leap to life from the page, The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs is the most thought-provoking and page-turning historical novel you’ll read this year, exploring the enduring struggle for female freedom, the power of female friendship, the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, all while bringing Eliza Action out of the archives and back into the public eye.
England 1837. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes her new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady’. Instead, they want her to write a cookery book. England is awash with exciting new ingredients, from spices to exotic fruits. That’s what readers really want from women.
Eliza leaves the offices appalled. But when her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, she has no choice but to consider the proposal. Never having cooked before in her life, 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 impoverished daughter of a war-crippled father and a mother with dementia.
Over the course of ten years, Eliza and Ann developed an unusual friendship – one that crossed social classes and divides – and, together, they broke the mould of traditional cookbooks and changed the course of cookery writing forever.
The Language of Food tells the story of Eliza Acton, a poet who, in 1837, is told by a publisher that poetry is not something for ladies to write and that, instead, she should turn her hand to cookery books. There starts a fixation of Eliza’s – despite having no skills in the kitchen, she is determined to deliver the most beautifully written, poetic recipe book. She hires a young local girl Ann, who is living in poverty with her alcoholic father, to help her in the kitchen. They develop an array of amazing recipes together, with Eliza combining her skill of poetry and her flair for flavour.
There is more to this story than food, of course – this is a story of friendship, poverty, the pressures of society on women and much more. I loved reading about life in the 19th century, and the switch between Eliza and Ann’s perspectives kept me enthralled. There are plenty of sad parts but also some lovely moments too. Eliza is a strong, independent character and I really liked her – and the same with Ann; though they are from very different walks of life, they bond together and form a wonderful friendship.
We also see a few moments in 1861, as Ann is given by her employer a cookbook full of dull, uninspiring recipes by a ‘Mrs Beeton’, and realises they have been poached and dulled down from her and Eliza’s book. I liked that fleeting jump into the later day at the start and end of the book – the book doesn’t linger there but instead remains almost entirely in the past timeline, as we learn how Eliza and Ann grew so close, and the decisions Eliza took in her own life.
The fact that this book is based on the real story of Eliza (and Ann) makes it even more special. It’s written beautifully and the characters call out for you to read more. It’s as sumptuous as the recipes it describes!
My rating: 4/5
Many thanks to the publisher, Simon & Schuster, for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest review.