Poesy & Precision: Annabel Abbs


Victorian Cookery for All

Those with an interest in historical recipes will have heard of Eliza Acton (1799–1859), who is the protagonist of Annabel Abbs’s novel, The Language of Food (Simon & Schuster UK, 2022; William Morrow US, 2021 as Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and Friendship). Fewer may know that her first ambition was to write poetry, but it was her family circumstances that prompted her to turn to writing a cookery book, one that was eventually published in London, in 1845, with the long title Modern Cookery in all its Branches, Reduced to a System of Easy Practice, for the Use of Private Families. In a Series of Practical Receipts, which have been Strictly Tested, and are Given with the Most Minute Exactness. Acton’s aim was to encourage mainly middle-class women to do more cooking themselves and enable them to instruct poorly trained servants, setting out the quantities of ingredients to buy, as well as emphasising budgeting and avoiding wasting. Annabel Abbs is lucky enough to have inherited a copy of Acton’s first book from her mother-in-law. Acton’s Modern Cookery was followed by a book on bread. It was in these writings that Abbs found Acton’s voice: “not only in her two cookery books, but also in the volume of poetry she published, which confirmed that she had spent time in France and Italy, and that she had suffered considerable emotional turmoil.  She also wrote quite vocal introductions to her cookbooks, which she updated for each edition.  Her later voice was quite different from her earlier voice, but some elements endured throughout – her strength of character, her honesty and her courage.”

That emotional turmoil included her father’s bankruptcy and other sketchy personal details which provide the scaffold for this engaging novel. Between 1835 and 1845, Acton lived in Tunbridge, Kent, with her mother and Ann Kirby, the young girl she hired as kitchen maid and then her assistant. Abbs told me that Ann is completely fictitious, but “I had a few facts about her, namely that she appeared in three censuses (which started in 1801 and took place every decade) and then I had Eliza’s cookbook, so I had a good idea of what Ann had spent ten years doing. I used wonderful books on the history of housework and domesticity to help me understand her situation.”

Writing poetry was barely socially acceptable for a gentlewoman, despite the number of Victorian women who did so: among Acton’s role models was L.E.L, or Miss L. E. Landon, who features briefly in the novel. But writing cookery books was even more demeaning; publishing was dominated by men, the chefs that mattered were men, and most earlier cookbooks had been written by men – with a few notable exceptions, like Hannah Woolley and Hannah Glasse. In the novel, Acton encounters Louis, a French chef in an aristocratic household, as a minor character, and another real-life figure, Alexis Soyer, who was a luminary of French cooking and fine dining at the Reform Club in Victorian London. Middle-class women rarely entered the kitchen, and in London society it was unheard of. Prompted by this situation, Acton set out to write everyday recipes for middle-class families, encouraging women to take control of domestic affairs, even when inexperienced. Abbs takes note of Acton’s stress on the tried and tested nature of her recipes, cooked repeatedly in the kitchen of Bordyke House with Ann Kirby’s help.

“Our receipts … are confined to such as may be perfectly depended on, from having been proved beneath our own roof and under our own personal inspection. We have trusted nothing to others.” 1

Abbs offers a persuasive and sympathetic portrait of Eliza and Ann. Moreover, by imagining the reasons why Acton dedicated her work to “the Young Housekeepers of England,” Abbs offers a fictional closure to Acton’s personal turmoil. I asked Abbs about the structure of the novel, which is written with alternating chapters in which Eliza and Ann act as first-person narrators. Did she consider another way of writing the book? “No I didn’t consider any other option.  It seemed to work from the very beginning! I had my characters so, other than fleshing them out, I gave most attention to plot, voice and prose.”

The story straddles the nineteenth century, but Abbs hardly refers to contemporary events. I asked whether this a deliberate decision, so that the reader can focus on the lives of these two women? “It was a time of great change – with lots of fascinating local ‘events’ too, like the first train line opening in Tonbridge, the first street lighting and so on. But historical novels must wear their facts lightly and it seemed to me that Eliza and Ann would have been so deeply immersed in producing their tome, Modern Cookery for Private Families, that the outer world wouldn’t have intruded as much as it does for us today.  I suspect many working people – and particularly working women with sick or bankrupt families – had very insular lives, and I wanted to reflect that. I also wanted to reflect the reality of being female – lives lived on a domestic stage with all its richness, but also with its sense of oppressiveness. Not enough attention has been paid to these stories, in my view.”

Abbs includes extensive details of the oppressive situations faced by many women, in sickness and poverty, mainly through the character of Ann Kirby and her family. In particular, Ann’s mother suffers from dementia and Abbs says that “I used my own family history (of dementia and of rural peasantry) to add meat to the bones.” Although the strand is secondary, it is a poignant exploration of the way in which mental health was understood and treated in the very early Victorian period. Nonetheless, it seems quite probable that Eliza Acton could have learned from Ann of the appalling diet that the poorest in society were compelled to eat. The conviction that everyone should be able to bake a loaf of bread led to her second book, The English Bread Book, published in 1857.

Plagiarism is still a crux of modern-day cookery writers: how do you prove the originality of a recipe? In this respect, Acton’s work suffered more than most. Abbs tells me that “She blamed her later poor health on this, citing it in her last preface to Modern Cookery as ‘the unscrupulous manner in which large portions of my volume have been appropriated by contemporary authors without the slightest acknowledgement’. And blaming it on ‘strangers coolly taking the credit and profit of my toil’.” Within two years of Acton’s death, Mrs Isabella Beeton produced her compendium on household management, shamelessly continuing the plundering of Acton’s recipes by “cutting and pasting” them and claiming them as her own. Moreover, Beeton cleverly added a twist to the formulation of Acton’s recipes by moving the list of ingredients from the bottom, where Acton had placed them, to the top. This remains Beeton’s hallmark contribution to the modern recipe, but it was Acton who initiated the change. Acton’s revolutionary formulation in terms of quantities and measurements, her detailed cooking instructions, her precise timings, but also her poetic prose have been noted by many, from Elizabeth David to modern food historians.

Abbs told me that she cooked from Acton’s books and others to add to her understanding of the setting of the novel: her research focused on the practical and the physical, overcoming problems of changing utensils, changing sensibilities and changing tastes – I didn’t ask whether she had skinned a squirming, slippery eel, but her description is convincing! “I really wanted to conjure up the feel of an 1835 kitchen, so a sense of ‘place’ was also very important,” Abbs writes. Adding that “I also visited as many historic kitchens as I could.  Smaller houses (like Carlyle’s House in London) were more helpful than the Brighton Pavilion (which has an extraordinary kitchen).” Although Abbs does indeed wear her research lightly, it illuminates the story from within.

“I often cook from her recipes,” she says. “Acton’s Family gingerbread is the best ginger cake recipe I know 3, and my mother has made Acton’s Christmas pudding all her life (we still have it every Christmas!). Other than some of the very obscure fish and meats (Corncrake anyone? Pike?), the ingredients are usually easy to source, and her instructions are easy to follow. I just have to remember that an old English pint is smaller than our current pint and that she used neither fan-oven nor fridge (or any other electric appliance for that matter!). But I’ve written myself a conversion chart that includes some of her more obscure measurements (pottles and gills) as well as the more familiar pounds, ounces, pints and inches – and, of course, conversions from her wood or coal-fired range temperatures to my electric fan-oven. I also have to bear in mind that my dish might not taste like hers – she had freshly laid eggs, freshly churned butter and vegetables straight from the garden – unlike today’s that may have been sitting on a supermarket shelf for weeks! But if we want to understand how our ancestors ate, we really have to cook from the recipes they used… it’s a sort of living history and I love it!” Abbs’ compelling storytelling echoes Acton’s poetic prose in conjuring up the kitchens, the dishes and the lives of these women.


  1. I.E. Acton
    (1845). Modern Cookery. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, p. xi. https://archive.org/details/b21531857 (accessed March 2022)
  2. Ibid
    See Acton’s recipe for “Thick Light Gingerbread” in the online edition above, pp. 615-16.

About the contributor: When not translating, Lucinda Byatt also writes and teaches topics relating to food history and women’s history at Centre for Open Learning, University of Edinburgh. @Lucy13Byatt

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 100 (May 2022)

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