Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mapp and Lucia, E. F. Benson

Hello, hello. My cast has come off, and I can finally type with two hands. To celebrate this event, I give you another bit from E. F. Benson's immortal Mapp and Lucia series, and fans of those books (and remarkably good television adaptations, and even the two also remarkably good "in the style of" sequels written by Tom Holt) will remember lobster à la Riseholme, one of the engines that propel forward the plot of Mapp and Lucia, the fourth book in the series. If you are such a fan, you probably already know some of the devoted Web sites compiled by other such fans, and that a few people have constructed possible recipes for lobster à la Riseholme, including Nigella Lawson, here.

Somehow Benson makes pettiness, revenge, and talking out of both sides of one's mouth so much fun. Note in the following paragraphs how every adjective can be read two ways, sincerely (as by Lucia, who expects that every word is true), and ironically (as by Elizabeth Mapp, who would put a snarl on words like "privilege" and "joyful"). I am going to cheat, as I did before with Benson, and give you two short excerpts. Just because I can.

Lucia's luncheon party the next day was to be of the nature of a banquet to celebrate the double event of her recovery and the fact that Tilling, instead of mourning her approaching departure, was privileged to retain her, as Elizabeth had said, forever and ever. The whole circle of her joyful friends would be there, and she meant to give them to eat of the famous dish of lobster à la Riseholme, which she had provided for Georgie, a few weeks ago, to act as a buffer to break the shock of Foljambe's engagement. It had already produced a great deal of wild surmise in the minds of the housewives at Tilling, for no one could conjecture how it was made, and Lucia had been deaf to all requests for the recipe: Elizabeth had asked her twice to give it her, but Lucia had merely changed the subject without attempt at transition; she had merely talked about something quite different. This secretiveness was considered unamiable, for the use of Tilling was to impart its culinary mysteries to friends, so that they might enjoy their favorite dishes at each other's houses, and lobster à la Riseholme had long been an agonizing problem to Elizabeth. She had made an attempt at it herself, but the result was not encouraging. She had told Diva and the Padre that she felt sure she had "guessed it," and when bidden to come to lunch and partake of it, they had both anticipated a great treat. But Elizabeth had clearly guessed wrong, for lobster à la Riseholme à la Mapp had been found to consist of something resembling lumps of India rubber (so tough that the teeth positively bounced away from them on contact) swimming in a dubious pink gruel, and both of them left a great deal on their plates, concealed as far as possible under their knives and forks, though their hostess continued manfully to chew, till her jaw muscles gave out.

[ . . . ]

Though Tilling regarded the joyful prospect of Lucia's never going away again with certain reservations, and in the case of Elizabeth, with nothing but reservations, her guests vied with each other in the fervency of their self-congratulations, and Elizabeth outdid them all, as she took into her mouth small fragments of lobster, in the manner of a wine taster, appraising subtle flavors. There was cheese; there were shrimps, there was cream; there were so many things that she felt like Adam giving names to the innumerable procession of different animals. She had helped herself so largely that when the dish came to Georgie, there was nothing left but a little pink juice, but he hardly minded at all, so happy had the events of the morning made him. Then, when Elizabeth felt that she would choke if she said anything more in praise of Lucia, Mr. Wyse took it up, and Georgie broke in and said it was cruel of them all to talk about the delicious busy winter they would have, when they all knew that he would not be here any longer but back at Riseholme. In fact, he rather overdid his lamentations, and Lucia, whose acute mind detected the grossest insincerity in Elizabeth's raptures, began to wonder whether Georgie, for some unknown reason, was quite as woeful as he professed to be. Never had he looked more radiant; not a shadow of disappointment had come over his face when he inspected the casserole that had once contained his favorite dish and found nothing left for him. There was something up--What on earth could it be? Had Foljambe jilted Cadman?--and just as Elizabeth was detecting flavors in the mysterious dish, so Lucia was trying to arrive at an analysis of the gay, glad tones in which Georgie expressed his misery.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, Iris Murdoch

It's been a while, and it may be a little while longer. I'm drowning in work. In the mean time, stand up to your grief with a drink, courtesy of Iris Murdoch:

Edgar in tweeds (it had not occurred to him to remove his jacket) was sweating freely. Monty was in white shirt and black trousers with the narrowest conceivable leather belt. The room was cool, as he had remembered to keep the shutters closed earlier in the day. He poured out drinks into tall glasses. Gin and freshly pressed lemon, and slice of lime which Harriet had given him, and soda water and a little parsley floating about, like his mother used to make in the old days. Sophie never drank long drinks, even in summer.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym

I have been avoiding Barbara Pym because I don't know that I can do her justice. Laurie Colwin says of Pym, in More Home Cooking, "Everybody thinks she is just darling, but she is not just darling, she's really tough. One of the great things about Barbara Pym is that the food in Barbara Pym is just wonderful."

Pym is tough: and sly, dry, and so very observant. Many of her characters are middle-aged or nearly so, what we no longer call "spinsters," but who don't hesitate to use the term themselves. There are also a lot of anthropologists, appropriately enough: Pym herself was a knockout observer of culture and habit. Here is a young woman who feels her narrow life chafing, and how can we tell? Read on.

"Is that you, dear?" Her mother's voice greeted her as she opened the front door.

"Yes. I hope you haven't waited supper?"

"No, we were just going to start."

In the dining-room Rhoda and Malcolm were already sitting at the table contemplating their salads.

"I had salad for lunch," said Deirdre.

"Oh, did you, dear? I hope you don't mind having it again."

"Well, it's not madly exciting, is it."

"You could have an egg," her aunt suggested.

"I don't feel like an egg," said Deirdre unhelpfully. "I'd like something different."

There was an expectant silence round the table.

"Some rice, all oily and saffron yellow, with aubergines and red peppers and lots of garlic," went on Deirdre extravagantly.

"Oh, well, dear, it's no good wishing for that sort of thing here," said her mother with an air of relief.

"You look rather pink in the face, dear sister," said Malcolm in a jocular tone. "Almost as if you'd been drinking."

"I've had three glasses of sherry," said Deirdre rather defiantly. "I was at the new Library place--Felix's Folly we call it--and there was a sort of party there."

"I suppose it was for anthropologists," said Rhoda, bringing out the word with difficulty.

"Yes, there were quite a lot there."

"What about the one you rather like--was he there?" Mabel asked.

"The one I like?" said Deirdre coldly. "I can't think who you can mean. I don't like any of them particularly."

"I thought there was one who lent you some notes or something," floundered Mrs. Swan. "I'm sure you said something about it."

"One of them may once have been more polite than the others," said Deirdre, "but I don't think I particularly liked him for it."

"I expect the right one will come along one of these days," said Rhoda with an aunt's confidence. She liked to think of her niece as being courted by suitable young men, though, from what she had heard of them, she rather doubted whether anthropologists could be so regarded. There was something disquieting about all this going out to Africa to study the natives, she felt. She would have preferred to see Deirdre married to one of Malcolm's friends and comfortably settled in a nice little house nearby.

"You must make us some of this rice you were talking about," said Mabel quickly. "I dare say it's delicious and if we weren't going out to bridge or seeing Father Tulliver about anything it wouldn't really matter about the garlic, would it, Rhoda?" she turned to her sister, anxious to prevent her from making any more remarks about the right young man coming along. Spinsters didn't really know how to deal with young people, and even mothers said the wrong thing often enough.

"All right, I'll get the things in Soho one day," said Deirdre quite graciously.