The hunger reads: Griselda Heppel finds books mouth-watering

There’s something about people all around me forgoing delicious things  like chocolate and wine  that has me thinking of food like never before. (I gave up giving anything up for New Year/Lent a long time ago. Life in winter is miserable enough.) How apt then, that Laura Freeman’s publishers, W & N, should have chosen mid-February to launch her memoir, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite, in which she describes how the mouth-watering descriptions of food in the great classics saved her from the worst ravages of anorexia.  Siegfried Sassoon fortifying himself with boiled eggs and cocoa before a dawn hunt (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man); Mrs Cratchit’s plum pudding – ‘a speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy’ (A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) – these glorious images tempted her back to the warmth, nourishment and companionship of good things. For most of us, books are food for the soul; for Freeman, they turned out to be food for the body, too.
Speckled plum pudding in A Christmas Carol
   Reading her article in the Sunday Times,, I wanted to punch the air. Anorexia is a terrible, relentless illness. Freeman describes the mental state it induces in terms of a library full of smashed book cases, in which the calm and order the sufferer longs for are reduced to splinters of glass and wood and rain spattered paper. The fact that books saved her, gave her ‘reasons to eat, share, live, to want to be well,’ shows how much the senses are involved in the pleasure of reading, not just the mind.
   For proof, I challenge you to read this list of provisions from St Agnes’s Eve by John Keats and not a) drool, or b) feel sick (depending on your sweetness of tooth).

‘…a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies, soother than the creamy curd…’

No prizes for guessing my reaction to these glorious lines. But then I always did like fruit jellies and cream, and my enjoyment of this poem harks back to some very early reading indeed.

Aged 5, my favourite of the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards was the one where she and Bad Harry sneak into the larder and demolish a splendid trifle planned for his birthday party, beginning with the silver balls and jelly sweets on the top before diving into whipped cream, custard and sponge below. Ok, so it’s not exactly Keats... but it’s a fine example of the importance of food in children’s books.

Freeman cites glorious picnics in The Wind in the Willows, a theme also popular with Enid Blyton, whose Famous Five, Adventurous Four, Secret Seven – whatever – are sustained by freshly baked bread, new-laid eggs, delicious ham and – unforgettably – lashings of ginger beer.

Delightful as these interludes are, their role in the plot shouldn’t be underrated, especially in adventure stories. If you’re going to thrust your characters into hair-raising situations, making them perform superhuman tasks, you’d better make sure you feed them. You’re already asking your readers to suspend a lot of disbelief; rendering your heroes immune to normal human needs is pushing it.
Sending Ante with her companions, Gil and Florence, on a journey through Hell in Ante’s Inferno, I knew I had to allow them to stock up on energy and supplies to keep them going through all that heat and darkness. A break in Elysium, where Hector and Aeneas invite them to join in their cricket tea (er, you have to read the book) and Odysseus gives them water skins, did the trick:

‘Taking a strawberry, Ante allowed it to burst in her mouth, rolling its warmth and sweetness on her tongue.’

My inspiration for calling up the sensuous pleasure of food was the scene in The Last Battle, where C S Lewis allows his characters a rest from all the fighting:

‘All I can say is that, compared with those fruits, the freshest grape-fruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry, and the most melting pear was hard and woody, and the sweetest wild strawberry was sour.’ 

   Just reading that again after all these years makes my mouth water.
   How wonderful, then, that Laura Freeman’s delight in words has altered the balance of power between herself and her anorexia. It’s not a magic cure – she acknowledges the anorexia may never go away altogether – but it’s books that have brought her back to the idea of food and feasting with friends being something to enjoy, not dread.  Books can literally save your life.
   But we knew that.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:


Bill Kirton said…
I can't claim that it was provoked by any book, Griselda, but, having only yesterday braved 'the beast from the east' to struggle to the local newsdagent's to stock up with chocolate, I so feel a distinct kinship with you here.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for a delicious post: very satisfying and not a calorie to count! You got me thinking of Babette and a list of other literary banquets in a new light - as curative as well a culinary. Immodestly, I include my own in that list - a bountiful Italian Renaissance wedding feast in Ophelia Rising that I based on the amazing, artful, real lift food extravaganzas of the day in which whole city's participated.
Anonymous said…
It’s very much that kind of weather - hot chocolate and buns needed by a roaring log fire, with a book to hand... Thank you both for these nice comments. Oh yes, Babette’s feast, what a perfect example! A group of self-denying, resentful villagers being brought together and becoming nicer people through Babette’s huge generosity in giving them the feast of their lives. I loved that film (well I would, wouldn’t I?). A theme taken up again by Joanne Harris in Chocolat, though without the subtle complexity.
And Umberto, your Italian Renaissance wedding feast sounds delectable!

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