While still a girl, Elizabeth Gwynne longed to escape from the horsy, country-house world in which she was brought up. After being "finished" in Paris and Munich, she went on the stage, but she was restless and unsettled. In august 1939 she and her lover, Charles Gibson-Cowan set off in a boat for Greece. Trapped in Antibes by the war, Elizabeth came under the spell of Norman Douglas, one of the most important influences in her life. She and Charles set sail again just as Italy entered the war, only to find themselves interned. Eventually they reached Athens. They spent the winter of 1940-41 on a Greek island, where Elizabeth first started to cook Mediterranean food. The German invasion of the Balkans forced them to join the refugees fleeing to Egypt. In the raffish "Fortunes of War" world of Alexandria and Cairo, Elizabeth flourished and came to know writers such as Lawrence Durrell and Patrick Leigh Fermor. She also met Tony David, an officer in the Indian army. He proposed to her by letter from Italy and, to the astonishment of her friends, she accepted. After the war and a few months in India, Elizabeth returned to grey and rationed England. Exasperated by the bleakness of English food, she put pen to paper and began to work out "an agonized craving for the sun". The result was "Mediterranean Food", a book which caught the imagination of a generation. In the course of the next decade, the happiest of her life, her books and articles inspired a cookery revolution. Elizabeth never spoke of her failed marriage, and few people knew about the other man, the great love of her life. When he left her for another woman, she thought she would never write again. Instead she opened her kitchen shop, but disagreements between the partners forced Elizabeth out. She returned to writing, but the tone of her last books was more scholarly than lyrical. Working from an extensive archive of personal papers, Artemis Cooper reveals the powerful tensions between Elizabeth David's private world and the image of the successful woman she presented to her public. It is a story that even some of her closest friends never knew.
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Although Elizabeth David was the very opposite of a recluse, she was famously reluctant to divulge information about herself to her readers, claiming that everything that needed to be said could be found in her books. In light of Artemis Cooper's Writing at the Kitchen Table, this assertion looks more doubtful than ever: the more that is revealed about David, the more interesting she becomes. Cooper is the "authorized" biographer, writing with access to a mass of personal papers, but this is no hagiography. Mrs. David, crisply but sympathetically drawn in these pages, was a fascinating egotist, beautiful with a hard sensuality, generous but capable of furious rages and lasting grudges. She learned a valuable lesson in self-centeredness from the quintessentially louche Norman Douglas, who in many ways seems to have been a key influence. Clearly she was not exactly a nice person, although it is encouraging (and not entirely surprising) to discover she had a really dirty laugh--more of a cackle, it appears.
The story is well told: the patrician background she flouted (but not too much); the flight from England, grayness, and failure; the rackety wartime years spent knocking around the Mediterranean in the company of high bohemians such as Lawrence Durrell; the marriage of convenience in Cairo that gave her the status of a married woman but was soon abandoned; the lovers; the return to London and the start of a dazzling writing career; the fame and the status; the shop; the stroke that affected both palate and libido; the troubled later years. On none of this need she be judged, and Cooper does not. In a sense, David was right. The best of her is in the writing--namely, in her precise, attentive, sensual appreciation of food and cooking. She was above all an exquisitely skillful cook, whose influence, though mostly indirect, has been incalculable. It's all the more moving, then, to learn at her funeral, "among the wreaths and baskets of flowers, and the violets she loved, someone had left a loaf of bread and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper." --Robin DavidsonAbout the Author:
Artemis Cooper is the author of Cairo in the War 1939-1945 and Paris after the Liberation (which she cowrote with her husband, Antony Beevor). They have two children and live in London.
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Book Description Michael Joseph, 1999. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0718142241