Domestic suffering simmers beneath the surface of domestic goddesses
Nigella Lawson and Isabella Beeton had more in common than popular recipes
Nigella Lawson – “It is hard to imagine such a confident and commanding woman as the victim of abuse of any kind.” Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire
You know, Isabella Beeton’s husband very probably gave her syphilis. The path of the domestic goddess has never been smooth. The news of Nigella Lawson’s less-than idyllic – indeed pretty worrying – domestic circumstances is upsetting. But our purveyors of domestic bliss have always emerged from tragedy and scandal. That has never stopped us imagining them living in some sort of domestic nirvana. It is time to get over our surprise.
For those of us who have interviewed Lawson it is hard to imagine such a confident and commanding woman as the victim of abuse of any kind. (It was 1999. How To Eat had just been published. Lawson was in Dublin on the book tour, wearing beige cashmere, and never have you seen so many men queueing to have a cookery book signed). Yet, confronted last week by the photographs of her husband manhandling her outside a London restaurant, imagine it we must.
There’s a bigger issue here though, about how these paragons of domestic bliss frequently emerge from domestic suffering of the nastiest kind, often endured in childhood. Beeton’s widowed mother remarried, and she was eventually the eldest of a step-family so enormous even by Victorian standards – 21 children – that it lived in the grandstand at Epsom racecourse; her step-father being the steward there. Is it really any wonder that Beeton’s masterwork was called The Book Of Household Management?
Lawson has made it pretty clear that her own childhood was an unhappy one, with a beautiful, depressed and apparently unstable mother whose cookery practices are often evoked in her daughter’s books, particularly in How To Eat.
Another modern cookery guru, Nigel Slater, lost his mother as a small boy, and was locked into some sort of sad emotional cook-off with his new step-mother, both vying to feed his father.
Those of us who have interviewed Slater found him an intense perfectionist who was frank about his years in therapy. The journalist Jan Moir has written perceptively about how the adult Slater is recreating the perfect home, over and over again. But, come to think of it, perhaps that’s what we’re all doing.
In Ireland our greatest cookery writer, before the Allens, who have had their own drama, was Maura Laverty. She had a life of unremitting tragedy, as well as of unremitting creativity: an unhappy childhood, a ghastly husband and two of her three children dying before she did. (Her surviving child, Barry, now deceased, was the source of this information.)
Laverty was the sole breadwinner for her children. Frequently she was not paid royalties for the plays she wrote for her friends, Hilton Edwards and Micheál Mac Liammóir, at the Gate Theatre, which often rescued that little company from financial disaster. She was a sophisticated, gracious woman who had to scramble for money all her life. No wonder, really, that her most famous cookery book was called Full & Plenty.