A recently published novel by Annabel Abbs tells the story of Eliza Acton – “Britain’s first domestic goddess” who inspired the likes of Mrs Beeton and Delia Smith. The Times learns more about this revolutionary local culinary hero.
A historical novel about Eliza Acton – described as the first modern food writer and a figure with strong Tonbridge connections – has been written by a member of the Tonbridge School parent community.
Annabel Abbs’ new work, The Language of Food, the story of Eliza Acton, Britain’s first household goddess, was recently published in the UK and is currently being translated into 16 languages. Already released in the United States, the book has also been commissioned by CBS to become a television series.
Eliza (1799 – 1859) was an English food writer and poet who produced one of the first British cookbooks for the home reader. Titled Modern Cooking for Private Families, the book introduced the now universal practice of listing ingredients and suggesting cooking times for each recipe.
When she was 20, Eliza was living in Tonbridge, close to the school. She resided at No 1 Bordyke (now the Priory) with her mother, brother and sisters. Eliza Acton’s brother and nephew were pupils at Tonbridge, and her cookbook certainly reflected her roots with titles such as “pie a la Judd” – a fruit tart named after Sir Andrew Judde, the founder of Tonbridge School. Others included “Kentish” sausage meat, tallow pudding, and cherry jam; Brawn ‘Tonbridge’ and veal cake ‘Bordyke’, confit ham and bread.
Annabel’s new novel is her third. Her debut album, The Joyce Girl, won the Impress Award and was also selected by Guardian Reader’s Pick, which is currently being adapted for the stage. Her second novel, Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley, was named Times Book of the Year 2018. She has been nominated for the Bath Novel Award, the Caledonia Novel Award and the Waverton GoodRead Award.
Annabel has a son at Tonbridge, in Year 3, and her husband also attended school.
She told The Times: “I found Eliza Acton in an old collection of cookbooks amassed by my mother-in-law when she was a cooking teacher in the 1950s.
“We inherited the collection when it moved to a smaller house, but it wasn’t until 20 years later that I started cooking with it. Acton’s recipes and writing style were far above those of his peers.
Annabel added: ‘I would arrive at Ferox House early to pick up Hugo and then snoop around the area trying to imagine him in 1837. Sometimes I would stay at The Rose and Crown which was the closest inn to Acton, and spent my days retracing the steps she and Ann, her assistant, would have taken as they went to market, church, or Barming Heath asylum.
The Tring Book Festival calls The Language of Food “the most thought-provoking and compelling historical novel you’ll read this year”, adding: “Annabel Abbs explores the enduring struggle for women’s freedom, the complexities of friendship , the creativity and quiet joy of cooking and the poetry of food, all while bringing Eliza Acton out of the archives and back into the public eye.A portrait of Victorian domestic life that is both encompassing and intricately detailed.
Annabel Abbs’ The Language of Food, The Eliza Acton Story, is priced at £14.99 and available to buy from all good bookstores, including Waterstones and also online at Amazon.