Sun, Apr 03, 2005 - Page 18 News List

Lilla's Feast dishes up a tribute to 19th century British virtues

Meticulously researched, thought-provoking and moving, Osborne's book about her great grandmother's life is a genuine labor of love

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Lilla's Feast
By Frances Osborne
280 pages
Ballantine Books

The "Lilla" of the title was the author's great grandmother. Born in China in the 1880s, her world was initially that of the peak of the British Empire's prosperity. The "feast" refers to a cookery book she assembled throughout her life and completed during the three years she was interned by the Japanese during World War II.

With food rationed into virtual non-existence, she staked her life on her culinary artistry. Essentially this was an attempt to conjure up the tastes and sweet aromas of what had now become little more than a memory into something real that could inject purpose into a life that was otherwise merely about determination and survival.

What's striking is the author's devotion to Lilla, whom she knew until her 100th birthday (when the author was 14). And it's more than devotion -- she has the ability to allow Lilla's spirit to pervade her story, treating her triumphs and disappointments alike with unwavering authenticity.

By the age of 19, Lilla has set her sights on marriage to Ernie Howells, a man prone to irritability, whose initial enthusiasm for Lilla wanes after their marriage. Chief amongst his misgivings is the fear that she might stretch his purse-strings to the point of his own ruin. His family's dismissive attitude to Lilla is further exacerbated by the animosity between her own mother and Ernie so that, fueled by a desire to leave behind this "not quite prudent marriage," he resolves to abandon her and their newborn son while he pursues a military career in India.

Fortunately, delays caused by ill-health give Ernie and Lilla a grace period of further time spent together, and an opportunity for Lilla to tempt her husband with her culinary and home-making skills, until he starts to have second thoughts about a life alone.

If ever a story was dished up as a tribute to the 19th century virtues of domesticity, good housekeeping and the dubious rule that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, this is it.

The couple are given a posting to Kashmir, India's mesmerizing scenic mountain kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas. In the light of Ernie's comments to a friend regretting that Lilla was not the goose who'd laid the golden egg -- which the author deplores as "horrid" to "dear, sweet, elegant Great-Granny" -- you wonder at the wisdom of Lilla's devotion. So great, however, is her desire to be part of Ernie's life, she decides she can't afford to let her newly discovered pregnancy keep her in England and so brings about her own miscarriage.

After a relatively blissful time spent together in Kashmir and then in the sweatier area of Lucknow, Ernie meets disaster when his ship, en route to Baghdad, is torpedoed by a German U-boat. Ernie is now declared lost at sea.

Meanwhile, Lilla and her brothers are rescued from bankruptcy by a generous proposal of marriage by one Ernest Casey. Here at last was someone willing to adore Lilla, to spoil her just as she'd spoiled Ernie, and to provide for her and her children.

Casey's company is located in China, which means they return to her birthplace of Chefoo -- to Lilla's great satisfaction. With her new-found wealth she invests in a series of properties, kitting them out with loving care. She organizes lavish banquets just as the Japanese incursion is starting to make itself felt. In this mood of uncertainty -- felt by just about everyone at the close of the 1930s -- Lilla starts to write her cookery book. With paper now in short supply, she resorts to typing her recipes on old rice-paper receipts.

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