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Writings at the Kitchen Table: The Authorized Biography of Elizabeth David. Artemis Cooper. Michael Joseph. [pound]20.00. 352 pages. ISBN 0-7181-42241.

It is rare, even now, for many women not to find the words Elizabeth David magical. Her influence was tremendous. I still have battered copies of all her earlier books, the most moving perhaps being French Country Cooking with its enchanting drawings and 'must try' recipes. Her personality, however, always remained shadowy. The more one read her, the more one was intrigued. When, and why, for instance had Mrs David kept house in so many Mediterranean countries? What kind of life did she lead?

One feels rapped over the knuckles by those voyeuristic tendencies as soon as one begins Artemis Cooper's book. Elizabeth David shunned personal publicity. 'Everything I want to say is in my books' she maintained. She discouraged impertinent curiosity with frozen silence and there is an uneasy feeling, as one reads, that one is prying into her chosen privacy. Many of her letters, one is glad to learn, have not been included and their secrets remain intact.

However, the story is too fascinating to miss. Artemis Cooper, in spite of certain stylistic quirks (throughout the book, unless they are famous, she introduces characters as 'someone called...'), has the gift of vividly evoking the atmosphere of the different stages in Elizabeth's life. Her patrician childhood in Sussex, with its privileges and privations; the early death of her father and family feuds over property; rebellion and the intense, raffish bohemian life between the wars. But it is the adventures and horrors of the war years which bring out the strength and creativity of Elizabeth David's character. As she flees from Italy to Greece, from Greece to Crete and from Crete to Egypt her path fortuitously re-crosses that strange middle-class English speaking society that the war had spawned and from which she drew life-long friends.

The intensity of these Mediterranean years ends abruptly with her return to a cold, drab, exhausted post-war England. Rationing still has the country in its grip as does the coldest winter in living memory. Her husband, Tony David, speculates in a number of financially disastrous undertakings. She sees capital eaten away and debts mounting. These do not worry Tony but horrify Elizabeth who feels humiliated and mortified by her husband and her debts. The end of her unsatisfactory marriage starts the development of her outstanding talents as an innovator, a scholar and a writer.

Although this period of Elizabeth David's life appears one of greater serenity due to the recognition of her talent and her financial success, it is by no means emotionally tranquil. Trouble with her publishers causes her untold anguish as do, later, squabbles over her shop and even copyright of her own name. She is dogged by accident, illness, betrayal, bereavement. But she travels, writes, cooks and cultivates her friendships over long, convivial lunches at her beloved kitchen table. Her research becomes increasingly scholarly. Her collection of source material fills her rooms with ancient cookery books, papers and utensils. This gives her great purpose and pleasure and her life does not fizzle out. She dies quite suddenly.

At her funeral the church at her native Folkington is filled to bursting. Among the stupendous floral tributes someone had left a loaf of bread and a bunch of herbs tied up in brown paper. One feels that she would have liked that.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2000

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