A Fabulous Account of Seventeenth-Century Food: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Some months ago I was delighted to receive Lawrence Norfolk’s latest book – for which special thanks to Carole Blake, his agent, who I met in London at the HNS Conference last September. My short piece (which is reproduced below) came out in the May issue of Historical Novels Review (the stunning book jacket, the US one – on the right – is also on the magazine’s cover).

john saturnall-US-small

john saturnall-UK-small

John Saturnall’s Feast is a sumptuous account of cooking and food lore, as well as a love story set against the background of Puritanical fanaticism and the English Civil War. There is something here to suit – literally – all tastes.  Lawrence Norfolk’s earlier books range widely: Lemprière’s Dictionary, The Pope’s Rhinoceros and In the Shape of a Boar, each a tour de force of literary historical fiction. The inspiration for his latest began with an untold story, he says. “I was reading Taste, by my friend Kate Colquhoun, and I was surprised by the sophistication and cosmopolitan nature of the cuisine: delicate biscuit-making, painstaking feats of sauce-making, heroic multi-animal roasts and so on. England in the early seventeenth century had the most advanced and heterogeneous cuisine in Europe. But then I reached the Civil War and the story just stopped. Everyone went off to war, the aristocracy who had funded these opulent kitchens lost their heads or their estates or both, and of course the kitchens went with them. What, I thought, if you were a cook? What if you had trained and sweated and crammed your head with learning and suddenly your whole world was destroyed. What would you do? That predicament gave me the story.”

            John’s mother is accused of witchcraft but during their last days together, starving and cold, she teaches John all she knows about the Valley, the Book and the Feast. “We ate before we prayed,” says Norfolk. “Many cultures have a myth of an original ‘Garden’, a paradise where food falls from the trees and a life of ease is a birthright. That vision lies behind the concept of the Feast: a place, a table or a board, where all gather to sustain themselves, and therefore gather as equals. Marpot’s religious fanaticism and the hierarchy at Buckland Manor are both distortions of that vision. I saw the cook as at once the High Priest of the Feast and its servant, both its keeper and its giver. In one sense, John’s task in the book is to resolve these roles and find his right place. That’s a quest he pursues through his mother’s legacy (the Book of Saturnus), through the kitchen and – at last – with Lucretia.”

            Research was crucial, as always, but also involved visits to Ham House (and its kitchen garden) and Hampton Court to get an idea of the kitchens of Buckland. “The cookery books of the time were a goldmine, and great fun.”  However the puritan mind-set was harder to research, and their writings “monuments to pious self-obsession.” 

            However, Norfolk’s work also delves back further, into myth and fantasy.  Here there are no records: “myth is history without its footnotes”.  Sometimes even historical facts, although true, are just too incredible to believe.  When asked about the greatest challenge of writing the book, it was taking “the reader into John Saturnall’s sense-world and offering up his tastes”. This is a classic case of less is more: the art of writing historical fiction without  on fact.  “The poetry of the cooking and the strange ingredients stand for John’s experiences. I name them, but I want the reader to taste them. That imaginative leap is more important to me than the one into the past.”

            What about the next book, I ask. “It’s very early days,” Norfolk replies, “but it will be set in the reign of Queen Mary, or more accurately during the girlhood of Elizabeth I, and will involve the heralds of the College of Arms. Their duties included gathering, investigating and keeping the genealogical records of the nobility and others, thus promoting and sometimes demoting the aristocracy. A potentially perilous task. They were existential policemen.”

            In closing, I ask about trying out the recipes. “A resounding failure”, apparently. Then he adds, “I still enjoy cooking but in the end ­– I think John Saturnall and I learned this together – it doesn’t make much difference what you cook. It’s who you cook for that matters.”

Lawrence Norfolk has won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Budapest Festival Prize for Literature and his work has been shortlisted for the IMPAC Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Award and the Wingate/Jewish Quarterly Prize for Literature. Find out more at http://www.lawrencenorfolk.com/

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About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
This entry was posted in book reviews, Cultural history, historical fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Fabulous Account of Seventeenth-Century Food: John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

  1. Cornflower says:

    That was my top favourite novel last year – a wonderful book!

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