Women with writerly aspirations in the early 1800s had few options for publication. Most female writers were advised to stick to gothic novels, bits of poetry, or cookery. Even if they had never cooked. Such was the case for Elizabeth Acton, whose desire to become a poet was derailed by a publisher who rejected her manuscript but offered her the opportunity to write a book of household cookery.
Annabel Abbs creates a fictional world that gives life to Acton’s plan to create her book by taking everything wrong with previous cookery books (such as the lack of an ingredients list, concise temperatures, measurements or cooking times) and making them better. In real life Acton’s family was destitute and she and her mother ran a boarding house where she tested all of her recipes with the help of one kitchen assistant, Ann Kirby.
The book focuses on the partnership — and friendship — of Acton and Kirby, although little is known of Ann Kirby other than her name. Chapters switch back and forth between the two characters, with Kirby’s chapters detailing her terrible home life (father disabled and alcoholic, mother sent away to an asylum), while Acton’s show the pressure for her to find a good husband and pull her family out of financial ruin.
Abbs’ fictional relationship between Acton and Kirby is just that, and making the friendship the point of the story is slightly disingenuous. Fictional Eliza talks to and about Ann as if they’re best friends, but in real life, Kirby, whatever her skill level, or however refined her palate might have been, was probably just an assistant. Certainly, the assertions by fictional Eliza that the book is “theirs”, created together as partners, doesn’t translate to real life when only Acton’s name appears as the author. Kirby left Acton’s employ shortly after the book was published and only shows up in public records again years later. The friendship aspect of the book is what drives it as a work of fiction, but it mostly just left me wanting to know more about Ann Kirby, and not just because we share a surname.
Both women have their own, separate story arcs, but Miss Eliza’s Kitchen is not exactly plot-driven. Instead, it’s the food writing — the descriptive passages detailing dishes, techniques, ingredients, and kitchens — than are the most engaging and that make it worth recommending.