Magazine article The Spectator

Lilla's Feast: A Story of Love, War and a Passion for Food

Magazine article The Spectator

Lilla's Feast: A Story of Love, War and a Passion for Food

Article excerpt

A great-grandmother glimpsed LILLA'S FEAST: A STORY OF LOVE, WAR AND A PASSION FOR FOOD by Frances Osborne Doubleday, £18.99, pp. 325, ISBN 0385606664 £16.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

I have a faded photograph of Frances Osborne. I imagine the moment the picture was taken: perhaps she had just been told that this, her first book, would be published. She must have been happy and would have shared her happiness with her children, Luke and Liberty, who, I suppose, must have been happy, too. I can also picture Ms Osborne before she became an author, when she was a barrister, banker and a journalist. In each of these activities, she probably worked very hard, had been disappointed at times and happy at others. I like to think of her at her second home in Cheshire when this picture was taken. It must be a lovely place.

Aside from the photograph, the names of Ms Osborne's children, her previous jobs and the information about the place in Cheshire, all of which arrived with the publisher's bumf, I made up everything in the previous paragraph. As Ms Osborne says of her own book, those were 'all the must haves and would haves that I have so enjoyed working out'.

Indeed, in the 325 pages of Lilla's Feast, all those 'must haves' and 'would haves', together with 'I hopes' and 'I imagines', are sprinkled across almost every page. It is the second book I have read in two weeks, both from reputable publishers, in which the authors are so short of real information about their subjects that they must resort to such weasel words, or to what others said about their subjects or about events where the subjects may - or may not - have been present. Frances Osborne is frank: playing 'lone juryman', as she says, she

had to deduce [do jurymen deduce?] what it was like for my great-grandmother Lilla to he, in a certain place, a certain time, and what she would have done, what she must have said. I closed my eyes and could almost see and hear what must have happened to her.

Lilla, who died just short of her 101st birthday, was, as Ms Osborne states, a typical woman of her age and imperial class. Born in 1882 in Chefoo (nowadays Zhifu), a Chinese treaty port, she and her twin Ada were elegant, well-corseted, flirtations young women of the empire, who married men from the services. Lilia stuttered, which is unusual for women. The twins lived their early married lives in India, Lilla rather more humbly than her sister. Unlike Ada's grand naval-captain husband, Lilla's Ernie was a mere army captain who looked after stores and draught animals, and was promoted very slowly Lilla loved to provide enormous meals for the men in her life, including three 'husbands', to make sure they didn't leave her. (Why does Ms Oshome write husbands'? Lilla was married to all three, seriatim, and they all died on her hands.) Ms Oshome recites Lilla's belt-busting menus as a kind of foodie pornography. But they are common upperclass Victorian meals, as any cookhook of the time would show (my mother, hardly a Victorian hostess, had several), together with Chinese and Indian touches. What is truly unusual, and requires no ignorant-conditional mights or woulds, is the cookbook Lilla wrote, complete with housewifely tips, during her more than three years in a Japanese internment camp, which she survived with her third husband. …

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