Friday 20 November 2009

Bowen: Eating and Electric Cleaning

After years - no, decades - of meaning to (and at least once beginning to), I've finally got round to reading Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart. No doubt I'll post on it when I've finished, but, slow and distracted reader that I am, I'm barely halfway through. Leaving critical judgment, then, on one side, one of the most startling things about the novel is the endless hours of leisure Bowen's characters (even the ones who 'work') have at their disposal in those far-off prewar years, and another is the staggering quantities of food they shovel in. The typical day proceeds from hearty cooked breakfast to morning tea or coffee, with biscuits or cakes, then a full sit-down lunch, followed in short order by afternoon tea - more cakes and biscuits - to keep body and soul together till the full sit-down evening dinner, which might very well be followed by a pre-bedtime snack or two to see a body through the long hungry reaches of the night. Lord, these elegant ladies and gents know how to put it away! Did people need more food in those days, perhaps because they had no central heating and tended to walk more? Why was there no 'obesity epidemic'? Needless to say, all this food was cooked for them - by 'cook' or in restaurants - and domestic staff could also be relied upon to give the house a quite hair-raisingly thorough spring clean every year. Readers of The Death of the Heart will recall that it's the annual spring clean that causes the Quaynes to vacate their London home, pootling off to Capri for a few weeks, and sending poor Portia to the seaside. Part of the spring cleaning ritual, it seems, was the cleaning of the library, washing the shelves down and sending the books to be 'electric cleaned'. What? What on earth is that? My online researches have yielded nothing in the way of electric cleaners that doesn't involve water and undue violence, quite unsuited to books. Perhaps a machine along these lines was involved? I can't say I'm tempted to send my books away for treatment...


  1. I've often thought that too - I mean the bit about the quantity of food. Bertie Wooster, for example, never stops scoffing. Why weren't they all monstrously fat? I'd love to eat constantly all day (I particularly like the idea of high tea) but on the Wooster diet I would be the size of Prescott within a week. Not fair.

  2. I read somewhere - I think it was from Research-U-Like - that contemporary obesity isn't due to people's calorific intake going up; it's rather that we do less exercise, the decline of manual work being a factor. As for the upper classes a leisured lifestyle probably meant lots of golf and shooting rather than loafing around.

    One thing that strikes me about the old days is how much time they (the well-off, that is) spent recuperating. They were often taking to their beds for weeks at a time or heading off to Switzerland or the South of France for a season-long break.

  3. "Why was there no 'obesity epidemic'?" Because the infectious agent that causes it wasn't yet around.

    Or, perhaps, because the infectious agent that protected from it hadn't yet been killed off by the arrival of antibiotics.

  4. Dear Nigeness,

    How curious. I shall probably post about _The Death of the Heart_ either today or tomorrow--sometime soon as I've just finished. If you stop by, you'll know it by title and can skip it until you've finished your own reading of it. But it's always remarkable to find someone else has picked up the same thing at about the same time.

    Thanks for this great blog.



  5. Thanks Steven - I'll have a look after I've finished (I haven't read the Intro yet either, on the same principle)...

  6. It's an obesity epidemic when your common or garden plebs (and possibly oinks) start getting rotund, guzzling down their turkey twizzlers and fizzy pop. Then chunkiness ceases to be a sign of good-living and a proxy for plenty, and becomes a disease.

  7. The quantity of alcohol consumed too was prodigious, tho' already a sad decline had begun to set in:

    "There is an entry in Dyott's Diary, 10 November 1787 - 'There were just twentry dined, and we drank sixty-three bottles of wine.' I heard of a man going to a physician because he could not drink three bottles, as his father did before him."

    Cecil Torr, Small Talk at Wreyland (1921)

  8. Thanks Sir Watkin - those were the days!

  9. This all sounds rather maximalist, if not a little hysterical. Does Ms Bowen have any links to Lawrence Llewellyn? Do you think they could possibly be related?

  10. I believe Laurence Llewelyn Bowen is related to EVERYBODY darling...

  11. Dear, dear Larry's problem is that for the last seven generations the parents have all been related, by blood.
    Obesity theory No 1001...researchers at the university of Pollyaswas have discovered a direct link between obesity and volume.
    It was by immersing volunteers in water for 20 minutes and measuring the difference in water lever that the universities fatfettling dept discovered the link.
    It's legal dept stated that they would vigorously challenge in court the claims by relatives that the University had abandoned non-destructive testing some time ago.

  12. Thanks for some other great article. The place else could anybody
    get that kind of info in such a perfect way of writing?
    I've a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

    Here is my web-site ... outcall Asian massage ()