Varieties of Reluctance


Our Daily Correspondent


One of Alex Jardine’s illustrations from The Reluctant Cook.

I was delighted, at a London bookshop, to encounter a recent reissue of the 1954 Ethelind Fearon manual The Reluctant Hostess. As far as I’m concerned, Fearon’s entire oeuvre should be in print always, regardless of commercial considerations. She is that idiosyncratic.

Fearon, who died in 1974 and at present doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry, was an authority on restoring medieval houses and an accomplished gardener—at one point she kept H. G. Wells’s garden—but as her official Random House bio would have it, “under pressure from publishers and an eager public she also wrote a number of books on such diverse but essential subjects as pigkeeping, pastries, how to keep pace with your daughter, and how to grow herbs.” (I want to meet every member of this supposedly clamoring public.)

It’s the rather dashing cooking and entertaining books that have made it back onto shelves, and it’s not hard to see why. Along with their whimsical line drawings of gay and insouciant hostesses, the books boast a breezy, sometimes slapdash tone. In The Reluctant Cook (whose 1953 cover features a hostess-aproned matron kicking back on a sofa with martini in hand and cigarette holder between lips), Fearon writes characteristically, 

Salad like soup can be anything. If you choose to serve cold rice pudding and stewed prunes, with a garnish of lettuce leaves and dressing of lemon juice and oil, as a salad, no one could contradict you. I know because I’ve done it, but you need courage, a knowledge of the inadequacies of your opponent (which is more potent armor than any courage), and a few green olives and radishes cut into the shape of fusicia stuck on top. It’s a masterpiece, and the finest known method of disposing of cold rice pudding.

It is also unorthodox and cannot be advocated as a standard practice, only as an example of how fortune favors the bold.

And here she is on removing scorch marks from linen:

You don’t have to believe this. It smells too strongly of witchcraft. Nevertheless it is another of Grandmother’s nostrums and it works, goodness knows why. Mix half a pint of vinegar, two ounces of fuller’s earth, one ounce of fowl’s dung (from a cock if possible) half an ounce of soft soap and two large onions cut in pieces …

Fearon would have had fairly ready access to said cock dung—clearly her heart was on the farm. Even her children’s books—Pluckrose’s Horse, The Sheep-Dog Adventure, The Young Stock-Keepers—often deal with rural themes. And indeed, as jaunty as the “reluctant” books are, it’s in titles like Me and Mr. Mountjoy (the pig one) and 1946’s Most Happy Husbandman that the author’s passion really shines through. The latter is probably my favorite: it chronicles a year on an Essex farm, and while it may be short on martini-quaffing hostesses (the more sober woodcut decorations are by Bernard Reynolds) it’s a book of real character. On pure title grounds, mention must also be made of A Privy in the Cactus and The Marquis, the Mayonnaise and Me. The demands of the public, you know.

Fearon’s output was tremendous, her energy seemingly inexhaustible. To read her—on gardens, on herbs, on parenting, on fancy cakes, on travel—is to be inspired, cheered, and exhausted by proxy. One feels she’d be hard to keep up with, too. It’s no coincidence that the last pages of The Reluctant Hostess portray our heroine prostrate in a chair, a pen-and-ink swirl, presumably denoting exhaustion, above her head. This is how you feel, as a reader. And yet, her final words, like those of a hypercompetent, British Scarlett O’Hara, resonate, too: “So let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow—but we will leave tomorrow to speak for itself.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.