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You are what you eat …

As I draw very close to finishing my current novel, The Odyssey of Lily Page, I am facing the prospect of editing it with some pleasure. I edit as I go along, anyway, so this stage of editing is not like working from an early, scanty draft. I already know the material and have shaped, cut, altered considerably as I have progressed through the chapters.

But once the novel is finished, this is the time I go back and see everything I have got wrong. Or repeated. Or altered people’s names or ages. Given them short hair in one paragraph and long in the next. And so on.

You get the idea.

And one of the features I have to look out for is my characters’ dietary habits and indulgences.

Editing my third novel, Miller Street, was to discover how many – too many – times certain characters poured themselves a glass of wine. Or made a cup of coffee. Or ate a sandwich.

And the last thing I want to do is to appear to be making subtle and implied hints that a character has an alcohol or caffeine addiction.

This inevitably made me think about novelists and novels I have loved and how much we hear about what characters eat. Do we know what they like to have for breakfast? Does it matter? Do, in fact, their authors and creators ever actually feed their progeny?

We are all too aware, of course, when characters are not fed – or only on the thinnest of gruel – as in Oliver Twist. And Charlotte Bronte draws our attention to burnt porridge and the delight of buttered toast with Miss Templeton for poor Jane and Helen Burns at Lowood school in Jane Eyre.

In James Joyce’s wonderful short story – more of a novella – The Dead, the entire action focuses on an annual Christmas party and the meal is the catalyst for the story. And in Chocolat by Joanne Harris – well, the title is a slight indication of a certain obsession within the story!

Anita Brookner is one of the few novelists who seems concerned to define what her characters eat. And it’s certainly never beans on toast or fish fingers for any of them! In their hushed mansion flats in Kensington or Chelsea, there is a refinement in their meals: a sole fillet, a ripe camembert, a plate of unadorned early raspberries accompanied by a chilled half bottle of Chablis seem to be the order of the day.

And food is introduced very early on in many of her novels – even in opening sentences:

Madame Doche, with an air of appreciation no less generous for being regularly at her command, took the camembert from Lewis Percy, prodded it with an expert thumb, pronounced it good ….sometimes he brought a bag of cherries ….

and in Latecomers:

Hartman, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue.

So Anita Brookner allows her characters to eat. We see them frequently at mealtimes and know their tastes and habits.

But how many other writers do?

I find it hard to recall many. Can you?

Yet food and attitudes towards it are such useful clues to character and personality, I think.

Or is this just me? Perhaps it’s because I like cooking and thinking about recipes and collect them endlessly even though I very rarely end up cooking the dish and years later throw out the cutting from a paper or magazine I’ve hoarded.

I know when I start editing The Odyssey of Lily Page, I will rediscover Aunt Dorothy’s endless appetite and Lily’s dutiful baking of cakes and puddings for said aunt. I know that Stella Fox, a major character, will impress me again with her culinary skill and that Lily’s first outing with Hugh Murray will be over coffee and Danish Pastries.

Which brings me to another consideration I have had while writing this novel.

Set in London in 1983, I found myself thinking back to what we were buying and eating 40 years ago – yes, it really is that long! Obviously, no vegan or plant-based food around then and coeliacs like me were even more limited than we are today, having to obtain a doctor’s prescription to be able to get gluten free breads, flours, biscuits et al. And even in London, coffee shops did not fill every other space on the high street and the ones that did exist tended to serve only two sorts of coffee – black or white with cappuccino only available if it was an Italian establishment. There was certainly no skimmed or almond or oat or soya milk options back then!

Fortunately, I was living and working in London at this time so can recall exactly the restaurants and scant cafes – in comparison with today – and have enjoyed taking my protagonist, Lily Page, to several of them and helping her order appropriate dishes. I’ve kept her away from the cuisine minceur and nouvelle cuisine fads that lingered in the early 80s and I’m convinced that Lily has both Delia Smith and Joscelyn Dimbleby cookery books firmly on the shelves of her kitchen in Islington.

Of course, I’m anticipating having to remove numerous references to casual cups of coffee and swift slugs of wine, let alone those over detailed descriptions of Sunday lunch with Aunt Dorothy …(I can almost see the Yorkshire pudding rising in Lily’s oven- no cheating with the ready-made version in 1983!) but I still find myself siding with the Anita Brookner school of thought when it comes to characters and depicting their tastes – after all, what we choose to eat is some indicator of personality – as well as the social and economic times in which we live.

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