Where new writing finds its voice

The Good Plain Cook

Felicity Cloake

Bethan Roberts
Serpent’s Tail, 2008

Have you ever envisaged Coleridge and the Wordsworths on their ill-fated Scottish holiday together, contemplated the inevitable squabbles over bills and accommodation, wondered whether Dorothy, sitting quietly in a corner, ever wearied of her brother and his friend’s endless philosophical disputes, perhaps even felt a hint of relief when Coleridge finally took off? Or have you tried to imagine Wallis Simpson’s husband’s reaction to the news of her affair, or enjoyed a little prurient speculation about the exact nature of 

Henry James’s ‘obscure hurt’? 

Sometimes a person – whether an author, a monarch or an obscure name relegated to the sidelines of history – captures the imagination so utterly that, frustrated by the bald biographical details available, one can be forgiven for indulging in a little idle embroidery to flesh out the person behind the dates. Here, Bethan Roberts has gone one better by allowing her own fantasy to burgeon into a novel – after all her subject, the art collector, heiress and socialite Peggy Guggenheim, certainly left behind enough tantalising whispers for her to work with. 

Oddly perhaps, Roberts has chosen what one Amazon reviewer describes as ‘really one of the dullest periods’ of Guggenheim’s life to play with – her sojourn in rural England during the mid-thirties – rather than the more obviously glamorous years in New York, Venice or even London, surrounded by the glitterati of the art world. In an author’s note, she explains that, although inspired by a visit to the Guggenheim palazzo in the famously romantic Italian city, where, ‘in short, I found the house, and the ghosts of those who’d lived in it, much more interesting than the art,’ on discovering that Peggy and her daughter had spent a few years living fairly near her in West Sussex, she was intrigued enough to abandon all ideas of lengthy research trips to Italy and focus the action closer to home. Clearly some readers have found this a shortcoming, but to me it makes perfect sense. Relatively little is known about this period of Peggy’s life, which affords Roberts more freedom – loosed from the constraints of name-dropping (Guggenheim had a famously exotic love life, and is said to have enjoyed love affairs with Samuel Beckett and the artist Max Ernst, amongst others) and recorded fact, she can weave away to her heart’s content in the
understated style which is one of the beauties of this languid tale.

One thing that Roberts did discover was that, during her stay, Guggenheim hired a local girl to cook for her and her constant stream of guests, and whose unsatisfactory work apparently prompted the American heiress finally to learn a few kitchen skills for herself. In a not uncommon narrative step, Roberts makes this all but forgotten female her protagonist – we see the unusual living arrangements, the desperate insecurity of Ellen Steinberg (as Guggenheim becomes in the novel), and the needy clinginess of her pubertal daughter primarily through the eyes of the bright, nervous, and -solidly conventional Kitty: ‘[She] imagined that Mrs Steinberg was dancing around that huge room... the woman would be flinging her arms about, just like her daughter when she was dressed up and acting out those solo plays of hers on the lawn. And wearing no stockings.’

The primary cause of this insecurity is George Crane, a character based on the writer and Communist Douglas Garman who came to live with Guggeheim in Sussex for a brief period, and who was rather younger than her. Kitty arrives just at the point when their relationship is beginning to sour, despite Ellen’s best efforts to spice up their sex life with alfresco coitus and red negligées, and to accept his faults with fashionable equanimity: ‘[She] was, she told herself, ready to face the other women in Crane’s life. She did pride herself on her tolerance of ex-wives. It was, she felt, a necessary part of -being a bohemian.’ Steinberg even tells a startled Kitty that she wants her help to become a ‘domesticated woman’ to please him, ‘This is the beginning of my life as a true wife and mother,’ she announces grandly. 

The atmosphere during that long, sticky summer is thus fraught with sexual tension: Ellen’s unrequited longing for Crane, Crane and Kitty’s mutual, but forbidden attraction, the slightly sinister gardener’s persistent advances on the new cook, and the burgeoning sexuality of Ellen and George’s two daughters all swell and ripen in the heat and the cramped accommodation. The story, such as it is, moves unhurriedly towards its inevitable conclusion, leaving plenty of time for vignettes such as the family’s marvellously awkward trip to the seaside: ‘Kitty shifted her feet. Her shoes were full of sand and her toes were cramped and hot, but she could not think of a way to remove them -without drawing attention to herself.’

It’s safe to say that if Roberts had set out to pen a thriller, than she would have done well to have chosen a different period in Guggenheim’s life. As it is, this delightfully understated novel is an extended   and atmospheric musing on one of those quietly intriguing situations that a lesser talent would have failed to make much of, and is worth reading for the sheer quality of the writing and characterisation – just don’t expect a thrilling denouement.