After writing about the gloomy industrial landscape in small town Oxfordshire, I made a conscious decision to escape to a more glamorous location for my second book, The Good Plain Cook.
When I started writing, I thought my main character was going to be a fictionalised version of the famous millionaire-ess art collector, bohemian and eccentric, Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy was one of the most important collectors of art of the 20th century, and many people are familiar with her museum in Venice, which is housed in the palazzo on the Grand Canal where she once lived. When I was 19, I visited Peggy’s palazzo and was very struck by the place. I think that when you visit it you’re just as interested in who lived there and what they did in these rooms as you are in the art. I found myself more fascinated by furniture and the photos than the Picassos and the Pollocks.
What attracted me to Peggy as a subject for a novel? Probably the same things that attracted her string of famous lovers (in her memoirs, she lists Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Humphrey Jennings and Max Ernst amongst them, and she also suggests a fling with Henry Moore). What attracted me was her pile of money, with all its attendant pleasures and difficulties; her have-a-go-gusto (as the Nazis were crossing Europe, Peggy was buying a painting a day in Paris – she left two days before Hitler arrived); her generosity (she sponsored many impoverished artists – some great, some not so great); her paradoxical meanness (she frequently served stale Jacob’s crackers at her parties); her apparent indifference to her own children (she once commented she would rather have a painting than a daughter); her huge nose, which she hated all her life (one lover “affectionately” called her “dog-nose”) and, last but not least, the fact that she once lived just up the coast from me, in a village called South Harting.
It’s not very widely known that this small downland village near Petersfield was once home to Peggy Guggenheim and her communist lover, the obscure poet Douglas Garman. But for a few years in the mid 1930s, New Yorker Peggy put up with damp, isolated rural England. She commented that the pub was good, but the place was utterly dead.
I live in Brighton, so this piqued my interest. Not far to go for research! So much for my daydreams of extended research stays in Venice…
But what was going to happen to this character, who I’d now renamed Ellen Steinberg, so I wouldn’t have to worry about sticking too closely to the facts? I had some information about what Peggy had done whilst in Sussex, but not much. Luckily, during my research, I read that Peggy had employed a young local girl, Kitty, as a cook and, dissatisfied with the girl’s performance, had decided to learn to cook herself. Peggy actually hired a French chef to give her and Kitty lessons. I was fascinated by this image of the impractical bohemian introducing the bewildered local girl to French cuisine. I also realised that Kitty’s perspective, as the outsider inside the house, could provide the novel with an ideal way to observe all the intimacies and secrets of the household from a slightly comic point of view.
As wilful and dominating as Peggy was, I now had a new main character ― the Good Plain Cook, Kitty Allen, an innocent young woman with ordinary hair and a passion for embroidery. And, thank god, I had something like a plot: Peggy’s bohemian world was about to be invaded by this below-stairs girl.
I also felt that the servant’s perspective was one that was commonly left out of the narratives of bohemian life. The great contradiction at the heart of, say, the Bloomsburies at Charleston Farmhouse (also in Sussex) is that they wanted to change the world but they didn’t want to do it without servants. Generally, they could live the lives they did because they had the support of domestic staff. One thing that’s always struck me, going round Charleston, is that the kitchen – which was the room I most wanted to see – is not on the general tour of the house.
Inevitably, Kitty became the heroine of the novel. And also inevitably, she is drawn in the book to Ellen Steinberg’s lover, the poet George Crane. I was aware this was something of a ‘bodice ripper’ – or in this case an ‘apron-ripper’ – cliché, but I just couldn’t resist it and I had lots of fun with it.