Elizabeth David's final recipe: take one culinary saint, two rival books, add wine and sex and stir to boiling point

Ann Treneman
Wednesday 02 December 1998 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Lisa Chaney opens the door of her house in York wearing an red apron with white polka dots. Somehow she manages to look fantastic in this, which isn't fair because, as the unauthorised biographer of the sainted food writer Elizabeth David, she really should look stressed to the hilt. It has taken a huge amount of patience and plain old detective work to discover the secrets of this almost pathologically private woman. In the end she did it, though. The book is full of drink and lovers, including one wildly romantic adventure with a man in a boat. And there's lots of basil, too.

Lisa Chaney did all of this without one smidgeon of help from Elizabeth David's literary executor, Jill Norman. Jill doesn't approve of Lisa's book, and that certainly is no secret. There is a culinary scandal brewing here, though neither Lisa nor Jill will say as much. Lisa's book, Elizabeth David: A Mediterranean Passion, has just come out. It is a doorstop of a biography, but reads like the wind. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in the end, she had to write like the wind. The pressure was on because Jill had commissioned an authorised biography from Artemis Cooper, who has had access to everything that Lisa was denied: all Elizabeth David's notebooks, letters sent to her, and her drafts of letters sent. Artemis Cooper describes it as a "stunning archive". It will, says Artemis, allow her to tell "the whole story". Or, as Jill Norman puts it, "someone had to make it accurate".

Lisa is worried that I am going to write only about the culinary row, and it is tempting. This, for instance, is Jill Norman on whether she considered giving Lisa access. "Well, I didn't think about it very long. Oh dear, it is difficult. It sounds very negative but I wasn't sure that she was a very competent biographer. The proposal that she put forward - she didn't send it to me but I was told about it - was full of factual inaccuracies. This didn't give me much confidence. I don't particularly want to knock the woman in print, because that doesn't do anybody any good."

OK, I say, let's talk about the book and not the woman. Had she read it? "I've seen the proofs. There was a lot of material in it for which they hadn't requested permission, so some changes were made. I didn't feel it was appropriate that so much unpublished material should be quoted. Elizabeth David was a very private person and the last thing she would have wanted would be that the letters she had written as a young woman had, first of all, still survived in the family attic and that somebody proposed to make them public. So I put my foot down."

She also, it may be said, put the price up, even for the letters, mentioned above, that were discovered solely through Lisa's efforts. Jill Norman says she charged Society of Authors' rates for use of copyright. The society quotes me those rates as pounds 95 to pounds 115 per 1,000 words for one edition. In fact, Jill Norman has charged substantially more - at least four times more - though this does include paperback rights, and these things can fluctuate according to market value. Also, as Jill Norman points out, she could have simply forbidden the use of all material.

"But I didn't see the point. That would have been vindictive."

How Elizabeth David would have loved this! Perhaps not the book, but certainly the chaos. After all, this is a woman who died in 1992 at the age of 78 leaving a will that had six codicils. "The whole thing really was a hornets' nest," says Lisa. "At a certain point I really wasn't sure I hadn't taken on something I could cope with. One time I'd had a bad day and I said to one of her friends whom I was interviewing: I don't know if I can do this. And she said to me: Elizabeth will be up there cackling away at you."

So how did an academic whose subjects are philosophy, art history and aesthetics get involved in this? She says I can come to lunch in York and she'll tell me. Her guard is up. I think she suspects that I am a secret foodie. But I am not even an amateur foodie. In fact, until this assignment I've had no relationship with Elizabeth David except via the odd fresh herb. Yes, I know that she revolutionised the way the English see food, etc etc, so I suppose that I have in some way been affected. But I did not cook my first dinner party from her books; I did not fall in love with Italy through her prose; I have never gushed about her in a public place.

It doesn't take long to realise that I am the odd one out on this. Everyone I talk to seems to think they own a piece of Elizabeth. One actually does, having received her nutmeg grater (with pre-used nutmeg in situ) as a wedding present from a friend who attended the1994 Phillips auction of her goods. But even those bereft of graters have opinions. "You know, the really interesting question is whether she was a spy," said one friend. "You know, the really interesting question is whether she was a lesbian," said another. "You know, I really want to know if she was a drunk," said a third.

I ask all these questions before I have even got rid of my coat. Lisa looks stunned but answers well - No, Kind Of and Not Quite being the gist of her answers to the three questions. I only run out of questions briefly over lunch because my mouth is full. "It's wonderful that you are so ignorant," says Lisa. "Foodie people can be very competitive about this. Elizabeth hated all that." Well, I'm with Elizabeth on that. Lisa is soothing. "Elizabeth hated the idea of food as fashion. She hated pretension. So much food now is down to fashion. People don't have time to cook at home. Or they go out to very smart restaurants. Elizabeth loved restaurants, but she was very fussy and could be terribly rude. She wasn't a snob about where she went, though."

We are, it turns out, eating rabbit terrine without the rabbit. I nod. Instead, it is pheasant. I nod again. This is way over my head. I was just pleased to be eating Elizabeth David's food while talking about her.

Lisa is now 45, but first came across her subject through a copy of French Provincial Cooking at the age of 17. Then she used Italian Cooking as her guidebook when she went to Florence. Elizabeth David, both as a person and a writer, was a name that came up in discussion a lot over her seven years in Italy. Lisa Chaney was getting hooked and she didn't even know it.

Back in England, she found out that Elizabeth David had willed her books to the Warburg Institute. "That told me a great deal because it means she wanted to be remembered as a scholar," says Lisa. "That fits with the latter part of her life. If she died anything, it was as a scholar." At this point, she knew enough to know that she knew nothing, and that is always a good place to start. "I would meet people who knew her, and they said the usual things. That she didn't suffer fools gladly, was very impressive and rather scary. That she was very intelligent, with an extraordinary memory. It was often suggested that I should try to meet her, but I knew she was rather scary and I thought it was quite possible that she would say: well, why would I want to see you? So I never did.

"Then, after she died, I wanted to look at her books, and that is how it really began."

She went to look at the books, expecting thousands. Instead, two trolley- loads were wheeled out. There were 380. She asked around. Elizabeth David had had between 4,000 and 10,000 books. So where were they? She asked around some more. Gradually, as she discovered what happened to those books, she realised that people were telling her wonderful stories about their owner. Lisa already believed that Elizabeth David had been a huge influence on all of us, even down to the design of our kitchens. She thought Elizabeth David's Mediterranean books were about fantasy and travel writing, but believed that her later works on English food, and how to restore it to its pre-industrial simplicity, were her masterpieces.

She wrote an article in The Spectator and soon people starting asking her if she was doing a biography. Soon, it seemed she was. She visited Elizabeth's only remaining sister, Priscilla. Their planned half-hour meeting turned into a seven-hour one. She signed with her publishers, Macmillan, in 1995.

At this point Lisa Chaney had no idea what a wild life Elizabeth David had led. She knew the writer had been born into privilege, that her father had been an MP and that she had gone abroad just before the war, had lived around the Mediterranean during it and had come back later. She knew she had been a deb and an actress - not a very good one - and had had lovers and crazy times from early on. Gradually she began to hear about a man in a boat, or even two men in a boat, but no one had any real details. This went on for a year as she interviewed and interviewed. Then, finally, Eve Durrell said: "Of course I knew Charles."

The hair stood up on her neck. Charles Gibson Cowan was the ultimate outsider. He was working class, left wing, Jewish, an actor, a pickpocket, a vagabond, who lived in caves in Hastings for a time. Her mother called him a "pacifist worm". He was a sexual presence, and

slept with anything that moved. He was the man on the boat or, rather, they were the couple who set out to live on a boat, in 1939. "But you can say all those words and he would be nothing more than colourful," says Lisa. "And I think he was much more than that. I think he's the only truly Romantic figure in her life, and the only hero figure, except for her father."

But, I say, hardly anyone knew about him. "I know. But some of the most magical symbols in your life are things you don't talk about very much. She did an awful lot of hiding. She hid from herself. That's why she drank."

It took hours and hours of interviews for Lisa Chaney to find the real Elizabeth. She did not ask the literary executor's permission, because she knew it would not be given. She says that Jill Norman was consistently obstructive but that, in the end, she didn't care.

"It got to the point where I felt liberated about not writing an authorised book - after I'd gone through this thing where people would not talk about this bit or that bit of her life. They only wanted to talk about the nice, clean Elizabeth. But I'd got through that and people were telling me about the real Elizabeth. If this were authorised, I might have to write about the clean, tidy Elizabeth. How boring! You can write euphemistically and say in a polite way that someone was grumpy, or drank quite a lot or was forceful with ideas. But I didn't want to write a dead book. At a certain point, I just thought. Ohhh, it is fantastic not having to do that!"

Jill Norman does not agree. "I'm sure Elizabeth David would not have wanted this book. She was very ambivalent about whether she wanted a biography written at all. Quite often, she said no and was quite firm... I think she would be annoyed at the kind of conclusions Lisa Chaney draws." Like what? "I'm sorry, I don't want to be drawn into that."

Presumably we will find out when the authorised biography comes out next year. Jill Norman tells me that after Elizabeth's death she was approached by several "reputable" biographers. "I said no to all of them because I did not think they were right. Lisa Chaney did not ask permission. She just went ahead and did it."

And Elizabeth David would approve of that.

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