A Fire in the Kitchen, subtitled: The Autobiography of a Cook, by Florence White. Not a fast-paced, scintillating book, but definitely interesting - I will be reading it through again, and I don't do that very often.
Florence White was born on 20th June 1863, which would make today her 155th birthday.
When Florence was almost six years old, her mother died. Before long, her father re-married, but the young woman was not kind to the little girl and she lived a sad and lonely childhood, often confined to her bedroom, away from the family.
One day someone was playing with a spinning top on the dining-room table, when a wire flew out of it, and hit her in the eye. She was not taken for treatment and would have become totally blind, had it not been for her friend's mother, who insisted that Florence's father take her to see an eye specialist, he confirmed that the sight was gone in the injured eye and the other eye was badly infected and in danger of being lost. He ordered drops to be put in and both eyes to be bandaged for six months, six months of blindness.
The friend, Ida, was to prove to be "the best friend a girl and woman ever had." She was an artist and Florence often used to visit her in her studio, spending hours with her friend. I have tried to find some of the paintings which Florence lists as being among her favourites, without success.
I found this one (thank you, artchive.com) and can't help but wonder whether the cook is based on Florence - the hairstyle is similar.
Florence had to work for a living, she wasn't trained for anything, but she was intelligent and fairly well educated. She got work as a journalist, a cook, housekeeper, social worker, even writing books on dressmaking for Singer Sewing Machines, for which she was paid £50 down on delivery of the complete manuscript and then £50 on the publication of each edition of 20,000 books.
Because the damaged eye had been left in her head, instead of being removed, she suffered from almost continual neuralgic headaches and pains at the back of her neck, her strength was sapped, her heart affected.
She spent some time in France, gave English lessons, studied French cooking, travelled and worked.
However, her remaining eye was under a lot of strain, and she had debilitating heart problems, so there were times when she was forced to rest in bed. During these times she studied, did research, wrote articles, if she was well enough. Then when her heart had recovered sufficiently, she would find another job, to earn her daily crust.
Throughout her life she was fascinated by food, especially the food of England. She felt very strongly that it was wrong that French food was so highly regarded, while our own rich food heritage was neglected. She believed they were both equally good in their different ways and wrote articles about cookery, collected recipes from people throughout the country and was responsible for founding the English Folk Cookery Association.
Prolonged periods of poor health meant that things moved slowly. Her lack of funds hindered her progress and she had to sell her library of old cookery books to a friend, who immediately loaned them back to her. Florence continued slowly gathering information, recipes, and writing her books.
She finally managed to get her book "Good Things in England" published, then "Flowers as Food", as well as some publications for the English Folk Association. Then in 1938 her autobiography was published.
My copy was signed by Florence, dedicated to a Mrs Vallance. When I first saw the writing, I was perplexed at the rambling lines and the way the ink kept running out, the writing faded. Of course there is a very good reason, by the time she her autobiography was published, she was almost blind in her remaining eye, so she wouldn't have been able to see her own handwriting.
There is much more to her story, but right now I am busy following an intriguing thread. Florence mentioned that throughout her life as a writer and journalist, she often found that her original research and recipes had been 'lifted' and then presented by other people as their work.
One small incident was when she presented a completely fresh family recipe to a newspaper (a previously unpublished one from an old family friend) in reducing the quantities, to make them more manageable, Florence made a mistake with one of the calculations. When she saw it in the publication she tried to have it corrected, but it was not done. A while later the same recipe, with the error, was published by another writer, presented as an original.
Her most famous publication was Good Things in England, a vast collection of old recipes, garnered from around the country, following many years of dedicated research, slowed by her poor health and lack of funds. Before she managed to get it published, someone she had trusted, and with whom she had shared information, beat her to it and had their own version published.
There are lots of recipe books but not too many big collections of old English recipes... I am digging and delving, trying to find out who it was. Could it be May Byrons, Mildred Blakelock, or ...? I need to investigate, browse my shelves, trawl through bibliographies. I enjoy a good mystery, so I could be some time.