The Bloomsbury Cookbook, masterfully compiled by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, delves into the everyday lives of the diverse group of artists, writers and intellectuals that became known as the Bloomsbury group. Centred around Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, they forged new ground artistically and intellectually, experimenting with radical techniques in writing, art and design. They were also responsible for introducing innovative works to the English public, through the Woolfs’ publishing house, Hogarth Press, and Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and Post-Impressionist exhibitions. The Bloomsbury circle also included intellectuals such as John Maynard Keynes, whose economic theories continue to inform government policy to this day.
Even more adventurous than their artistic endeavours were their romantic entanglements: Dorothy Parker famously quipped that they “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.” Some of the interconnections become so intricate that you almost need a diagram to follow them. Here’s an example: artist Dora Carrington adored Lytton Strachey, who fancied Ralph Partridge, who married Carrington. Ralph then fell for Frances Marshall, while Carrington began a liaison with Henrietta Bingham. Before too long, Henrietta toddled off with sculptor Stephen Tomlin, whom Lytton Strachey was also keen on. Carrington rebounded with a flirtation with Julia Stachey (niece of Lytton, school chum of Frances). Soon after this Carrington and Tomlin became lovers, after which Julia and Tomlin married. Phew!
A great many books have been written about Bloomsbury, and one can happily while away a few hours reading their biographies online. Where The Bloomsbury Cookbook excels is in giving intimate insights into the everyday life of these fascinating people. Each recipe in the book is linked to photographs, letters, quotations, artworks and anecdotes that reveal these cultural icons to be - at various times - funny, gossipy, bitchy, warm, petty and generous. Virginia Woolf is often portrayed as serious, even tragic, so it is a revelation to read that she and a group of friends pranked the British Navy into believing that they were members of the Royal Abyssinian Party, demanding a VIP rail carriage and being treated to a tour of the HMS Dreadnought battleship.
The recipes themselves are many and varied, and provide a surprisingly entertaining read from a culinary and social history perspective. Many of the Bloomsbury group were accomplished cooks; Virginia Woolf enjoyed making bread, and Keynes' wife, Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova wrote food articles for newspapers. Some recipes come directly from the cookbooks of the Bloomsbury set, while others are from cookbooks of the era or the author's own creation. As I write, Mildred's Masterpiece (a Boeuf en Daube inspired by To The Lighthouse) is bubbling away in my slow cooker.
As an added incentive to add this fine book to your collection, all proceeds go to the Charleston Trust, preserving the home of Vanessa Bell.