“A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage”: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work

This paper was presented at the 2010 Virginia Woolf conference and published in 2011 in Virginia Woolf and the Natural World: Selected Papers of the Twentieth Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf

“A Certain Hold on Haddock and Sausage”:
Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work

Food is an essential part of the human experience of the natural world, and for Virginia Woolf, as for most of us, it has many meanings. Much has been written and discussed about Woolf’s eating disorders, her fear and loathing of food and refusal to eat properly (or at all) when she was ill. But just as she displayed a lively and outgoing character when she was well compared to the depression and anxiety that accompanied her sporadic illness, so too, she had a vivid appreciation for food, in both her personal enjoyment and appreciation of it and her use of it in her novels and essays, letters and diaries. From gathering mushrooms and baking bread to the boeuf en daube dinner in To the Lighthouse, this paper will explore Woolf’s positive experience with food and eating.

Both emotionally-rooted childhood traumas and biologically-based mental illness are asserted as major factors in Virginia Woolf’s life, either or both contributing to her eating problems. Louise DeSalvo attributed Woolf’s eating disorders to the former, citing maternal neglect and paternal bullying as well as molestation by her step-brother Gerald Duckworth, conjecturing that as it occurred on a ledge where dishes of food were placed, “The very sight of a plate of food must have made her sick, recalling her feelings of disgust and shame” (104-5).

Her nephew and first biographer, Clive Bell, claimed mental illness, using the terms “madness” and “insanity” for what is now thought to be bipolar disorder. Hermione Lee took a balanced approach, calling Woolf “a sane woman who had an illness” (171), with genetic, biological and environmental factors all contributing. She expressed concern about diagnostic labels: “To choose a language for Virginia Woolf’s illness is . . . to rewrite and represent, perhaps to misrepresent it” (172). Allie Glenny called her work on Woolf’s eating distress “the vindication of Virginia Woolf as a woman not only of genius but also of eminent sanity . . . [in spite of] pathologizing labels intended to silence her or at the least to devalue her viewpoint” (vi).

Lee and others have questioned the effects of her illness versus her treatment by an authoritarian medical profession. Stephen Trombley wrote of Woolf as a “victim of male medicine,” whose doctors heightened her aversion by plying her with food. He studied the doctors’ backgrounds and biases, diagnoses and treatments and noted that Dr. Savage, for example, blamed insanity in young women on education (126). Virginia’s purportedly “mad” belief that she was the victim of a conspiracy made sense under the circumstances of her treatment, and he attributes her refusal to eat and violent reactions to her caretakers as a response to her threatened freedom.

Leonard Woolf believed and trusted the doctors, even though he was aware that they didn’t really know what was wrong or how to treat it. He adhered to their prescriptions of plenty of food and milk, rest and inactivity. Overfeeding was thought to be a kind of sedation and thus essential to the “rest cure.” While he observed early on that “Virginia had a great love of ordinary things, of eating” (56), he perhaps didn’t see that his and the doctors’ insistence on her overeating might be part of the problem rather than the solution. He believed, as many still do, that his diligent monitoring of her health and well-being that enabled her to work, even perhaps kept her alive.

My argument is not with the diagnoses or the theories behind them as much as with an implied constancy of these conditions, the suggestion that they permeated her life and work to a greater extent than I believe they did. I assert that Virginia Woolf liked food. Leonard acknowledged this, as did Clive Bell, who pointed out that when she was well, “there was fun . . . there was much eating, drinking and jollity” (94). And so I offer the following as food for thought.

In 1907 she wrote to Nelly Cecil, “Why is there nothing written about food—only so much thought? I think a new school might arise, with new adjectives and new epithets, and a strange beautiful sensation, all new to print” (L1: 278). She makes a similar observation in A Room of One’s Own: “It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” She goes on to describe, in sensuous and sumptuous phrasing, the lunch at the men’s college (11).

She appreciated and recognized the importance of food not just for sustenance, but for its vital social connotations. Her keen observations of human behavior and nuance include many scenes at the dinner table. She wrote about food deliberately and thoughtfully, attentive to what she wanted to convey. E.M. Forster observed that “It is always helpful, when reading her, to look out for the passages which describe eating. They are invariably good . . . [and] a sharp reminder that here is a woman who is alert sensuously” (236). Of the scene in To the Lighthouse, he says that “Such a dinner cannot be built on a statement beneath a dish-cover which the novelist is too indifferent or incompetent to remove. Real food is necessary, and this, in fiction as in her home, she knew how to provide. She put it in because she tasted it” (236-7).

This is in stark contrast to claims that displays of fondness for food in her fiction were compensation for her rejection of food in real life (Trombley). Analyzing food images in Woolf’s novels, Harriett Blodgett posits that too much attention is given to Woolf’s life at the expense of her artistry. “Yet because it is no longer usual to scrutinize Woolf in formalist terms, particularized recognition of her food imagery dwells on its autobiographical ties, sometimes misleadingly so” (45). She refutes arguments that the novels reflect the attitudes of an anorectic woman, that, as one example, Mrs. Ramsay’s not being seen eating is indicative of both Woolf’s and Mrs. Ramsay’s anorexia. First, Mr. Ramsay isn’t seen eating either, and secondly, Mrs. Ramsay’s cosseting of the men is typical of Victorian women. Similarly, her refusal to take one of the pears from the table arrangement, also cited as evidence, merely shows her aesthetic appreciation of it and her awareness of her role as host.

Most of her novels contain significant food or eating scenes with vivid descriptions, including Neville’s “delicious mouthfuls of roast duck, fitley piled with vegetables,” the butter oozing through Bernard’s crumpet, and Susan plunging her hands into the bread dough in The Waves. In Orlando, “How good to eat” is used in lieu of the word “beautiful.” Jacob’s Room is a cornucopia of food references, the most of any of her novels; they run the gamut of the human experience, from plenty and privilege to hunger and hardship. The gentility of Clarissa Dalloway’s party is contrasted with the satire of Doris Kilman’s gluttony for both food and Elizabeth Dalloway. Boeuf en daube, the pivotal dinner in To the Lighthouse, is a stew—a blend of ingredients, and Woolf uses communal meals and parties to bring people together.

Food imagery and dining scenes flesh out characters, settings and moods, showing both contrasts and commonalities, pleasure and pain. Consummate artist that she was, of course she also used her own experiences, as any good writer will do, to convey an authenticity to her characters’ experiences. She was able to recall the negative reactions to food that Septimus displays, and like William Bankes in To the Lighthouse and Kitty in The Years, she was critical of English food. She wasn’t a glutton, but she’d observed them. Much has been made of her disdain for gluttony and bad table manners, her primary targets being her close friend Ethel Smyth and Leonard’s colleague, Kingsley Martin. She shrewdly remarks that “You can tell people they are murderers; you can not tell them that they eat like hogs. That is wisdom” (L5: 226). She had dined at the tables of renowned hosts, and she shared the sensual enjoyment of good meals as so many of her characters did. Yet she was careful to add these passages and descriptions only when they served her purpose, whether metaphorically or to paint a vivid scene.

Food images in her work have been used as supporting evidence of opposing viewpoints, so one might say that the “proof of the pudding” lies in her life. Food is prominent in her diaries and letters, with fascinating trajectories over the years. Letters to friends include an appreciation of food as pleasurable and associated with well-being. She describes meals as one for whom they keenly matter: not just “had lunch,” but “lunched off cold chicken and tongue;” not just “we dined,” but “we dined off cold pheasant.” From Spain, she writes to Lytton Strachey of “the beauties of nature and the antiquities of man, upon which I would discourse if you would listen, but to tell the truth it is the food one thinks of more than anything abroad” (L2: 5). To Roger Fry, she describes the colors and sights and “a delicious lunch off rice and bacon and olive oil and onions and figs and sugar mixed” (L3: 29).

In spite of regular household help, she always had an interest in preparing as well as eating food. At Little Talland House in Firle, before she had a cook, she reports to Clive Bell: “Meals take 10 minutes to prepare, if one is sagacious enough to begin one’s potatoes after breakfast. Owing to this foresight, I had a potatoe so cooked that its skin rose in crackling bubbles, on the surface, and it was soft to the heart” (L1: 453). She took cooking classes in 1914 and describes to Janet Case the “ladies of great culture and refinement . . . come to improve their knowledge of dinner party soup. I distinguish myself by cooking my wedding ring into a suet pudding! It’s really great fun” (L2: 55). At Asheham in the summer of 1917, diary entries express her joy in the daily activity of foraging for mushrooms and picking ripe blackberries to augment their table and compensate for wartime shortages.

During the first World War, Virginia and Vanessa became increasingly self-reliant. They learned from their own cooks, experimented making meals, and exchanged recipes (Light 137). Sweets took on heightened importance during the war, especially chocolate, for which she “beats the town” in London (Dl: 126). Mary Hutchinson is frequently and warmly mentioned for producing “chocolates, cakes & sweets in abundance” (D1: 197). It was a great treat in Brighton in 1918 when they found plenty of chocolate; she says, “Can’t one see the curtain lifting very slightly, and some promise of a world of food & so on beyond?” (D1: 189).

When she and Leonard settled in at Monks House in 1919, food becomes part of the reassuring routine of daily life, enhanced by their garden. She talks of picking strawberries and cutting asparagus, harvesting apples, potatoes and walnuts in season. Baking is a satisfying activity. Her cooks were aware of her bread-making skill, and Woolf herself showed Louie Mayer how to make it as good as her own. Her cooks’ culinary skills were important. She sent both Mabel and Nellie to cooking classes, where both became proficient at French cooking (Light 236). She wrote about food increasingly and with undisguised appreciation. “Nelly is preparing a nice roast chicken & ices for dinner, which I shall enjoy” (D3 90); “I have just eaten a pear warm from the sun with the juice running out of it” (D3: 251).

Dining with friends was more about the people and the conversations than the food, but menus find their way into numerous letters and diary entries. During World War I: “We sat at a low table covered with a bandanna, & eat out of dishes each holding a different bean or lettuce: delicious food for a change. We drank wine, & finished with soft white cheese, eaten with sugar” (D1: 17); and shortly after the war at the Savoy Grill Room: “It is long since eating a meal was such a serious business to me. Fish & meat & melon & ices have come to their own again” (D1: 290). Food with Vita Sackville-West is charged with playfulness and eroticism: “[We] dined off sandwiches & strawberries in the highest glee” (D3: 306); “[We] ate cold salmon & raspberries & cream & little variegated chocolates given by Lady Sackville” (D4: 87). While visiting Nan Hudson and Ethel Sands she writes to Vita: “Oh the heavenly food! I said to myself I shall grow so fat Vita won’t like me. Still I ate and ate” (L3: 407). Of that same visit, she tells T.S. Eliot that “For the cooking alone I would sell my soul twice over” (L3: 413). Mary Hutchinson entertains in great style, and Virginia describes a dinner that included “an enormous earthenware dish . . . garnished with every vegetable, in January—peas, greens, mushrooms, potatoes; and in the middle the tenderest cutlets, all brewed in a sweet stinging aphrodisiac sauce” (L3: 164).

Two important things happened in 1929-1930—a new stove came, and Nelly left (after some false alarms, coming and going). Of the former she says: “But what interests me is of course my oil stove. I go over the dishes I shall cook—the rich stews, the sauces. The adventurous strange dishes with dashes of wine in them” (D3: 257). And without a live-in cook: “I make bread. I cook mushrooms. I wander in & out of the kitchen” (D3: 311). “I am more & more attracted by looseness, freedom, & eating one’s dinner off a table anywhere, having cooked it previously” (D3: 316). She tells Vita: “I have only one passion in life—cooking. I can cook anything. I am free for ever of cooks. I cooked veal cutlets today. I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books” (L4: 93). She values “solitary evenings; & cooking dinner” (D4: 184); “Words words & now roast beef & apple tart. An evening alone” (D5: 183). “Our way of life here—cooking messes, cutting fresh asparagus from the earth seems to me almost divine” (L4: 335); “I light my oven, and put in my chicken brew; and a divine blood red soup, made of beetroot, onions, carrots and I think a dash of some spirit” (L4: 407). Recovering from a bout of flu, she writes “I’m beginning to plan a walk; and to plan what my next sentence will be, and to think with rapture of roast mutton” (L4: 268).

She loved French food. Traveling with Vita, she describes the food in four of five letters to Leonard, including “the vastest most delicious meal I have ever eaten. It is the usual small French inn, with farmers lunching; we began with pate of duck, went on to trout, gnocchi, stuffed chicken and spinach made with cream and then sour cream and a delicious cake and then pears” (L3: 534). On another trip, there was “a first rate dinner . . . thought out and presided over by a graceful young chef . . . he concocted a sauce out of cream, French beans, mustard, salt & wine . . . another red brown casserole was brought, & the sauce poured over. I had mushrooms in cream. And I observed the way a good waiter serves a dish with infinite care & respect, as if handling something precious” (D4: 317). At a hotel in France: “Dinner of character; fried eggs, ham and rice. Choc[olate] cream with biscuits floating. Aubergines with chopped bacon and gravy; also stuffed with cheese dressing” (D5: 89).

She couldn’t get enough goose liver pate abroad or at home and expressed her pleasure in imaginative detail. Of a gift from Vita, she writes: “I’ve eaten the whole pie practically myself! What immortal geese must have gone to make it! It was fresh as a dockleaf, pink as mushrooms, pure as first love” (L6: 194). Gifts of food were frequent and acknowledged with mouth-watering words of thanks. Vita’s mushrooms “must have grown in a water meadow and been breathed on by cows” (L5: 204). “Did I tell you my notion of heaven? All mushrooms” (L5: 328). During World War II, Octavia Wilberforce sent them hard-to-get dairy products: “Your cow must be a miracle. It has produced the best cream and the best milk that [we] have ever eaten” (L6: 454).

Shortages and rationing were part of the wartime challenges and horrors taking their toll. But her accounts of cooking and eating at Monks House demonstrate a heightened appreciation of the relative simplicity of their life, where “the world rises out of dark squalor into this divine natural peace” (D5: 243). Cooking helps to combat depression (D5: 215), and she tells Ethel Smyth that “The delight of being without a maid in the house is such that I don’t mind an hour’s cooking—indeed it is a sedative” (L6: 434). “So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls” (D5: 231). Making butter with Louie is “a moment of great household triumph” (D5: 340), and becomes a source of pride. She writes Ethel: “Did I tell you I can now make lovely, rich, savoury vegetable soup? Tonight we shall have macaroni au gratin…with cream” (L6: 467). She closes an update to Mary Hutchinson: “What else? Oh I read a great many books, and cook vegetable soup for dinner” (L6: 472).

Her last entry in 1940 reads, “How one enjoys food now. I make up imaginary meals” (D5: 347). In January 1941 after viewing the devastation in London, she’s “ravished & demolished. So to Buszards where, for almost the first time, I decided to eat gluttonously. Turkey & pancakes. How rich, how solid” (D5: 353). And then in March, just two weeks before her death: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner, Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down” (D5: 358).

With her keen powers of observation, Woolf used the language of food vividly and playfully to describe the world around her. Friends and family, acquaintances and strangers, are likened to “one of the hams in Flint’s shop” (D5: 23), “a perfectly stuffed cold fowl” (D5: 120), “mute as a trout [with] the swift composure of a fish” (D1: 197). Compare Morgan Forster, “a pale cold chicken” (D4: 169), to Desmond McCarthy, “the most cooked & saturated of us all . . . basted richly over a slow fire” (D3: 234). She herself is “light as a trout with sheer irresponsible relief” (L4: 357), like “a biscuit in the middle of rats” (L5: 211).

Reading and writing assume colorful images: books that go stale “like a cheese that’s been cut in & left. The first slice is always the best” (D5:257) or are likened to “a sickly slab of plum cake iced with pink fly blown sugar” (D4: 186); ideas are like omelettes and “words like hard boiled eggs” (L6: 286). Meritorious prose, she says, is “such gruel & water . . . not a food for the mature” (L5: 88). She compares writing Between the Acts to The Year, noting “more milk skimmed off. A richer pat” (D5: 340). She writes to Hugh Walpole that his book is even better than peach-fed Virginian ham (D5: 141-42).

Virginia Woolf’s priorities, her loves, were writing and reading, her friends and family, and her daily life, which included her walks, nature and food. She writes about what she eats as a way of expressing contentment. Food was comfort, a quiet pleasure, like a warm fire or a brisk walk. She mentions when food is bad as well as when it’s good, but not that it’s noxious or that she has no taste for it, but rather as one who expects and hopes for better. And she recognizes the potential for the picturesque and the humorous as well as the layered meanings in her use of food imagery to describe people, to demonstrate character and to set a stage. I don’t think this would be possible without an underlying appreciation and enjoyment.

Her work reflects this, perhaps most notably in A Room of One’s Own, when she compares the meals at the men’s and women’s colleges. Of the former, Mary Gordon remarks that “Her joy in sensual satisfaction is magnificently expressed . . . it is one of the immortal meals in literature” (ix). Woolf reflects on the two meals and observes that “The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well (18).

Works Cited

Bell, Clive. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Blodgett, Harriet. “Food for Thought in Virginia Woolf’s Novels.” Women’s Studies Annual. Vol.3:1997. 45-60.
DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.
Forster, E.M. in Recollections of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Joan Russell Noble. 1972. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975. 226-242.
Glenny, Allie. Ravenous Identity: Eating and Eating distress in the Life and Work of Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
Gordon, Mary. Foreword. A Room of One’s Own. Virginia Woolf. 1929. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1989.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. 1996. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
Light, Alison. Mrs. Woolf and the Servants. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2008.
Moran, Patricia. Word of Mouth: Body Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Trombley, Stephen. All that Summer She was Mad. New York: Continuum, 1982.
Woolf, Leonard. Growing. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. 5 vols. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-84.
_____ Jacob’s Room. 1922. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1978.
_____ The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980.
_____ Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. New York: Harvest Book, 2005.
_____ Orlando. 1928. New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1973.
_____ A Room of One’s Own. 1929. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1989.
_____ To the Lighthouse. 1927. Orlando: Harvest Book, 2005.
_____ The Waves. 1931. New York: Harvest Book, 2006.


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