Thursday, April 23, 2015

A recipe for deception: Martine Bailey's An Appetite for Violets

Biddy Leigh, the lead character of Martine Bailey's debut novel, works as the under-cook at Mawton Hall in Cheshire in the 1770s. Adorning each chapter opening are the recipes she consults and writes in a household book she carries on her adventures.

Written by an award-winning amateur cook, An Appetite for Violets fits as “foodie fiction,” a mini-genre that compels reviewers to pull culinary metaphors out of their cupboards and serve them up for readers’ delectation. (See?  It's almost too easy.) That said, while some books of this type can feel gimmicky, this is a full-fledged historical novel that presents late 18th-century England and Europe from a servant's viewpoint.

The roles of food as nourishment, entertainment, a reflection of social class, and a way to connect to women of the past are all gently spun into the story. It’s all topped off with a sweet romance and more than a touch of Gothic creepiness. The recipes themselves ("receipts," in period parlance) are the icing on the cake.

The plot takes the form of a Georgian-era road trip, and Biddy’s voice – good-natured, fresh, and full of colorful regionalisms – makes her an appealing guide. In one amusing example, revealing her family background, she says that her "old da... fancied himself a roaring dissenter, but all I ever saw him dissent from was a hard day’s work.” The action starts when her elderly master’s young second wife, Lady Carinna, shows up at Mawton alone and unannounced, then demands an escort to her uncle’s villa in Italy. “I reckon she brings only trouble here,” says Biddy, all too correctly.

Fashionable and fine-looking but with unorthodox habits, Lady Carinna’s a bit strange, but she likes Biddy’s cooking and Biddy herself – and orders her to come along and dish up good English fare along the way. Biddy forms a friendship with Mr Loveday, the footman, whose non-western background is highlighted. Smart and literate yet lonely, he’s a former warrior from Batavia who mentally escapes from the drudgery through dreams of his previous life. The servant’s lot is a lowly and demeaning one, that’s apparent, but from sophisticated Paris to the Alps of Savoy to the gloomy and aptly named Villa Ombrosa in Tuscany, ambitious Biddy keeps her good sense and finds new opportunities to up her culinary game.

Letters travel back and forth from others as their party heads south, which leave Mr Loveday and Biddy wondering about the true reasons behind their travels. The story remains absorbing throughout, and the suspense gradually increases as the story behind the ghastly scene in the prologue comes to light. This scrumptiously satisfying work will leave readers eagerly awaiting the author’s next fictional creation, foodie or otherwise.

An Appetite for Violets was published in January by St. Martin's Press ($26.99 US/Can, hb, 391pp).  It was published in the UK by Hodder Paperbacks in January as well (£7.99).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.


  1. Another novel with an unusual heroine. I read the prologue at Amazon and couldn't help thinking of Miss Havisham's wedding feast in Great Expectations. I'm hooked and will definitely be adding An Appetite for Violets to my reading pile. Thanks, Sarah.

    1. Yes - I thought of Miss Havisham as well! Glad the review piqued your interest in An Appetite for Violets. I liked Biddy a lot. She wasn't stereotypically saucy, like lower-class servants are often portrayed in novels, but she had a good amount of spirit and ambition.