Winter chestnuts and other literary comforts

I’ve been reading Lolly Willowes, a 1926 novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner set at the turn of the 20th century. The story reminds me a lot of the pastoral 19th century novels I’ve been reading: country life radically contrasted with the city, the smallness of family dramas, the quiet resistance of women in their domestic spheres.

When she moves to London with her brother and sister-in-law, main character Laura (called Lolly by her nieces) is seized by a restlessness every autumn. She finds herself roving and anxious until winter fully arrives and she bleakly resigns to it, and:

She fortified herself against the dismalness of this reaction by various small self-indulgences. Out of these she had contrived for herself a sort of mental fur coat. Roasted chestnuts could be bought and taken home for bedroom eating. Second-hand book-shops were never so enticing; and the combination of east winds and London water made it allowable to experiment in the most expensive soaps. Coming back from her expeditions, westward from the city with the sunset in her eyes, or eastward from a waning Kew, she would pause for a sumptuous and furtive tea, eating marrons glacés with a silver fork in the reflecting warm glitter of a smart pastry-cook’s. These things were exciting enough to be pleasurable, for she kept them secret.

There are so many things I love about this passage. The idea of a “mental fur coat” constructed of small soothing sensory pleasures.  The gorgeous description of the pastry-cook’s. The whole familiar motion of going to and fro in a busy city, running errands and picking up provisions, then stopping for a brief respite with one of the purveyors of treats that pop up in cities for exactly that reason. I haven’t yet finished the book, but it seems that these little indulgences are specific to her life in the city; when in the countryside and surrounded by the wild beautiful natural landscape, she doesn’t seem to need them. I know we’re meant to see Laura’s city life as unsatisfactory and stifling. Yet this pretty little passage absolutely glows with pleasure; if Laura eats chestnuts in her bedroom to distract and comfort herself from an unhappy season, I’m not convinced that we’re meant to see that as a bad thing.

The passage reminded me of a section of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, a book which is peppered with little scenes of snacks and oysters and fine simple lunches that he remembers from his time in France. For example, “Miss Stein Instructs” starts out with Hemingway pleased by working in Paris in the winter:

The fireplace drew well in the room and it was warm and pleasant to work. I brought mandarines and roasted chestnuts to the room in their paper packets and peeled and ate the small tangerine-like oranges and threw their skins and spat their seeds when I ate them and roasted chestnuts when I was hungry. I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working. Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of a story or toward the end of a day’s work. When I was through working for the day I put the notebook, or the paper, away in the drawer of the table and put any mandarines that were left in my pocket. They would freeze if they were left in the room at night.

This passage picks up several threads that run through the book’s first few chapters: that writing is work; that the little privations of being a young couple without much money were more stimulating than frustrating in retrospect; that both the writing and the privations were soothed by small sensory indulgences such as roast chestnuts and nips of kirsch. Or endless café lattes and shots of rum, with half-carafes of white wine and oysters and pickles for a reward. Food is an essential element of Hemingway’s writing process throughout this book.

Pleasure in eating is not mere window-dressing: in scenes like this, it can be a step on the journey toward a plot’s progress or a catalyst to bring characters toward a greater sense of self-possession or self-knowledge; it can also forge or break social bonds, or signify a character’s relationship to the world around them. Laura’s sumptuous and furtive teas are one of the first little rebellions she makes against her controlling family; they not only give her a little buffer against her seasonal disaffection, they also give her the experience of making choices alone and for her own enjoyment. Hemingway’s eating sustains him physically and psychologically for the mental labor of his writing, which he does for both love and money: his detailed recollections of eating during his writing sessions in cafés and the top-floor room may cause your mouth to water but they also convey the exchange of capital. Coal for the fire and oranges for the pocket are the expenses he has to tally against his writer’s income. These pleasures, like Laura’s secret pleasures, are all the more poignant for being small.

And above all there is something very relateable and human about these scenes of eating. The roasted chestnuts tell us some specific things about what Laura and Hemingway want, but they necessarily appeal to what every reader must want: to be warm, to be fed, to enjoy. Our shared appetites for small comforts bring us into a kind of quiet intimacy with the writer and this writing.

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38 responses to “Winter chestnuts and other literary comforts

  1. Pingback: Winter chestnuts and other literary comforts | Thuy Duong·

  2. Possible the most famous literary comfort?

    The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

    Monsieur Proust!

  3. Warm chestnuts do sound comforting.
    There are some literary foods that sound good in print, but should be scrupulously avoided in real life. Hot Spiced Mead comes to mind. Green eggs and ham might be another.

  4. Very insightful analysis. I agree. The writer draws in and engages the audience with the details that appeal to the senses. A very powerful lynch pin capturing the imagination and drawing on shared experiences. Lovely.

  5. Reblogged this on Amanda Heaton's Blog and commented:
    Two of my favorite things – writing and eating. The description of the rituals of preparing food and enjoying it thoughtfully just seem to go together. A major reason The Boxcar Children are so enjoyed in my home.

  6. Pingback: Scenes of Eating is four years old! | Scenes of Eating·

  7. Pingback: Taste, text, and everyday synaesthesia | Scenes of Eating·

  8. Pingback: Books by women I read and loved in 2015 | Scribal Tattoo·

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