Book review: An Appetite for Violets

an appetite for violets by martine bailey 12-5-14The beginning: it is 1773. Kitt, a brother who seeks his disappeared sister, arrives at an Italian villa to find it abandoned, the dinner table laid with forgotten cakes and sweetmeats. You think the story will be about Kitt’s sister Lady Carinna but she is a bit-player. The real story belongs to her under-cook Obedience, Biddy, Leigh, forced to accompany her mistress on a Grand Tour to the Continent.

After this first short section at the Villa Ombrosa, the story starts at Mawton Hall in 1772 where the servants are surprised by the arrival of their new mistress, without her elderly husband. Lady Carinna asks Biddy to copy her favourite violet sweets bought from an expensive London store. Although Biddy is an honest cook she is not a craftswoman, and her attempt produces “shocking poor copies of the originals.” She is rescued by the Indonesian footman Mr Loveday who provides a box of original sweets to substitute for Biddy’s home-made variety. Pleased with the sweets Lady Carinna gives Biddy a rose silk gown. Trying on the dress, Biddy gets a glimpse of a life so different from her own.

This experience bonds the two servants, a bond which lasts throughout their journey to Italy. Biddy and Loveday each have their own way of escaping the demands of their mistress, and they vow to support each other no matter what happens. But then they start overhearing secrets, Loveday reads the letters he is bidden to deliver, and Biddy becomes entwined in Carinna’s plan of deception.



Bailey [above] admits to being fascinated by food, and every chapter of Biddy’s is preceded by an excerpt from The Cook’s Jewel, an old household book of recipes, which she takes with her on the journey. As she travels through France and then Italy, Biddy begins to add her own recipes which are linked to the next part of her tale. And it is a tale of excess, guilt and deception, ideally suited to the language of food. As the carriage leaves Mawton Hall at the beginning of the journey, Biddy thinks of her sweetheart Jem left behind, “I pulled down my cap and wept, like a bag of whey that drips without end.”

To visit Martine Bailey’s website, click here.
‘An Appetite for Violets’ by Martine Bailey [published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on May 22, 2014, and in the US on January 13, 2015]

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