As you will know if you have read my World Book Night post, this month I have been re-reading Nine Coaches Waiting – or ‘Breed of Tigers’ as it was renamed for its 1958 magazine serialisation. I have enjoyed picking up on all the mentions of tigers in relation to the de Valmy family, and with reference to the William Blake poem (while the book’s character William Blake is described as a lamb rather than a tiger).
I have also been appreciating the way Mary Stewart writes about food. The vivid depictions of meals in her books can be hunger-inducing, they are so well described. In the UK food rationing began in 1940 and did not fully end until 1954, just four years before publication of Nine Coaches Waiting, and I cannot help but think that these food restrictions were deeply felt by Mary, influencing her to imagine and write sumptuous feasts that she and her 1950s readers would have relished. Mary Stewart writes setting so wonderfully that it gives a sense of realism in books with plots that could otherwise seem fantastical – and I believe the same is true with her food writing: it functions to ground her novels in the real world.
In Nine Coaches Waiting there is a choice of foodie scenes, the most obvious being the midnight feast on the night of the Easter Ball. I am quoting instead from the meal Linda and Philippe eat in a cafe when they are tired, hungry and hunted because this is something Mary Stewart does so well – during a pursuit or time of danger she offers her characters respite. To my mind this is Shakespearian: he juxtaposed comic scenes with tragedy to offer moments of relief while using the contrast to highlight both the humour and the tragedy; and similarly Mary Stewart often breaks up scenes of tension with food writing, offering her readers a period of relief before ratcheting up the tension once more. A similar example is in Madam, Will You Talk?, when Charity has an omelette part-way through her desperate drive to Marseille. Here we are with omelette once more, as Linda and Philippe grab a moment of rest in their flight to safety.
To this day I vividly remember the smell and taste of everything we had. Soup first, the first delicious hot mouthful for almost twenty-four hours… It was creme d’asperge, and it came smoking-hot in brown earthenware bowls with handles like gnomes’ ears, and asparagus-tips bobbed and steamed on the creamy surface. With the soup came butter with the dew on it, and crusty rolls so new that where they lay on the plastic tabletop there was a tiny dull patch of steam.
Philippe revived to that soup as a fern revives to water. When his omelette arrived, a fluffy roll, crisped at the edges, from which mushrooms burst and spilled in their own rich gravy, he tackled it with an almost normal small-boy’s appetite. My own brand of weariness demanded something more solid and I had a steak. It came in a lordly dish with the butter still sizzling on its surface and the juices oozing pinky-brown through the mushrooms and tomatoes and tiny kidneys and the small mountain of crisply-fried onions… if filet mignon can be translated as darling steak this was the very sweetheart of its kind.Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting, chapter 27
I hope you enjoyed this quote, and if anyone knows what constitutes a lordly dish then do let me know! What is your favourite foodie writing in a Mary Stewart novel?
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