Lawrence Norfolk | "I hadn’t realised how much I valued the publishing community of which I am a part"

Lawrence Norfolk | "I hadn’t realised how much I valued the publishing community of which I am a part"

Twelve years since the publication of Lawrence Norfolk’s last novel In the Shape of a Boar (a hiatus accounted for by “one imploded novel, one unfunded film script and two children”), the author returns with John Saturnall’s Feast, destined to be one of the autumn’s big literary offerings.

Set in the mid-17th century, in the years disrupted by the English Civil War, it’s the story of a cook—young John Saturnall, a villager turned kitchen apprentice in the Manor at Buckland—and of the great cuisine that once flourished in England before being effectively destroyed by the conflict between Oliver Cromwell and the King.

It’s also a love story between kitchen-bound John and lofty Lady Lucretia, the daughter of the manor. And—as you might expect from a novelist who has often drawn on mythology, not least in his highly acclaimed début Lemprière’s Dictionary—it’s a book very aware of the older concepts of the feast and of bountiful nature, informed by the myth of a great garden of peace and plenty, that predates our more austere Christian traditions. John is the son of a woman persecuted by her Puritan neighbours for being a witch—she has access to an old, hidden garden in the woods, with curiously scented plants and strange fruits.

Norfolk says it was reading his friend Kate Colquhoun’s book Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, that provided the germ of the book. He was interested to discover how “sophisticated, delicate, cosmopolitan” the cookery of the 16th and 17th centuries had been influenced by English, continental and Middle Eastern traditions—the latter as the result of the Crusades—and developed in vast kitchens funded by Tudor capital. And he was struck by how Colquhoun’s chapter about the Civil War was forced to “tread water for 15 pages” because the cuisine pretty much came to a halt with the battle of Naseby.

“I thought: ‘What if you were a cook and you’d trained, learned these sophisticated recipes, worked your way up through the kitchen, and then suddenly the world you’d trained yourself to live in disappears. What do you do?’ Then I worked backwards and forwards from there,” he says.

Norfolk perused “marvellously eccentric” 17th-century cookery manuals such as The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, which starts with 100 recipes for mead before food even gets a mention. He attempted some recipes himself: “I failed abjectly because it’s technically too difficult—we don’t have dry ovens. They roasted meat before a fire.” Pages of John Saturnall’s Feast are devoted to dishes and their ingredients—quivering jellies, elaborate pies, sauces with names like black chawdron and egredouce, maslin bread, fruits with names like mazzards and brigadoons—and descriptions of the great kitchen’s frenzy of cooking, meat crackling on the spit. “I loved writing and researching those scenes; the material is so rich,” the author says. Recipes from a cookbook written by John Saturnall himself punctuate the novel, detailing A Broth of Lampreys, A Foam of Forcemeat of Fowls, Quodling Apples with a Sweet Cream.

But as he researched further, the theme of the feast itself gained greater depth, he says. “It went back further. In Genesis there is eating in the garden of Eden, clearly an ancient story grafted on to an account of the creation of the world. A feast is not a pack of people eating a lot of food—there have to be rules, and a cook. And cooking for someone, feeding someone, is an extremely intimate act. Now we have strategies to not think about it because intimacy is something we shy away from.”

Skinny, haughty Lady Lucretia fasts in protest at having to live her life according to the dictates of others. But John sneaks dainty dishes in to her, hidden inside empty loaves of bread which can be returned, seemingly untouched—thus preserving the illusion that she is unfed. Norfolk says: “Cooking is a language of intimacy, a way to write a love story without saying ‘I love you’, a way the lovers can talk to each other, or fail to talk to each other.”

Then the Puritan triumph cuts a swathe through the novel. “Armed with Flintlock and Bible, he did preach an unfamiliar Lesson to the Nation,” states the page from Saturnall’s own cookbook which marks Cromwell’s victory. “That there was no Chistmas, nor May-feast, nor Hocktide, nor Feast or Fast. Indeed he eschewed all such Luxuries. Then Oysters were mixed with Crumbs and Dukes did seek their Dinners in the Hedgerows.” The great feasting at the manor is at an end, and John and Lucretia must face a new order, with stern-faced zealots as their masters.

Norfolk muses on the theme of the contrast between our pagan traditions and the values of our more recently acquired Christian faith. “There’s something deeply English about this pagan past—we acknowledge we are creations of the environment in which we live, and if it rewards us with its fruits, our lives will reflect that,” he says. “We’ve been farming for a lot longer than they’ve been preaching—that seems to me unproblematic and simply true. I think it’s outrageous for Augustine to say we don’t deserve the fruits of the earth, that we should be suffused with a sense of a debt that we have to work off. I don’t think that’s true. I disagree. That debate resonates through the whole book in very different forms, but finally in the form of the Puritan militias who terrorise the household in the name of what they believe.”

Putting the first 100 pages of the manuscript out on offer just as publishers were reeling following the Lehman Brothers meltdown in 2008 was a nerve-wracking experience, the writer remembers. “The industry has bounced back wonderfully well, but it almost collapsed at that time. I hadn’t published a book for a long time, most publishers seemed to be running around like headless chickens sacking all their editors and authors. It’s at times like that that you pray to heaven for a good and experienced agent, which I have. Carole Blake said: ‘Ignore all that, send it out.’ So we did.”

Norfolk was “firmly convinced” no one would contemplate the book. For two-and-a-half weeks, he was right. “Then in week three we found ourselves in a five-publisher auction, which exceeded my expectations by several orders of reality.”

Norfolk was asked to come in to see publishers at Bloomsbury, then still in Soho Square, before the eventual contract with them was finalised. “I hadn’t realised how much I valued the publishing community of which I am a part, with my readers at one end of it, but all these other people who are in it and part of it as well,” Norfolk recalls. “I was sitting at the table with Alexandra Pringle and Richard Charkin and a lot of people, and suddenly I thought to myself: ‘This feels like home.’ It didn’t just feel like a publishing house. It felt like home.”

Personal file

1963 born in London
1986 graduated with a degree in English from King’s College, London
Worked as teacher and freelance writer
1991 Lemprière’s Dictionary (Sinclair Stevenson)

1992 chosen as one of Granta’s 20 Best of Young British Novelists
1996 The Pope’s Rhinoceros (Sinclair Stevenson)

2000 In the Shape of a Boar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Book data

Publication date: 13/09/12
Formats: £16.99 hb/e-book
ISBN: 9781408805961/33292
Rights: 12 countries, including US (Grove Atlantic)
Editor: Alexandra Pringle, Bloomsbury
Agent: Carole Blake,
Blake Friedmann

Lawrence Norfolk’s top three

Lemprière’s Dictionary
Vintage, 9780749398194, £9.99
A young scholar attempts to write a dictionary of mythology to try to exorcise the demons raised by his father’s violent death.

4,700 books sold since 1998

In the Shape of a Boar
Phoenix, 9780753812570, £6.99
Inspired by his role in a Nazi officer’s killing in the mountains of Greece, a young poet re-writes an ancient myth as a poem.

4,700 books sold since 2000

The Pope’s Rhinoceros
Vintage, 9780749398743, £10.99
The tale of the sinking of a Portuguese ship which was delivering a rhinoceros to Pope Leo X in 1516.

3,400 books sold since 1998