Kingdoms of Elfin

Sylvia Townsend Warner

For the main dish that evening was to be Ludla’s Hunter’s Pie – a standing pie like a fortress. Already she was stripping the flesh off the bones, breaking the carcasses and putting them in the great stewpan, where they would simmer down to a compounded broth of capercaillie, grouse, pheasant, partridge, woodcock, and hazel hens. The flesh lay on different platters, according to the time required for par-cooking before it was enclosed in the fortress and the fortress went into the oven. A Hunter’s Pie was a day’s work, and the kitchen maids had been up since dawn, plucking and gutting. Pimentos, chanterelle mushrooms, garlic, juniper berries, segments of orange, anchovy fillets, dried and fresh herbs, salami that holds the mixture together, the grated chocolate that brings it to life were assembled; the flour had been sifted, the shortening flavoured, reduced and clarified.

I discovered this book via Manguel and Guadalupi’s Dictionary of Imaginary Places, and it took quite a few years to find my secondhand copy. It was worth the wait. The stories, most of which were published in the New Yorker in the late seventies, are even stranger and richer I had expected from the intriguing entries for several of its fairy kingdoms in M&G. It’s a little like Angela Carter, and the interplay between real and mythical history reminds me of James Branch Cabell, although Warner’s irony is several degrees more elegant and delicate. The stories have a dash of politics, light and delicious: her fairies are all born with wings, but only the lower orders ever fly. For the nobility, leaving the ground is firmly infra dig.

And while we’re on the subject of 20th-century English women writing about mouthwatering, intricate dishes, check out Mary Beard sticking up for Virgina Woolf’s boeuf en daube in the face of Simon Schama’s criticisms.

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One response to “Kingdoms of Elfin

  1. Oh! I love Sylvia Townsend Warner. Talk about your great unsungs. Lolly Willows! And Mister Fortune’s Maggot! And she wrote an excellent introduction to an edition of TH White!

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