Remembering Jane

Jane Grigson’s friends and admirers share their personal memories, explain why her work was a source of inspiration and reflect on her legacy.

Paul Bailey

I met Jane Grigson in the summer of 1975, as the result of a review I wrote of her husband Geoffrey’s book Britain Observed in the New Statesman. Geoffrey was, and remains, one of my literary heroes, not least for his fiercely independent spirit and his talent for expressing considered opinions that went against the fashionable grain. It would become apparent in the years to come that Jane loved him for those very same qualities. He said things, she confided in me once, she would never dare to say, however much she wanted to.

Jane was Geoffrey’s third,and last, wife. He was her senior by almost 23 years, but the age difference didn’t matter to her. In her late 20s she had fallen for the art critic and curator Bryan Robertson, with whom she worked in a London gallery, but she soon realized it was a hopeless infatuation when she discovered he was gay. (In the last year of her life I reunited Jane and Bryan at a lunch I prepared for them. It was a joyous occasion, enlivened by gossip and laughter. I have seldom been such a happy listener.) Bryan had hoped that Jane would find her ideal older man one day, and so it was to be. Jane, who had admired Geoffrey’s work – his study of Samuel Palmer and his Shell guides to birds and flowers, especially – when she was a schoolgirl, thought she was the luckiest woman in the world after meeting him and learning that her feelings for him were reciprocated.

The Grigson family was in something  close to disarray when Jane and Geoffrey married. If anyone knew how to soothe the famous curmudgeon’s savage breast, it was the bright young woman from Sunderland. She moved into the house he owned at Broad Town in Wiltshire and transformed it into a loving place. It seemed that she would be content for ever with her early married life, as she typed and corrected Geoffrey’s manuscripts. Everything was to change in the 1960s when one of their neighbours in Troô, in Loir-et-Cher, in France, asked Jane to be his secretary and researcher. Adey Horton was late delivering a book on charcuterie and French pork cookery he had been commissioned to write for a London publisher. His agreed delivery date was already history when Jane agreed to come to his assistance. Horton was so impressed with her skills that he eventually handed the entire project over to her. And that is how her career as a food writer began – accidentally. If Horton had been more diligent, Jane would have merited nothing grander than finding her name in the Acknowledgements.

That first of her scholarly and approachable books was reviewed glowingly by Elizabeth David in the Sunday Times and achieved the rare distinction of being translated into French. It has become the standard work on the subject. Good Things, which came out in 1971, is my own favourite, not least because of the recipe for the wonderful curried parsnip soup she invented. For my mother’s eighty-seventh birthday I cooked Honeycomb Mould, the pudding she rescued from the Victorian nursery. It is made with the juice and rind of lemons, with eggs, gelatine, sugar, cream and Guernsey milk. It has a cap of lemon jelly and beneath that a band of opaque cream jelly, and a honeycombed spongy base. My mother, who had worked in service from the age of 13, remembered the cook preparing it for the children of her employer in the grand house in Hampshire where she was first employed. That was before the First World War. She had never seen nor eaten it since then.

Jane was touched by this story. She liked it when food had a human and historical significance in people’s lives. Her books and weekly articles for the Observer brought in the kind of money that Geoffrey, who had scraped together a living as a reviewer and anthologist for decades, had never dreamed of earning. He basked in her success. The meals I had with the two of them in Geoffrey’s beautifully designed garden at Broad Town are among my happiest memories.

After Geoffrey’s death in November 1985, Jane lost some of her sparkle, though she put on a show of cheerfulness in public. She still used the word’daft’, which she pronounced with a flat Geordie ‘a’, whenever she found something to laugh at. In the spring of 1989, I went with her on an eating tour of Scotland, to the highlands and lowlands. These were days of unalloyed pleasure, as we met chefs and restaurateurs and growers. I remember a picnic we shared at Loch Ness. The monster was in absentia, but there was a seabird that gobbled bread, cheese and salami as it perched on the bonnet of the car.’Geoffrey would have identified it immediately’ she said. She opened a bottle of non-alcoholic wine someone had given her and poured us a glass each. After a couple of sips, she remarked’It’s disgusting, isn’t it? Let’s have the real thing.’ So we did.

Jane died on March 12, 1990, the eve of her 62nd birthday, She had been anticipating death from cervical cancer for at least two years. In those final months, her chosen expression was’Sod it all’, with or without an accompanying laugh. Waking from a coma, she saw her beloved sister Mary weeping at her bedside.’Oh, you silly cow’ were her last words.

She was my best and dearest friend for a precious time. I think of her every day. How could I not? Her generous heart and soul are there in my kitchen, permanent tenants.

(This piece first appeared in ‘The Oldie’ in March 2015)