The Bane of a Small House
Joseph Conrad and the ethics of aroma

Joseph Conrad is my last worst word in Dead White Male Writers. Gloom and dread, short on girls and kissing -- even Alexander Pope had girls and kissing! -- and his much-admired style makes me scratch my head, and struggle to prop open my eyelids. Elsie McPherson, my high school English teacher, was responsible for planting an aversion to reading in any but the doughtiest dreamiest hearts. She could have pulled on a pair gunny-boots and twirled her moustache with Conrad, Mark Twain, Dickens and any other hirsute writer she felt the need to render unreadable. Lord Jim, freshman year -- in retrospect, it feels like Conrad Lite. We trudged through Nostromo, The Heart of Darkness and the Nigger of the Narcissus praying for release. No fourteen-year old should have to write a term paper on Youth. Despite Archie Campbell's halitosis, dandruff and imperfect grasp of Euclid, second period Geometry felt like recess.

To this day, I'd rather cuddle with any other of those dull Dead White Male Writers -- hell, Herman Melville -- than read one word of Conrad. But I like to read cookbooks, and I tripped across A Handbook of Cookery, subtitled "For a Small House" by Jessie Conrad. The flyleaf says it belonged to M. Porter, and the handwriting is a forensic match for my grandmother's: M. Parker. I had to read Joe in High School, but Jessie George Conrad had to live with him, cook for him, and bear his children. What a woman.

I'm snoopy about other folk's marriages, love affairs and dinner menus, be the folks dead or alive. Joe had a wife with the chops to write a cookbook: it's the only reason I could imagine for checking out two biographies of my least favorite writer. Jeffrey Meyers's Joseph Conrad (Cooper Square, 1991) and Frederick R. Carl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives (Farrar Strauss, 1979.) I flipped to the index and looked up Jessie George, completely ignoring ninety per cent of both biographies -- the dull parts, all about Conrad's early life, travels to godawful places and family influences, to say nothing of the authors' earnest evaluations of every damned sentence he ever wrote. Well, make that ninety eight per cent -- Conrad scholars are maniacs: they parse every sentence and examine every theme and beat them to death with a halyard.

In middle age, Joseph Conrad figured it was time to settle down. He'd spent all those years throbbing to the heart of darkness, strapped to one mast or another, making Master but having only one command, which he flubbed. He was getting on, writing hard, poor and lonely. He'd broken off a literary flirtation with a beautiful bas-bleu Frenchwoman, and settled in England, a Pole constructing run-on sentences in English, desperate to make a living with his writing. He wanted a home, a cozy routine, and mastery of his own ship. He signed on Jessie George as first mate.

I wonder if he made a list. Wanted: An innocent lower-middle girl, thrilled to be married to an exotic foreign artist, grateful to leave the house she shared with the parents and eight siblings. A good cook. A working woman who would see a big leap in status from her dead-end job to marriage and housekeeping. (My working class Lancashire grandmother described her career choices in 1910: go "into service" as a cook or scullery maid, or "go to the mills" as a weaver. Nana wasn't anyone's servant, so she chose the mills.)

Conrad couldn't have chosen his mate's profession as surely had he been able to pull up Jessie George, back in the 1880s, made her living as what her fiancé called a "typewriter" -- she tied on her bonnet, hopped the Tube to work and typed for a living. She had herself, a widowed mother and eight siblings to support. Mum was not in favor of the match, whether from British chauvinism or the nagging suspicion that her Jessie had got entangled with a rum ‘un. Sometimes Mummy knows best.

How's this for a lover's dreamy description of his wife to be? Two weeks before the confetti he wrote to a Polish buddy about his upcoming marriage: "I am not frightened at all, for as you know I am accustomed to an adventurous life and to facing terrible dangers." (Shaw once said that to say the word "humour" to Conrad was to halt conversation, but as a quip on marriage I have to say that it's not bad.) "Moreover I have to avow that my betrothed does not give the impression of being at all dangerous. Jessie is her name, George is her surname. She is a small, not at all striking person, (to tell the truth -- alas -- rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me." Or this, about his (twelve years younger) bride, in a letter to a friend from his writing honeymoon: "(She's) No bother at all." Call me libidinous, but on a honeymoon I demand to be bothered.

I checked out the photo of Jessie in Karl's biography, taken just before her marriage. She's actually pretty, but not lovely enough for Joe. And that was the story of her marriage: she was never pretty enough, smart enough, refined enough, intelligent enough. But let's consider the bridegroom -- I'll put aside my loathing of his writing. He stayed in his study until two in the morning on his wedding night, fussing over a phrase until he could force himself to approach the bridal bed. (Meyers speculates that Conrad was a virgin. I ask you: this man was a merchant seaman, and probably the only sailor in history who didn't buzz into a single sweaty fleshpot for some r and r.) Later, he was angry and affronted when Jessie told him she was pregnant -- he hadn't counted on having another human being competing for her attentions. After she gave birth to their second son, he did some major acting out on a railroad trip: he grabbed the infant's clothes and threw them out the window, right under the tracks. I will give any poor writer with dental trouble (he was said to lose a tooth a book) my abundant sympathy -- I could perform my own root canals and I'm broke too -- but this was really creepy acting out. In both the bios "dependent" is a word that appears in every second sentence. He might have dissed her, blushed for her accent and her literary cluelessness, her girth and her class, but he leaned on her. Hard.

In Jessie, Conrad found his anchor, but to his horror, she became a five foot two, two hundred pound weight. His bride didn't gain the twenty pounds of the happy, baking bride; she ballooned into a grotesque fatso -- scorned by Bloomsbury social X-rays like Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Meyers, who certainly never met Jessie, lets himself go in his male contempt for her obesity. He's quoting no one here, just feeling for his bro Joe: "As she became increasingly heavy her features, like raisins in a pudding, seemed to sink into her pudgy face." It's as if Jeffrey had to bed her himself.

Fact is, Jessie didn't just hang on to some post-partum avoirdupois and eat her own cooking to gain a hundred pounds. In 1904 she fell onto the pavement on a shopping trip to London and "slipped the cartilage" of both knees. She was hobbled and in pain for the rest of her life, unable to exercise, the pressure on her knees increasing with her weight gain, the victim of numerous operations. As anyone with bad knees knows today, knee surgery, knee cap replacement, the agony of trying to drive a car, pick up a toddler and avoid dependency to painkillers -- to say nothing of weight gain! -- is an everyday hell. Jessie did it a hundred years ago.

A Handbook of Cookery for a Small House -- how charming, how evocative of rambling roses, cozy hearth fires, needlepoint cushions, diamond-paned windows. Set, of course on the village green with the spires of some jewel like twelfth-century gem of a church called St. Botolph's visible from the parlour window . I've dreamt of living in this small English house all my life. Take a pound of Angela Thirkell, a pint E.F.Benson and a spicy pinch of Nancy Mitford. Throw in Miss Marple's crib in St. Mary Mead, a handful of sultanas and stir gently.

Jessie Conrad didn't live in this small house. She lived in a series of cramped, cheap, dreary dumps in the country -- one of them named Pent Farm -- before Conrad made some real money late in his career. Her small houses were remote, damp and mean. She didn't write this cookbook about a snug, Colefax and Fowler chintz model she could perfume with good baking and bunches of bluebells. In the second paragraph of her introduction she makes her mission clear.

"The bane of a small house is the smell of cooking. Very few are free of it. And yet it need not be endured at all. This evil yields to nothing more heroic than a simple yet scrupulous care in making food ready for consumption."

She gives sensible hints:

"No vegetables should be cooked without a sufficient amount of water in the saucepan and no green vegetables should be cooked with the lid on."

"No fat for frying should be kept for future use. The economy is not worth making."

"No joint should ever be put in the oven so high as to allow the fat to splatter against the roof of the oven." I flunk this every time, but I have a stove hood and fan, and a self-cleaning oven. Poor Jessie.

She winds up with words of encouragement for her square-foot challenged sisters: "The above recommendations are founded on personal experience. The author advances them with the greater confidence because she had to find them out for herself. If they are exactly followed, and due regard is paid also to incidental remarks of the same nature contained in the body of the book, your little house need never to be invaded by the smell of cooking, generally so offensive and always unnecessary, which too often meets one in the hall and in nine cases out of ten -- if not in every case -- means simply that good food is being spoiled in the kitchen."

Whoa, Jessie!

I live in 1350 square feet. I don't have a hall into which to step, furnished with an umbrella stand and a table for calling cards from, oh, John Galsworthy, Ford Maddox Ford, H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence. Guests' noses may pick up a whiff of eau de feline or incense of tobacco, but they've never recoiled from essential oil of Carbonnades a la Flammande or roast chicken. In fact, they tread the few steps from the front door to the kitchen and open the oven door. Then they open a bottle of wine and uncover all the delicious smelly food they've brought with them. Myself when young opened the front door and snuffled like a truffle pig, parsing the olfactory dinnertime preview: Swiss Steak? Curry Captain? Ham and scalloped potatoes? (Score! Brownies!) What's with Jessie's offensive invasion?

I thought of my Nana's dollhouse in Toronto -- my grandparents shared eight hundred square feet. Granddad's garden was authentic English Cottage -- the hollyhocks that dwarfed my toddler self, the rows of tomato plants and green beans, the floppy-headed old roses whose fragrance of myrrh and peach made me drunk. He'd take me to the library at twilight, then walk back home in the deep mysterious summer darkness. I knew we were almost home when we turned a corner and I sniffed his roses – two more blocks.

Nana had the same gastronomic, geographic and economic DNA as Jessie Conrad. Jessie's cookbook hit the stands when my grandmother was twenty-five and hitting her stride as a young matron. Unlike Jessie, Nana could have passed for Coco Chanel: boy-slim, vain and possessing the highest degree of chic possible to a postman's wife. She flirted openly with any attractive man over the age of eighteen until she died at eighty-four. Her collar might have been blue to Jessie's white, her husband a mild mailman instead of a great artist, but both cooked English. Jessie had kitchen help (always called "the Girl,") and Nana didn't. Jessie's nose was stuck on Code Orange for the low-rent "smell of cooking." My small nose inhaled raisin toast, mincemeat tarts and roast potatoes, against the heady floral background of Nana's own scent: "Attar of Roses, Love. It comes from Bulgaria."

Remembering Nana jogged something smelly from the wayback place -- halls of the boardinghouses and apartments of her friends, my honorary Great-Aunties from Lancashire and Northumberland. They were called Maude and Beattie and Stella, spoke what I know was English but might as well have been Tagolog, and lived in genteel poverty. I'd hop the streetcar with Nana and take tea with these unclaimed treasures who'd lost their fiancés in The Great War. Nana would halt me in the hall, drag a rattail comb -- for the fifth time since lunch -- through my curls and abjure me to stand up straight. "Pretend a ribbon is running straight from your head to a star. An elegant woman never slouches." Then she'd twitch her nose and sniff: "The Irish. You can always tell. Old cabbage and overcooked potatoes."

I knew she was wrong because I was familiar with that dreary redolence of root and cruciform vegetables, paste wax and bleach. That's the way Mrs. Chandler's house smelled, and Mrs. Knight; and Mrs. Fleet's. Sure, Mrs. Hogan's apartment smelled that way, and she was Irish, but Nana shouldn't have isolated the Hibernians. Most of my playmate's mother's were first or second generation English and Irish, and all their houses smelled that way.

Was that the dank Brit cooking odor that Jessie Conrad wrote a cookbook to eradicate? I turned the foxed crumbly pages, looking for stinky culprits and screeched to a halt at Eggs and Bacon.

"This dish is perhaps the most appetizing breakfast dish and yet often the most unpleasant because of the smell. Cooked in the following way there should be no smell at all. Take the rashers of bacon and carefully remove all the rind. Use preferably an enameled frying pan in which a piece of butter the size of a walnut has been made hot. Lay the bacon in this. The stove should be hot enough to cook the bacon with the top on. Turn the bacon twice and cook for eight to ten minutes. Dish on a hot flat dish. Allow an egg for each rasher, breaking the eggs lightly without breaking the yolks into a cup one at a time and turn into a pan. Allow the boiling fat to run around the edges. Cook for three minutes and dish with a slice placing one egg on one rasher of bacon."

Jumpin' Lord Jim! How can bacon smell "most unpleasant?" That ineffable aroma of pork, salt and smoke lures me from my bed every Sunday morning. That breath of bacon beckons me, proof that life can be good no matter what quotidian splattered grease besmirches my heart and my mind. It tells me that I'm not on the skids yet, because I have a pound of bacon in the fridge and the heel of a loaf. I know baco-ovo vegetarians, Jews who eschew all pork but bacon, cardiac patients who'll sneak a slice. The fragrance of bacon is number five in my "Thousand Things to Smell Before You Die," preceded by sautéed onions, roast chicken, lilies-of-the-valley and an oiled, talcumed baby bottom.

The ha'penny dropped. In the Conrad household even the most salubrious cooking smells were unwelcome. Joseph Conrad was nothing if not aspirational, though he screwed up when he turned down a knighthood because he thought he was a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize. Nitwit! (How Jessie would have adored being Lady Conrad.) Smelling the sizzling joint from the hall meant he lived in a mean, undersized house, shameful to a man of his greatness. In a mansion (which, at the end of his career, he scored) the scullery and kitchen were tucked away downstairs, in the far reaches of the house. Cook could have fried a side of bacon without a whiff penetrating to the foyer. In the big house a guest smelled his dinner when the footman removed the dome with a flourish at the long, gleaming table. Should his pal H.G. Wells drop by for a spot of writerly gab, he'd not sniff the nice veal chop under the broiler, or the anchovy toast for the savoury course.

It's a shame that Wells couldn't have strapped Conrad to a time machine and introduced him to Ralph Lauren, who truly understands that aspiration to the aristocracy, or at least, the landed gentry. Ralph could have provided the overflowing Chinese vase of sweet peas and old roses. The Great White Male Writer leather club chairs. The discreet charm of the Edwardian bohemian bourgeoisie. A slim, traveled, educated wife.

Leafing through A Handbook of Cookery, I know that Joe and Granddad ate the same plain, delicious food. Roast partridge. Chicken Rissoles. Custard. Rice Pudding. Swiss Roll (Jessie recommends using a cake mix.) Steak and Kidney Pudding. Madeira Cake. Salmon and Cucumber Sandwiches.

Conrad was stuck with fat common Jessie, who spent her declining years on the sofa, eating chocolates and swilling gin. (Like my Granddad, he called his wife "Mother," which makes my skin creep). But my grandfather understood the blessings of a small house, and aspired to nothing more. He'd served his four years in World War I before he turned eighteen -- and lived -- and wondered why he'd been spared. He'd trade his postman's boots for his slippers, roll a cigarette from his can of Player's Navy Cut, putter in his garden and wait for Nana's call of "Dinner, Al!" In the tiny house on Guthrie Avenue, the fragrance of a joint, two veg and Bakewell Tart for pudding were the reward for a hard day's work.

Being a snoop has major mysterious potential for disillusionment. Nine times out of ten the thrill of discovery comes from exposed mistakes, posthumous failure to communicate, and sheets, clean or dirty. But Jessie wrote a cookbook. In the introduction her husband tore off a line: "Good cooking is a moral agent." I feel for Jessie -- all rectitude got her was the sour smell of a small life.

December 17, 2007