first published 2016, but written 1939/1940
[Honor has borrowed a dress for Susan to wear at a party]
Honor stood by the door, her arms filled high with the fine golden tissue of the dress … She threw the dress onto the bed and called impatiently, ‘Susan.’…
Honor pulled her long tight green dress with the silver leaves carefully over her piled-up hair, then looked at herself quickly, seeing if everything was all right.
Susan came in and said ‘You are so beautiful.’
‘Look at this,’ Honor said, ‘here, be quick, put it on!’ But Susan just stared at her without comprehension.
She hurried Sue into the exquisitely full and floating gown that fell to the floor all about her, curving softly over her small breasts and showing off her sharp little shoulders. The gold threads woven through the cloth shone in a thousand twisted lines as Sue’s tanned skin glowed in contrast.
commentary: Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher was surely the best food writer of the 20th century (yes, much better than Elizabeth David) – there’s a mesmerizing quality to her words about food, and her life, and cooking, and meals, and restaurants. You get lost in her prose and surface ages later feeling that you have been to these places and eaten with her.
This is her unknown novel, a strange and beguiling book. There’s a helpful afterword in this edition: The Theoretical Foot wasn’t published when first written, partly because too many people were recognizable in it. (Fisher's sister-in-law wrote her a shocked, horrified letter when she read the book.) It was thought the MS was lost, but it was rediscovered in 2012, and Bloomsbury have published it with this beautiful cover:
- and kindly sent me a copy.
It’s set over one day in 1938 (August 31st, ie yesterday) in a house full of American expats in Switzerland. We read about events from one point of view, then go back in time and pick up someone else in the next. These people are all lounging about, waiting for the next drink or meal. None of them is quite sure what will come next in life and in relationships. But two big changes are coming: it is 1938 (not long before the Munich Agreement), and although the European situation doesn’t impinge much, it is there in the background.
The other issue is only clear if you know Fisher’s story. The whole book is (as I said) very autobiographical – I looked at her collected letters afterwards, and it is even more obvious, she barely changed the names. Fisher was living in Switzerland with a man called Dilwyn Parrish, who in autumn 1938, just after the events in the book, contracted a most horrible condition which led to his leg being amputated. He lived on in terrible pain for a couple of years, but eventually committed suicide.
The light(ish) social sections of the book alternate with weird italicized sections about a man suffering in this way – the ‘theoretical foot’ of the title is the source of his pain. Knowing the full story makes the final pages of the novel almost unbearable, as Tim dances and Sara, for no reason, tells him to stop.
If the book had been published back in the 1940s, I think it would have been changed and edited somewhat. The italic sections, and the title, don’t make much sense without the biographical information, and need to be either more explicit or dropped in my important opinion (preferably the second.)
But I loved the rest of the book with its strange dreamy atmosphere and slow revelations about the different characters. Students Joe and Sue, in love but not sure if their relationship will survive, are weirdly just like Martin Amis characters (in his The Pregnant Widow, another dreamy-summer-in-Europe book, a man wants to ditch a girlfriend to make sure he gets a First, apparently as Amis did in real life, and as Joe is considering here). Every character might or might not be in love with another, and there are no holds barred as to who it might be.
It’s not a perfect book – it’s hard to keep track of who is whose sister at times – but there was a cleverness and a secretiveness about it that appealed to me. Fisher does not describe the meals in detail, but the hints she drops are lovely, with Sara doing the shopping and chopping lettuces, and the obvious point about Lucy, who will not pick up the delicious meat in her fingers, unlike the others.
A memorable book, and a must for any Fisher fans out there.
Everyone wears beautiful clothes for the dinner party in the evening, so of course I'm featuring that in full: Sara’s dress is ‘like smoke’ (this one to the right?), Lucy makes the best of herself in black. Nan wears a housecoat – as described in this recent entry - that is much smarter than it sounds. And, as above, the women conspire to make sure Sue (who has been hitchhiking round Europe with almost no clothes) can borrow a dress.
The main yellow dress is a sketch by Jean Desses, a leading Paris designer from the 1940s onwards, who created beautiful draped evening gowns. The yellow blur to the right would be a sample of the material for the dress. The sketch is owned by Zunec, who photographed it and made it available on Wikimedia Commons.
Other pictures from the NYPL.