Reading Cozy Makes A Modern Girl

This blogpost title is a crooked tip of the hat to a memoir titled, “Being Hungry Makes Me A Modern Girl” by Carrie Brownstein which I read and reviewed 6 years ago. The memoir title rises to the surface of my brain because Brownstein, a musician, film maker, actor, director and television producer has lived a fantastic life detailing her exploration of the open road during her feminist, punk rock youth. Brownstein catalogs her huge body of creative work in her archive all while contemplating traditional choices like marriage and family life.

Here I stand, past mid-50s in suburbia where I don’t belong and cannot leave due to a love of green space and lake front weather, I am still trying to explore my creative universe and discover and express who I am. Reading and writing are a couple of tools I use and yet there are several others that make my soul sing too and I dabble with some frequency..

So why am I writing this and not yet discussing the book I wish to share with you? I do this because I’m unapologetically me. I bring this conversation because I can, and because I’m about to disclose something I’m embarrassed of and recently discovered.

In this issue of Bookisshh I take a look at a recently published work of historical fiction that readers and librarians might classify as “cozy”. Find out why this embarrassing for me and what I learned as a result. Enjoy!

Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen: A Novel of Victorian Cookery and Friendship By Annabel Abbs

I maintain several reading projects and one project examines representation and analysis of female friendship longitudinally over time and across genres. This exploration of female friendship lead me to the work of Annabel Abbs who is conventionally considered an historical fiction author. Upon reading blurbs and reviews of this book, I decided that this book maintains a unique intersection between things I enjoy: food driven narrative, history/herstory, female friendship, and fiction.

Abbs’ novel maintains elements enabling it to be described as “cozy reading” —recipes, intimate relationships, a quiet domestic setting and low intensity in terms of dramatic conflict. Observing the cover in the wild and given the cover, title and potential messaging, I didn’t find myself reading this work in public spaces where literary snobs may sneer at the domestic content blurbling between the pages.

Why am I embarrassed to be seen in the wild reading “cozy” works? I’m embarrassed because I’m the person who likes to dig into the struggle(s) experienced by characters. I’m the person fascinated by social ails imposing upon characters, their liberties or discoveries. I’m a person valuing intellectual analyses that a work of literary fiction stimulates. I am someone deeply interested in a state of reckoning and the degrees of outcomes a literary work can evoke. I take pride to researching authors, translators, and publishers to whom committed readers affiliate with. I have worked hard to gain access to reading communities and embrace that this is simply my jam.

I’m a literary snob—though I maintain an open mind and heart to what an author seeks to accomplish in their work. However, when it comes to cozy reading, I fear being seen as an un-evolved woman, anti-feminist, corny, and pathetic person. I don’t want to be observed and categorized as someone with no galantine circle to gossip and chat with while tossing back rose and eating charcuterie. Even though I am, but one thing the pandemic emergency taught me: to let my face fall off and care not what people think of me and so I read cozily in public only to discover that Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen was not cozy at all.

Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen is a fantastically researched work of Historical Fiction set during the Victorian Era. Author, AnnabelAbbs cracks open doors to both shanty cabin and Victorian mansion revealing the lives and secrets of two female main characters and narrators and their unique and shared stories. This work exemplifies how class, status and power were easily withdrawn from women during this era. Readers witness the transformation produced when women share responsibilities and common missions and allow meaningful friendships to grow. Abbs demonstrates how women working and supporting one another enables women to pull through difficult circumstances and gain access to higher ground of their choosing, which by today’s standards seems minor, but still presents challenges for women everywhere women live and work.

Structurally speaking, Abbs employs first person dual narratives alternating every other chapter or so. Readers first meet Miss Eliza Acton and Ann (whose surname is not shared for good reason) who endure very different lives though both with limited opportunities imposed upon them by Victorian standards for women and women from different classes. Eliza descends from wealth and privilege and excessive spending and poor investment strategies forcing the Acton family to liquidate tassets and divide their residences. Eliza moves out with her mother and sets up a countryside rooming house and aims to provide the best food within the rural parts of England where they live and hide their shameful fall from grace.

Ann lives on the vicar’s estates and spends her day struggling to do chores while her drunken father drinks his life away and her mentally ill mother roams the countryside completely nude. Ann has taken the interest of Reverend Thorpe who moves her away towards gainful employment and institutionalizes her mam. Readers find out why the reverend cares later and it’s nothing to do with his goodly character..

Both women have a lot to shoulder and they carry their burdens away to the Acton boarding house and into the kitchen where nature blooms and food transforms. Both women contend with traditions that include being submissive to men and both find ways to evade and evolve in spite of male dominance in most areas of life.

Friendship emerges as both Eliza and Ann enrich and enliven one another by working together using unique knowledge in the varied preparation of food. There are a few select recipes at the book’s conclusion. is also an author who cannot be published using a woman’s name and has been offered an opportunity to do so by writing a cookery book. Little does Eliza know, that Ann for mysterious reasons, is literate and has a love for the written word. However, Ann knows little of verse (Eliza’s short lived claim to fame) is known for in literary circles. In the kitchen Eliza and Anne share, cook, teach, inspire, and Eliza desires to have a more meaningful relationship and offers to mentor Ann. Little do either of them know the deep secrets they are withholding and author Abbs allows her readers to discover them in the last third of the narrative. And really, the secrets don’t matter because secrets are sometimes better managed within oneself and when managed well or contended with properly allow a stronger person and friend to emerge. Readers find out though less as a testament to gossip and more as witnessing strength and having mature boundaries.

Overall it’s an even paced, historically satisfying read. Miss Eliza’s English Kitchen does offer some coziness especially the way a heart and soul fills when one experiences success female friendship (or any friendship for that matter). Women are not competitors but rather supporters of missions that intersect and depart leaving women stronger both on independent and collective levels. This work is different than contemporary representations of women and friendship circles that read as displaced mother/daughter or sister/sisters trauma or jockeying for alpha spots in female packs and because of this it’s refreshing even if during the Victorian era. Finally, the notes section is amazing and offers categoric further reading that has informed my non-fiction TBR list.

It’s definitely cozy but not trite. The intimacy in kitchens, common missions, women’s challenges both historic and present is comforting. It is comforting to witness sisterhood and female friendship. It is comforting to laugh at meddlesome mothers and to sneer at wives in denial whose self-selected naïveté imposes on innocent young ladies. It is empowering to want better for all women who are less than satisfied with their station. On the plus side, I got to peek in on disgusting Victorian menus, insane asylums in England, and early gender biases in publishing. Worth my time and I’ll definitely give further works by Annabel Abbs consideration and time.

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners that make our souls blossom. ———Marcel Proust

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