Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lilla's Feast: One Woman's True Story of Love and War in the Orient by Frances Osborne

In the Imperial War Museum in London there is an item that is described as "The house wife's dictionary and suggestions". It is a recipe book that was typed up on any scrap of paper that the author could get hold of and works through a variety of different chapters from soups to curries to roasts, tips for entertaining, desserts and cakes and so much more. Really what makes this item fascinating though is where it was written and who it was written by.

The where it was written is from within a Japanese internment camp during World War II. As a consequence, the sheets of paper may be a carefully preserved piece of rice paper that has a recipe for ice cream on it or it could be paper provided by the Red Cross. Regardless of the type of paper, the contents of the book do not reflect the daily privations being experienced by the author: the loss of property and freedom; the lack of privacy; the lack of food; the lack of information about the fate of friends and family as a war raged in both Europe and the Pacific and in so many other ways.

The who it was written by is a little more complicated to tell. The cookbook was written by Frances Osborne's great grandmother and in telling Lilla's story, Osborne bring to life not only a life filled with what might seem to us now great adventure and more than a little heartache but also a picture of a very different type of life that is now very much of the past - that of British colonial life in countries like China and India.

Lilla was born into a merchant family in the Chinese city of Chefoo in the late 19th century. After a family tragedy, her mother marries a wealthy man who raises the children with every advantage. Along with her identical twin, Ada, she was raised to be a lady and as such learnt many of the skills that would help her run her own home including how to look after her husband, how to run a busy kitchen and the staff that she would undoubtedly have and, as part of that training, how to cook. Given that she was growing up in a corner of China that was dominated by not only colonial British but also people from many other countries like Russia and Germany, the food she was exposed to was very culturally diverse.

Along with Ada, Lilla was a much sought after young lady and between them they could have had their pick of any young man. Always competing with her sister, Lilla appears to have made a hasty match and suddenly finds herself moving away from the place that she considers her home to India, where her reality does not match in any way the life that she has been raised to live.

Lilla finds herself shuffling between India and England along with her husband and eventually their children, but she constantly finds herself struggling to fit into the establishment. In Britain, she is considered an outsider but when she lives in China or India she is part of the British empirical establishment. Through Lilla's life we see the world as it changes throughout the 20th century. She does not remain untouched by World War I and in due course she finds herself living back in China married to a very wealthy industrialist. 

While in Europe the first signs of the looming second world war are coming to light, there are also signs in the East, with the rise of Chinese nationalism and then invasion of China by Japanese forces. When Japan declares war, Lilla and her ageing husband are among the many allied nationals who are rounded up and put into prison camps, spending several years incarcerated in increasingly harsh and desperate conditions, losing everything that they owned in the process.

After the war, the Caseys needed to try to rebuild their lives but this was Britain of rations and attempting to rebuild and so it seems logical for them to return to China but it isn't long before war breaks out, this time the Chinese Civil War, and the rise of Chinese Communism brings to an end the colonial life that Lilla was raised to live.

It is kind of astonishing to think of someone who is incarcerated in a prisoner of war camp with barely enough clothes to keep warm, eating watered down soup and the occasional piece of meat of dubious origins, sitting there and neatly typing up page after page of recipes. Delicious sounding soups and stews as well as undoubted luxuries like cakes and desserts fill the pages of the book. One can only imagine how hard intellectually and emotionally the contrast between the Lilla's writing and her existence must have been, or perhaps it was more of an escape from the realities of every day life.

The enjoyment that Frances Osborne found in telling the fascinating story of her great grandmother's life is obvious. Part of that enjoyment seems to have come from having spent time with Lilla, who lived to be more than 100 years old, but also in discovering the past story of Lilla's life through the letters that were exchanged regularly no matter where in the world the family were scattered, the stories from other friends and relatives and her own research. I found myself contemplating the fact that we are not necessarily going to leave a letter trail for our descendants to follow all that easily in future times.

There were times though that I felt that there was too much conjecture. Lilla must have thought this or that was used to fill in gaps for the convenience of the story a lot. Sometimes the conjecture was logical, but there were a few times where I found myself wondering how that leap was made. I would also have loved to have seen more recipes from the book. There were four included, but I would love to have seen more as well as some images of the actual book as well.

Frances Osborne has also written about her other great grandmother, Idina Sackville, in her book The Bolter which is set in colonial Africa. I am looking forward to reading that book too, and getting to know another fascinating woman's story.

Rating 3.5/5


At the end of her life, Frances Osborne’s one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother Lilla was as elegant as ever–all fitted black lace and sparkling-white diamonds. To her great-grandchildren, Lilla was both an ally and a mysterious wonder. Her bedroom was filled with treasures from every exotic corner of the world. But she rarely mentioned the Japanese prison camps in which she spent much of World War II, or the elaborate cookbook she wrote to help her survive behind the barbed wire.

Beneath its polished surface, Lilla’s life had been anything but effortless. Born in 1882 to English parents in the beautiful North China port city of Chefoo, Lilla was an identical twin. Growing up, she knew both great privilege and deprivation, love and its absence. But the one constant was a deep appreciation for the power of food and place. From the noodles of Shanghai to the chutney of British India and the roasts of England, good food and sensuous surroundings, Lilla was raised to believe, could carry one a long way toward happiness. Her story is brimming with the stuff of good fiction: distant locales, an improvident marriage, an evil mother-in-law, a dramatic suicide, and two world wars.

Lilla’s remarkable cookbook, which she composed while on the brink of starvation, makes no mention of wartime rations, of rotten vegetables and donkey meat. In the world this magical food journal, now housed in the Imperial War Museum in London, everyone is warm and safe in their homes, and the pages are filled with cream puffs, butterscotch, and comforting soup. In its writing, Lilla was able to transform the darkest moments into scrumptious escape.

Lilla’s Feast is a rich evocation of a bygone world, the inspiring story of an ordinary woman who tackled the challenges life threw in her path with an extraordinary determination.

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  1. What an interesting story. I think you're right that modern people aren't leaving the sort of paper trail that our ancestors did and the future may find reason to be disappointed in how badly we manage digital assets.

    1. Or the amount of rubbish that we have saved compared to the important stuff that we lost!

  2. This sounds fascinating! Wonder if I can find a copy somewhere in my library system...

    1. I had to get it via Interlibrary Loan but I am glad that I did!

  3. Isn't it amazing to have two remarkable female relatives on whom to draw inspiration? I have The Bolter on my TBR, waiting for the right moment. (I also fear for any of my relatives who wish to recreate my life from, e.g., my twitter feed!)

    1. Yes, I look at my family and see that they did interesting things but I don't see them as remarkable in the same way as Frances Osborne did.

  4. Wow! What a story. Despite the filling in the gaps with conjecture, this sounds fascinating. I'm so sorry there aren't more recipes, because I'm interested in what she remembered while stuck in the war camp. I'll have to look for this and for the story of one of her other great-grandmothers. And, yes, sad that everything we have is electronic and will likely disappear.

    1. It was still very interesting. I would think that you would be imagining the most lavish meals possible!

  5. Replies
    1. It was truly remarkable, and yet for Lilla it would have just been life!

  6. Wow, this sounds really good. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!