A question of stereotypes

While stuck in hospital recently, I ploughed through a huge number of books and some quite bad marmalade for breakfast; those wretched little plastic pots with the peel-off lids, full of thin orange jelly and maybe one very, very small piece of peel. (I'm not naming brand names, but you know who you are.)

That aside, I found an interesting phenomenon in several of the books I had chosen, which was that when marmalade came up in the narrative, it was linked to a certain kind of woman – expat, middle-aged, tough as old boots, you know the type. Or perhaps the stereotype. But that is still its image: old-school, British, stiff upper lip, backbone of the Empire. None of the younger characters ever mention marmalade. Must one be a battleaxe to have it linked to one's character?

Nevertheless, each mention of marmalade amused me, so here they are. I particularly like Elizabeth Jane Howard's immensely long sentence, so neatly constructed that it swoops elegantly and without fuss down the stairs along with the character.

The Piano Teacher, Janice Y. K. Lee

Hong Kong, November 1952: Minna Comstock is 'in her early fifties and formidable' [see what I mean?]

' "I bought a nice bathing suit at Wing-On," Claire ventured. "They have quite a lot of merchandise."

"Wear British," Mrs Comstock barked. "The items here are cut for the Chinese frame and aren't suitable for us. Too small. I always bring things back from home leave, good marmalade and proper knives. Have you seen what they call a knife here?" '

The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard

'She stripped back her bed to air it – she came from the feather bed era when the airing of beds was a serious matter – opened the windows wide so that the room should also be thoroughly aired and went down to the morning room where she breakfasted earlier than the rest of the family on Indian tea and toast, one slice spread with butter, the other with marmalade – to have put both on one slice was, in her opinion, an absurd waste.'

I do recommend both books, long with A M Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life, which has nothing to do with marmalade but is one of the best things I've read all year.


Popular Posts