The Penny Heart, by Martine Bailey

The Penny Heart, by Martine Bailey

I was going to start this by mentioning that this was the first Monday in August but, of course, it isn’t. It’s just that I’ve been picking blackberries (and yes, they get earlier every year) and also sloes (and it seems freakishly early for them…). Why is that relevant? Well, Martine Bailey writes culinary gothic, with eighteenth century mystery and dark practice mixed up with (and often directly affected by) what is going on in stately home kitchens. In her first novel, An Appetite for Violets, novice cook Biddy learns from a wise, if incoherent, woman about how food can influence the events of the world around her. The Penny Heart,¬†out this month in paperback, takes this further, with the powerful side of baking unleashed at the hands of a housekeeper with vengeance in mind. And somehow, picking wild fruit and making various age-old recipes makes me feel in a direct line to these creative and resourceful women. If a little less lethal…

The Penny Heart

With Martine at Waterstones in Chester

I first read The Penny Heart¬†a year or so ago, and it was on my wishlist when I was on the Bailey’s Prize Shadow Panel earlier this year. It’s a cracking read, as you can tell from my review below. Why not go out to pick some blackberries, google a new recipe to put them in, and then sit and read this with the aromas of the simmering fruit bubbling in the background?


It’s a cold winter’s evening in 1787, and Michael Croxon is racing to make it onto the Manchester Flyer. His younger brother, Peter, has neglected to make sure he has the right coins for his fare, and there is no guarantee that the coachman will change his pound note. Privileged and comely as the Croxon brothers are, they are no match for the sharp eyes and swift hands of Mary Jebb, ready to change their money with a confidence trick she has used many times before. But she’s not quite fast enough. Michael gives chase and tracks her back to an icy backyard. Though Michael, as a respectable and righteous business man, may have the upper hand, Mary can see through to the depths of his desires, desires he would rather no-one would ever uncover. He has the chance to let her go, but chooses instead to bear witness against her, sending her to a certain death on the gallows. But fate doesn’t always behave in the ways you might expect, and Mary’s sentence is deportation.


The story then leaps forwards another five years. Mary, sentenced to seven years in Botany Bay, has escaped and made her way back to England, where she takes a new name – Peg – and a new profession as a cook. We also meet Grace, the gauche and overlooked daughter of a ruined and alcoholic printer. She has unexpectedly become something of an heiress, with land that is coveted by a local businessman who, as their landlord, also holds the threat of eviction over her feckless father’s head. The landlord’s name is Croxon, and he has a plan to gain ownership of the land: marriage between Grace and his own son, Michael. When Grace’s money buys them the crumbling Delafosse Hall, the only cook and housekeeper to be found at the hiring fair is a very plausible Peg…


I was caught up in this book from the very first page. The descriptions of 18th century Manchester snake around eerily in areas that I know today. The settings – the Lancashire moorland, the social round of the York Assemblies, the privations of convict Australia – are utterly convincing and, as the narration switches between Grace and Peg, their lives past and present intertwine, and the tension between what we know, and what Grace understands is happening to her, grows to almost unbearable levels.


I read, and loved, An Appetite For Violets, last year, and The Penny Heart follows in many of its predecessor’s steps, but with even more bite. Peg’s ruthless manipulation of opportunity makes Lady Carinna’s plans from Violets seem almost childlike, and Grace is so alone and vulnerable, unlike the buoyant Biddy. There are the recipes as well, collected on the convict ship, and written down by Peg as Mother Eve’s Secrets, ‘the wise woman’s weapons against the injustices of life…shared in secret, of how to make a body hot with lust or shiver with fever, or to doze for a stretch or to sleep for eternity.’ Biddy cooked for joy, but for Peg food is a weapon, and a drug.


At one point, Peg is practising the three shell trick, and this sleight of hand is a metaphor in a way for the whole book. We see the narrative develop with painful innocence through Grace’s eyes and also from Peg’s devious point of view, but the truth is always shifting. Bailey handles a complex balance of plot threads with the dexterity of a seasoned card shark until they are woven together in the wholly satisfying conclusion. A pleasure to read: I recommend it without reservation.

Martine is going to be in conversation at Waterstones Deansgate in Manchester on the 25th August. I’m going to be there, come and say hello!

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