Gray’s ability to draw on the broader context is fortunate, because there are considerable gaps in the detail. Landemare gave an interview to Joan Bakewell in 1973, which catches her tone of voice, and she wrote a memoir, but near the end of her life she destroyed almost all of it. In 1977 her granddaughter, Edwina, discovered her ‘weeping in her bedsit kitchen’ as she ‘methodically’ shredded the pages and washed the pieces down the sink. She was doing so because her daughter and son-in-law had told her that her life was of no interest and her memories were worthless. She accepted their verdict but Edwina, happily, didn’t. The 27 pages she saved, which cover her grandmother’s childhood, are the foundations of Gray’s biography. Landemare’s father, Mark Young, was coachman to the Liberal MP Cyril Flower. Her mother, Mary, had been in service until her marriage, and the family belonged to what Gray calls ‘the affluent working class’. Between Aldbury, the picturesque but poor village where Landemare was born in 1882, the local market town of Tring and the backwater of Aston Clinton where she grew up, families like the Youngs were held in the orbit of the local landowners, who included the Flowers, the Harcourts (for whom her grandfather was a gamekeeper) and, especially, the Rothschilds at Tring Park. The Tring estate covered five thousand acres and employed three hundred people, when the population of Tring was four thousand. The other source of employment, already in decline, was the local craft of straw plaiting.
The book does, however, suffer a problem common to Lives of little-known figures: the biographer is so pleased to have found anything, she puts in everything she has found. There is much stodge, including census reports, brief histories of the Cheddington railway and the decline of the plait work industry. Early chapters could do with a more generous ratio of glacé cherries to sponge. When the cherries come they are a treat: the Universal Cookery and Food Association show at which a Mr Lusty exhibited his edible turtles; the bananas-with-mayonnaise phase of the 1930s; the pre- Second World War vogue for exotic dishes such as “Blackbirds in a Sack” and “Fricassee of Iguana”. Gray is strong on food fashion.
Georgina regularly produced at least three meals a day for the family and three for the servants. Finally, in 1954, at the age of 72, Georgina’s health broke down and she left the Churchill household, though she came back to help several times until December 1955. Perhaps her proudest moment came the day the war (in Europe) ended, and Churchill, making his victory speech from the Ministry of Health balcony in front of a crowd of 20,000, broke away from the group with him to shake her hand and tell her he couldn’t have achieved victory without her efforts over the years. Reading all she did, one is inclined to agree.
Sometimes Gray strays too far into the background, but there are moments when her asides are entertaining. It was reassuring to know that the famed ingenuity of French chefs was up to the task of making palatable the meat of slaughtered elephants from the Paris zoo during the 1870-71 siege. English tourists were, however, advised to avoid eating the results, so long as “they can get beef or mutton”.
Gray is an inventive researcher where she often has not much to go on. She ploughs through the censuses for clues to occupation and changing fortunes. She is particularly good on food fashions and what they tell us about the wider social picture (though even she can offer no possible explanation for a disgusting sounding 1930s salad of grapefruit, bananas and mayonnaise). She likes to get close up to the everyday past, working out exactly how a faggot oven worked, or how to force sea kale or the history of Hertfordshire straw-plaiting (the main occupation of the village where Georgina was born).
When Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940, her working life became even more frenetic. No 10 Downing Street was always full and she had to cook for the servants as well as all the visitors who descended on them, often with no warning.During her time with Churchill, Georgina cooked for 16 monarchs and countless famous people, from Charles de Gaulle and Field Marshal Montgomery to Charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. As author Annie Gray points out, food was both sustenance and a means of diplomacy for Churchill.