Books review: What to read in July

James Walton 5 July 2022

A mesmerising story set in Elizabethan East Anglia and a journey across Britain through breakfasts, these are our recommended reads for July

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson

Jill Dawson conjures up a striking image of life in Elizabethan East Anglia

Jill Dawson’s novels are often set in the Fens, often based on true stories and often written with a clear feminist purpose. And yet, they’re also astonishingly varied.  

Her last book, The Language of Birds, for example, turned the nanny murdered by Lord Lucan in 1974 from a historical footnote into a warm and vivid human being (from the Fens). Now, in The Bewitching, another real-life case allows Dawson to plunge us deep into the strange, superstitious heart of East Anglia in Elizabethan times.  

The novel opens with Alice, a woman of 49 years, being summoned to the local manor house where the Throckmorton family’s nine-year-old daughter Jane is having mysterious fits. As the village healer, Alice is willing to help—but once she starts to, Jane denounces her as a witch who’d caused the fits in the first place.  

And from there, it’s pretty much downhill for poor Alice, whose other giveaway witchy characteristics include a strikingly pretty daughter and an unfortunate tendency to speak her mind, even to her social betters.  

"Another real-life case allows Dawson to plunge us deep into the strange, superstitious heart of East Anglia"

Watching all this with a sharpness that would surprise the Throckmortons is their servant Martha, the narrator of much of the book. Martha doesn’t doubt the existence of witches—but in this case she does, somewhat nervously, wonder if everything is quite as it seems. And she is of course right to wonder. While the direct accusations of witchcraft come from Jane, and later her sisters, the supposed theological underpinning is supplied by a series of patriarchal men whose belief in female inferiority is absolute. Not that this rules out female desirability…

 Only very occasionally does Martha’s perspective feel suspiciously modern. The rest of the time, she conjures up a wholly convincing picture of what it was like to live in a society with little understanding of medicine, where the supernatural was seen as perfectly natural. There’s also a cracking page-turner of a plot in which the (non-supernatural) revelations keep coming.  

The result is one of those novels that thoroughly immerses you in a world that might now seem unimaginable—except that the author has imagined it so completely. 

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson

The Bewitching (Sceptre Books, available here for £17.99)

Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey by Felicity Cloake

In 2018, Felicity Cloake cycled around France sampling the country’s culinary classics: an experience she wrote up in the hugely enjoyable One More Croissant for the Road, complete with a large selection of recipes. Now she does the same with British cuisine—except that here all the culinary classics are part of what’s long established as our favourite meal of the day. 

Felicity Cloake

The author, Felicity Cloake, comes out squarely in favour of Marmite

Although perhaps not as long established as you might think. Cloake’s introduction brings the startling and somehow disappointing news that the Great British Fry-Up is, like the cream tea and the ploughman’s lunch, a relatively modern invention. Only in the 1930s did the full cooked breakfast, as we know it, really take off. 

But while Cloake does keep the historical background coming, her main interest is in the people and places that produce the best British breakfasts today. To find them, she cycles through all parts of the UK—which, given how much she eats, might be just as well. Her extensive travels also allow to investigate such regional specialities as West Country hog’s pudding, Ulster soda bread and Staffordshire oatcakes. On a less cheerful note, she reports on former favourites that seem in danger of disappearing: kippers, for instance, and possibly even marmalade.  

Despite the book’s winningly genial tone, Cloake isn’t afraid to take sides in some of the great breakfast controversies, coming out passionately in favour of Marmite, but against baked beans. (She does, however, have a fun time with Captain Beany, who runs an impressive baked-bean museum in his Port Talbot council flat.) 

"Cloake isn’t afraid to take sides in some of the great breakfast controversies"

We join her here in Carrbridge in Scotland, home of the world porridge championships, run by locals Charlie, Fiona and Heather: 

"The championships began in 1994, and now attract entrants from as far afield as Oregon and Australia, though the Swedes have been the mainstay of the competition recently, apparently. 'Mind you, remember the Finnish ladies in the leotards?’ Charlie muses. ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off them!’  

The competition is always oversubscribed these days, Fiona says hastily; ‘we have to draw the names out of a hat.' Those who get lucky must make two bowls of porridge for the judges, one traditional, using just oatmeal, water and salt, and one ‘speciality’, to which other ingredients can be added.  

Oatmeal, rather than rolled oats, though Charlie admits he uses the latter at home. Contestants can use any grade (fine, medium or coarse-cut) of oatmeal they like; they can even bring their own from home. Using the oatmeal you’ve practised with makes sense, but some also arrive with their own salt (‘you would not get an inch past our judges’ noses if you didn’t put salt in’) and a few even their own water.  

Pre-soaking of the oats is allowed, but no other advance preparation is permitted—and they’ve had to crack down on gadgets too. ‘They used to come with a carrier bag,’ says Heather. ‘Now it’s a house move with bain maries, electric mixers, all sorts. We’ve had to put a stop to that though—we’ve only got limited space in the hall.’ Nevertheless, Fiona, who sees every porridge that goes into the judge’s room, ‘and that’s a lot’, says it’s surprising how much they differ given they’re all made from the same thing.  

The judges, an eclectic mixture of past winners, chefs and celebrities, assess entries ‘on the consistency, taste and colour, and on the competitor’s hygiene in the cooking process’. The speciality competition also takes into account how well the flavourings ‘blend and harmonise’ with the porridge, which must demand a certain open-mindedness on the part of the judges, faced with a bowl spiked with smoked fish or squeezy cheese when all they really want is some cream and brown sugar.  

Indeed, the days of just sticking some fruit on top are long gone, Heather tells me—‘now people just go wild’. Last year’s winner was an oat-based version of the classic French croquembouche (‘crunch in the mouth’) choux puffs, filled with cream and dipped in caramel. Other submissions included confit duck oatmeal tacos and a pina colada porridge.  

I ask them, before I go, if they have any tips for amateur porridge fanciers like me. They’re unanimous; ‘never be in a hurry,’ Charlie says firmly. ‘Yes, take your time,’ Heather chimes in, ’those microwaveable packets, they might be OK, but they destroy the ethos of it for us.’ ‘My father used to stand for ages over the porridge pot,’ Fiona agrees.  

‘But,’ Charlie says kindly, ‘you must make it the way you want it, don’t worry about history or whatever.’  

‘Unless you come and make it for us,’ Heather says firmly. ‘Then you’ll make it our way!’"

Red Sauce Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey (Mudlark, available here at £16.99)

Read more: Why Jane Austen's wallflowers deserve love too

Read more: How the Banned Books Museum defends free speech

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter