John Saturnall's Feast

by Lawrence Norfolk

Reviewed by Annis

Was Christianity the serpent in the Garden of Eden? John Saturnall’s Feast gives a mischievous twist to the biblical account of Man’s Fall, in an engaging literary fable which blends the story of a seventeenth-century scullery boy who wins a noble lady’s heart, with that of a pre-Christian paradise lost but not forgotten. John Saturnall is no ordinary boy; he is the embodied collective memory of a golden age of peace and plenty symbolized by a resplendent feast shared by all: the Saturnalia.

Once a pagan witch called Buccla lived in the Vale of Buckland, but good Saint Clodock drove her out with fire and axe. So says local legend in the Somerset village of Buckland. Now Saint Clodock is banished, his image shattered “in an explosion of glittering splinters” by hard-eyed Puritan zealots. The village wise-woman, Mother Susan, is driven out as a witch. She takes refuge with her son John in Buccla’s Wood, an ancient grove shunned by the villagers. There she teaches him another history of Buckland from the wisdom of generations gathered in her Book, wherein can be found all the fruits of earth, water and sky celebrated as Saturnus’ gifts by the Vale’s first settlers. Filled with the spirit of sacred abundance, each ingredient, every delectable sight, scent, sound and taste of Saturnus' Feast becomes John’s own.

Sent to Buckland Manor to serve as a minion after his mother’s death, John impresses the Master Cook with his preternatural culinary talents. The Master Cook coaches him through the ranks of the kitchen hierarchy until John himself reaches that lofty status. But Civil War is brewing. Soon life will change for those of every station, high and low.

Sumptuously replete with food, love and philosophy, John Saturnall’s Feast exuberantly echoes Milton’s imagery of God’s bounty in a parable showing that intolerant religious fundamentalism is the true apple of discord. Unless we all rejoice in life’s dazzling diversity, Paradise can never be regained. (2012, 416 pages)

He brought thee into this delicious Grove,
This garden, planted with the Trees of God,
Delectable both to behold and taste,
And freely all their pleasant fruit for food
Gave thee.

(John Milton, in Paradise Lost, Book 7)

More about John Saturnall's Feast at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

Other novels set during the English Civil Wars:

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (2001), about a servant during the seventeenth century English Civil War. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Best of Men by Claire Letemendia (2009), about a battle-weary soldier who returns to England after fighting in the Thirty Years War on the Continent only to find England too about to plunge into a civil war. See review or more info at Powell's Books

Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain (2011), about Henrietta Maria, the French princess who married King Charles I. More info

Nonfiction about British cookery in history:

The Accomplsht Cook, Or, the Art and Mystery of Cookery Wherein the Whole Art Is Revealed in a More Easie and Perfect Method, Than Hath Been Publisht in any Language by Robert May (1660). More info

Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking by Kate Colquhoun (2011). More info

Food and Drink in Britain by Anne C. Wilson (1973). More info


Saturnalia at the University of Chicago's "Penelope" website

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