Book of the Week: The Reading Cure

26 Mar|Laura Feeeman

Mrs Wackford Squeers doles out the brimstone at Dotheboys' Hall

In her excellent new memoir, Laura Freeman writes on how good writing about food saved her from anorexia. This is an extract from Chapter One.

A shocking thing hunger, isn’t it, Mr Nickleby?”

Through the winter months of the worst of my illness, eating peas and scraps of tofu, I never once skipped breakfast. I had a conviction – and I must have read the phrase in a magazine because the wording is so precise – that “a good breakfast is the key to successful weight loss”. I could starve as I pleased as the day went on, but mornings began with the good breakfast of the rubric.

While my definition of breakfast remained the same – I did eat something every morning – I chipped away at the “good”. Porridge and milk and a banana and honey: that is a good breakfast. Take away the honey, and the porridge and banana will set you up for the day. Take away the banana, and the porridge will keep you warm. Swap dairy milk for soya, and you lose the benefit of the calcium. I did myself lasting harm this way. A scan, insisted on by my doctor after his diagnosis, showed osteopenia – the beginnings of brittle bone disease – at the base of my spine.

Halve the portion of porridge, and you will be hungry by eleven. Halve the portion again, and you’ll be hungry by nine. Halve it again – we are down to three level table-spoons now – and the cold when you leave the house for school is cruel. Replace the soya milk with water, and you are mottled and shivering even in six layers of clothes.

God, how cold I was. Fingers and toes blue, wearing gloves in lessons, and sinking into a bath sobbing at the end of the day. I was driven wild with cold at the bus stop. Let the driver come round the corner with the next change of lights, let me not stand here on a January morning for a minute longer.

But still I had eaten a good breakfast. The anorexic mind is perversely logical. I had a talent for convincing myself that my regime was admirable. I scoffed at the girls at school who missed breakfast. What dolts! They would be much better off having hot porridge, as I did. How often they stumbled at morning break, buying chocolate from the tuck shop. But, I, with my good breakfast, hardly needed my lunchtime Ryvita, taken in broken pieces from inside a locker so no one would see me eat. Nor was I hungry for my pea soup at dinner – peas in the water in which they had been boiled.

A good breakfast – it sounds absurd now. By the time I’d finished my refinements, you couldn’t truly call it porridge. It had become the thin, workhouse gruel ladled from the copper in Oliver Twist for the benefit of poor parish boys. Unlike Oliver, it never crossed my mind to want more.

The workhouse children of Charles Dickens’s Mudfog have a porringer of oatmeal and water three times a day. Oliver and his fellow starvelings polish the bowls clean with their spoons and lick their fingers for stray splashes of gruel. In some ways they are fortunate. There are worse breakfasts in Dickens. In Nicholas Nickleby, the pupils of Dotheboys Hall have their porridge – “which looked like diluted pincushions without the covers” – from Mrs Wackford Squeers, who first doses each boy with brimstone and treacle because it spoils his appetite.

Wackford Squeers, headmaster of Dotheboys Hall, is all for good breakfasts – but only if he’s the one who is eating them. In the dining room of a coaching inn, Squeers lines up before him the five little boys, unlucky all, who will shortly go up to his Yorkshire school. He orders two penn’orth of milk in a blue mug, thinned with lukewarm water. ‘Why the milk will be drowned,’ protests the waiter, mindful of five boys with empty stomachs. Mr Squeers is unmoved. ‘Conquer your passions, boys, and don’t be eager after vittles.’

The lukewarm milk and water arrives and Squeers tells his charges how they will proceed. “‘When I say number one’, pursued Mr Squeers, putting the mug before the children, ‘the boy on the left hand nearest the window may take a drink; and when I say number two the boy next him will go in, and so till we come to number five, which is the last boy. Are you ready?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ cry the little boys, eager and hungry. ‘That’s right,’ said Squeers, calmly getting on with his breakfast; ‘keep ready till I tell you to begin. Subdue your appetites, my dears, and you’ve conquered human nature. This is the way we inculcate strength of mind, Mr Nickleby.'”

Click here to be the first to read our Book of the Week extracts. From The Reading Cure: How Books Restored my Appetite (W&N;£16.99). Buy from AmazonLaura Freeman is an author and freelance journalist based in London. She writes about art, architecture, books and food for the Spectator, Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Apollo, World of Interiors and TLS. She is a former dance critic for the Evening Standard. She read History of Art at Cambridge, graduating with a double first in 2010.