Last year I wrote a blogpost about fruit tart in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White which you can read here. Now, it’s time to retrace my footsteps with apple tart in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Although the title and genre of Hill’s novel is a nod to Collins’s gothic romance, the narrative of The Woman in Black is significantly pared-back compared to its indulgent predecessor. Hill clearly subscribes to the idea that horror lies in how the imagination circulates around what is left unsaid. The echoes of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are much in evidence in the nature of the narrative voice and the plot, something Hill herself acknowledged when writing about her novel.
For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, seen the theatre production, or the recent film, The Woman in Black begins with that established figure in gothic horror – the first-person narrator retrospectively recounting a terrifying experience which has profoundly impacted on his life. Lawyer Arthur Kipps was sent from London to a remote house to sort through the papers of a deceased lady. We can tick another item off our gothic checklist here – the house is isolated on an island in a marsh, which can only be crossed at certain times of the day due to the tide. And, of course, it is haunted.
This blogpost’s edible example appears on Kipps’s dining table in the village inn, a liminal space between the safety of his home in London and the psychological and physical danger of the marshes-bound house. Kipps tucks into what sounds a delicious meal for the winter:
‘[The landlord’s] wife made my mouth water in anticipation of the supper she proposed – home-made broth, sirloin of beef, apple and raison tart with cream, and some Stilton cheese. … All in all, and with the half-bottle of claret that had accompanied my supper, I prepared to go up to bed in a warm glow of well-being and contentment.’ (pp.42-3)
The fact that in this lean, unembellished novel the narrator spends words on listing the components of his dinner draws our attention to them and gives them importance. This significance lies in the comforting solidity and earthliness that these items of food confer on the description of the village; I can imagine the apples being picked from a tree in the garden by the inn’s servant-boy and the beef being sent down by the local butcher. Kipps’s dinner also has a reassuringly long history in English cooking. For example, there is a recipe for apple tart dating from 1381. They provide a clear contrast (oh – another gothic feature) with the unearthliness, the ghostliness of the marshes.
But as in any ghost story, things may not be as they seem. As well as being quintessentially English and realistic, the apple has a long history as a literary symbol. Despite the Bible not mentioning the apple specifically in the story of the Fall, it is the fruit which is associated with sin, greed, deception and corruption. The story of the Trojan War also involves an apple which leads to downfall. Drawing on such narratives, more recent fairy-tales and legends focus on the apple as a symbol of deception. Snow White munches on one, only to fall into a death-like stupor and in Celtic mythology an apple gives Connla an insatiable taste for fairy-land. You can read a longer list of mystical apples at http://thefairytalecupboard.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/once-upon-apple-day.html .
So Kipps’s innocuous dessert may not be so wholesome after all. I hope that the apple tart recipe below is quite the opposite!
Susan Hill, The Woman in Black (London: Vintage, 1998)
Susan Hill: Haunted by the Woman in Black, The Telegraph, 10 February 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/9041902/Susan-Hill-haunted-by-the-Woman-in-Black.html
300g plain flour
2 tbsp. caster sugar
200g dairy-free spread (this is a vegan recipe)
Some cold tap water
3 large apples
3 tbsp. muscavado sugar
2 tbsp. apricot jam
Cinnamon, to taste
- Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl and add the caster sugar. Then rub in the butter. Gradually add the water and bring together into a dough.
- Grease a 30cm circular tin; roll out the pastry; line the tin with the pastry. Make sure the pastry overhands the edge of the tin; this can be trimmed after baking. Prick the pastry with a fork to prevent rising.
- Finely slice the apples, then toss in the muscavado and cinnamon. Lay the apple slices in a fan shape in the pastry.
- Heat the apricot jam with a little water, then use to glaze the apples.
- Finally, sprinkle the flaked almonds over the tart.
- Bake for 30 minutes.