Readings — From the April 2014 issue

In the Cage

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By Colin Richmond, from “Deliberation and Precipitation: Fresh Eggs, c. 1890–c. 1910,” published in the Winter 2014 issue of Common Knowledge. Richmond is professor emeritus of medieval history at the University of Keele, in England.

Edwin Austin Abbey was an illustrator and latterly an artist: in oils, a better one than modernism gives him credit for; indeed, it allows him none. His passion was cricket, and he formed and captained his own team of Artists, which played at his country home, Morgan Hall at Fairford, in Cotswold country.

Henry James was a devoted friend of Abbey and of his American wife and often visited them at Morgan Hall, being known even to watch a cricket match or two. But what drew James to Morgan Hall were fresh eggs, essential for an English breakfast and unobtainable in Chelsea. James spoke, E. V. Lucas writes in his life of Abbey, “of the boon it would be . . . to have at home a constant supply as notable for freshness as those that were being daily set before him.” It was decided, therefore, that he must be so provided, “and a box was specially constructed for the purpose of moving continually from the Gloucestershire poultry run to De Vere Gardens full, and from De Vere Gardens to the Gloucestershire poultry run empty.”

Lucas, to our everlasting benefit, transcribes some of the Master’s letters on this egg service. Here is one:

The box has flown back to you, on the wings of all the (remotely) potential chickens of all the blessed eggs, this very day. It was my fault that my good woman didn’t return it sooner. Good Woman (the day it came): “Shall I send it back today, sir?” Modest Man: “Oh, wouldn’t that look rather greedy? Keep it a day or two.” So it was kept longer than I knew. But, as I say, it is flapping straight to Morgan Hall now; and it shall always boldly go, henceforth, the very right day . . . . The arrival of the eggs makes me believe in better things. I don’t mean better than eggs — there is nothing better — but better than most of the things we have been having. I shall bless you as long as they continue, and even when they have stopped — for the memory of them. But pray don’t let them stop yet awhile. Make them, rather, begin more violently. They console me for certain disappointing events in America. Better the British hen than the American eagle.

How could new-laid eggs more violently travel than they were doing by rail? For all his prophetic insights into a decadent and declining world, 1894 was too soon for James to be thinking of eggs by air. What would he think of asparagus from Kenya, roses from Israel, prawns from Thailand, and (for all I know) birds’ eggs still in their nests from China, winging their way to the supermarkets of America and Europe? As for the American eagle: we have learned to share his disappointment.

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