‘Everyone is reading Proust’


‘Everyone is reading Proust’ (Virginia Woolf to E.M. Forster, 1922)
I’m starting to notice him everywhere. Even in a letter written by Virginia Woolf to Roger Fry which I stumbled upon after having seen ‘Life in Squares’,  a drama about the Bloomsbury set, shown on BBC last Monday.
‘Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! … And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures – there’s something sexual in it…Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me : it becomes an obsession.’
And  not only am I noticing people talking about Proust, but I’m finding that what Proust writes is making me see the world differently.
Take our last book group meeting, for instance.
Here we discussed the idea that ‘ ‘Un livre est le produit d’un autre moi que celui que nous nous manifestons dans nos habitudes, dans la société, dans nos vices’ ( a book is the product of another self than the one that we show in our habits, in society, in our vices), the belief, expressed by Proust in ‘Contre Sainte-Beuve’  that man and artist are distinct.  Where one can appear socially ridiculous, the other can create beauty, express truth.
Which brings me back to the BBC drama about the Bloomsbury set, ‘Life in Squares’ which started Monday 26th July…
Vanessa Bell - a self-portrait
Vanessa Bell – a self-portrait
the 'invert', Duncan Grant
Duncan Grant – a self-portrait
J.M. Keynes by Duncan Grant
J.M. Keynes by Duncan Grant
Clive Bell
Clive Bell by Roger Fry
Lytton Strachey - a self-portrait
Lytton Strachey – Henry Lamb 1914
An Interior, 8 Fitzroy Street by Vanessa Bell
An Interior, 8 Fitzroy Street by Vanessa Bell

The first episode did seem to  inadvertently prove Proust’s point.  To witness the confused liaisons, sexual exploits, self-indulgent vagaries of this spoilt,  privileged set rendered them more ridiculous than artistically sublime. If the intention was to make them seem brave, unconventional, uncompromising it failed.

But that’s not to say that the Bloomsbury set failed to achieve this in their art.

Nor does it mean that I’m not going to watch it next week. Hell no.

And, by way of celebration, I thought I’d re-read some of their work, take a new look at their paintings, and make a Boeuf en Daube to eat while watching next week’s episode.

Boeuf en Daube?  Why it’s Mildred’s masterpiece of a dish which appears in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’.  As the first programme concentrated on the tangled sexual lives of this artistic group, the dish which so seduces William Bankes in Woolf’s novel, seems a fitting offering for the second episode.

‘It was rich, it was tender. It was perfectly cooked.’

An ‘exquisite scent of olives and oil and juice rose from the great brown dish… The cook had spent three days over that dish. And she must take great care, Mrs Ramsay thought, diving into that soft mass, to choose a specially tender piece for William Bankes. And she peered into the dish, with its shiny walls and its confusion of savoury brown and yellow meats, and its bay leaves and its wine, and thought, This will celebrate the occasion – a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish  and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound – for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman….’

                                                                                                  (To the Lighthouse 1927)

Now who wouldn’t fancy a bit of boeuf en daube after that?  And so, here it is, a recipe for Mildred’s –

‘Boeuf en Daube’


  • 1.5 kg stewing beef, cubed
  • 150 g unsmoked back bacon, de-rinded and  cut into lardons
  • 3tbsp plain flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
  • 2 handfuls black olives pitted
  • 700ml red wine
  • 40ml brandy
  • 2 cups beef stock
  • 1 tbs tomato puree
  • 1 onion
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 bouquet garni
  • salt
  • pepper

for the marinade

  • bouquet garni
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 3 strips orange peel
  • pepper
  • 2 red onions
  • 3  garlic cloves
  • 3 cloves
  • 4 carrots
  • 10g parsley, chopped
  • 10g thyme, chopped
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
  • 1/3 cup olive oil


  • Prepare marinade by combining all ingredients in a bowl.
  • Toss steak and bacon in marinade.
  • Add wine and brandy.
  • Mix again.
  • Cover and place in fridge for 24 hours.
  • Stir occasionally.
  • Next day, preheat oven to 140 degrees.
  • Remove beef from marinade -pat dry on kitchen towel.
  • Coat in seasoned flour.
  • Heat oil and brown the meat. Add bacon.
  • Transfer to plate.
  • Add beef stock to pot. Add tomato puree, scraping brown bits with wooden spoon.
  • Remove orange peel and bouquet garni.
  • Add fresh bouquet garni to marinade.
  • Pour marinade, fresh tomatoes, onion and olives into pot. Bring to boil.
  • Simmer for 20 minutes.
  • Add meat and cover.
  • Put in oven for 1 1/2 – 2  hours.
  • Discard bouquet garni.

And there you have it – Boeuf en Daube : food to watch artists misbehaving by.

I feel a Bloomsbury Dinner Party coming on. Or perhaps not…

Boeuf en Daube Linkfile

what it is, where it’s fromhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daube

recipes :  





6 thoughts on “‘Everyone is reading Proust’”

  1. Delighted to have found your website. But, surely the portrait of Lytton Strachey was not painted by him ? Maybe Henry Lamb or Frank Bussy…

    1. You’re right Martin, the portrait of Lytton Strachey was painted by Henry Lamb, on display at Tate Britain. Thanks for drawing my attention to this. All corrections gratefully received!

  2. So did Proust behave like a self-indulgent dick too? Is this what you’re telling me?
    And what about the madeleine? Don’t tell me it’s some sort of sexual symbol. Not the madeleine.

    1. The madeleine? I’d never thought of it in those terms before… Now the Hubert Robert fountain, now you’re talking. And I’m sure Proust did present a social persona that belied what we read in ‘A la recherche’. Gide turned Proust’s ‘A la recherche’ down precisely because he judged the man not the book.

  3. Might actually make this myself for the next episode. It’s on quite late but after days of cooking it I’m sure I’ll be able to wait until 9. Wasn’t sure what to make of what I was watching in the first programme but I did find it amusing. I too will be tuning in again next week.

    1. Pleased to hear it. Good to know I won’t be the only one tucking into a nice bit of Boeuf en Daube on a Monday night.

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