Virginia Woolf fillets of sole á la crème et al

“Lunch on this occasion began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe”

-Virginia Woolfe, A Room With A View

Virginia Woolfe originally writes A Room Of One’s Own because she is asked to speak on the subject of  Women and Fiction – a subject which she finds impossibly broad. She starts at the British Museum and, in the course of this research, finds a variety of ‘scholarly’ works by academics, politicians, even bishops, on the inferiority of women including one entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. She finds herself doodling dark effigies of the author and realises she’s angry. Her emotion once recognised, she can control and objectify it. Further analysis enables her to identify that the writers of these theses were also angry.

“It was anger,”

she comments

“that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions.”

She goes on to try to understand what might be the base cause of this anger, why would these men want to write such books, to live their lives with such a belief.

“Life for both sexes – and I looked at them, shouldering their way along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself. … and how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so valuable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself…..The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the history of the story of that emancipation itself.”

Woolfe was writing in 1928 but this opinion of women remains prevalent in many countries today where they are beaten, traded, raped, deprived of education and much more.

And even in the West it still lurks – a colleague of mine recently went to a meeting in the UK with male colleagues where the host declined to acknowledge her completely unless to make pointed comments along the lines of “this may be too technical for you”. The host knew nothing of her education or experience.

Some progress has been made however.

Woolfe describes going to have dinner at a women’s college – either Oxford or Cambridge, it doesn’t matter which. The soup is watery, the Brussels sprouts served with leathery meat are ‘curled and yellowed at the edge’. And then there are prunes….’stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid that might run in misers’ veins…’.

At the men’s college by contrast the sprouts are ‘foliated as rosebuds but more succulent’. The pudding is a confection which rises ‘all sugar from the waves’.

Now, thank goodness, the norm is to have a mixed college where all can share the culinary delights produced within.

The Bloomsbury Group is all the rage now (as it ever was) with a new BBC series, Life in Squares, being introduced this summer.

Serve with a French bean salad and fried potatoes.


Recipe for fillets of sole in a cream sauce

Serves 4


  • 4 fillets of sole (about 500g/1 lb weight altogether)
  • 120ml/½ cup double cream
  • 1 tsp smoked salt
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • Butter for frying


  1. Salt the fish and fry in the butter about two minutes on each side.
  2. Add the cream and boil a little to thicken.
  3. Sprinkle paprika on top.
  4. Serve.





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