Dust down the luncheon basket, roll out the rug, and pass me a pork pie... it's picnic season. Like
pubs, there is something so quintessentially British about the summer picnic - lazing in dappled sunlight with friends or family, eating, drinking, checking the sky for rain.
No wonder so many many great authors who have written about them. After all, there are plenty of writers who have used the humble picnic to place a memorable scene. Here is a selection of some of the best picnics in literature.
by Kenneth Grahame (1908) Wind in the Willows
Pretty much the pinnacle of outdoor eating in literature – and the only time anyone has distilled an entire meal into a single, mouthwatering word (a shame the
Oxford English Dictionary never picked it up, if you ask me). Mole has barely boarded Rat's boat when the rodent thrusts a “fat, wicker luncheon basket” his way:
“What’s inside it?” asked the Mole, wriggling with curiosity.
“There’s cold chicken inside it,’ replied the Rat briefly;
“O stop, stop,” cried the Mole in ecstacies: “This is too much!”
“Do you really think so?” enquired the Rat seriously. “It’s only what I always take on these little excursions; and the other animals are always telling me that I’m a mean beast and cut it VERY fine!”
In the hands of a writer as fine as Grahame, even cold tongue can sound appetizing. Can't it? As Mole observes, it is “enough to give any picnicker indigestion”.
by Joan Lindsay (1967) Picnic at Hanging Rock
If you knew you were about to disappear, never to be seen again, what would you choose for your last meal? A roast dinner? Steak and chips? Or would you go off the beaten track, literally, and guzzle a chicken pot pie, angel cake and jellies under the shade of a gum tree, all washed down with milk and lemonade kept “deliciously cool” in your zinc-lined wicker basket?
“Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock,” Lindsay writes in the opening scenes to her terrifying turn-of-the-20th-century horror about two schoolgirls and a teacher who go missing in the Australian bush. It was a “a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling.”
Blissful. Never mind the “poisonous ants” that swarm about the beauty spot, “laboriously dragging” morsels of food “towards some subterranean larder dangerously situated within inches of Blanche's yellow head, pillowed on a rock” ... They've got a “handsome iced cake in the shape of a heart”.
“Hunger satisfied, and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel,” the girls climb into the blazing sunlight, towards the shadows of Hanging Rock to meet their mysterious fate.
by George Orwell (1949) 1984
One of literature's sparsest picnics, this – the only food Winston and Julia bring is a “small slab of chocolate” when they slip to a forest glade to evade Big Brother's watchful eye. But for what the scene lacks in grub, it makes up for in sweet romance. After all, this picnic is more about sex than food.
“The ground was misty with bluebells,” writes Orwell. “The air seemed to kiss one's skin ... From somewhere deeper in the heart of the wood came the droning of ring doves.”
But first, there must be chocolate. And so:
“She broke it in half and gave one of the pieces to Winston. Even before he had taken it he knew by the smell that it was very unusual chocolate. It was dark and shiny, and was wrapped in silver paper. Chocolate normally was dullbrown crumbly stuff that tasted, as nearly as one could describe it, like the smoke of a rubbish fire. But at some time or another he had tasted chocolate like the piece she had given him. The first whiff of its scent had stirred up some memory which he could not pin down, but which was powerful and troubling … The first fragment of chocolate had melted on Winston's tongue.”
The sex, of course, is powerful. But their happiness is an illusion. Big Brother, it turns out, was watching after all.
by P.G. Wodehouse (1930) Very Good, Jeeves
There can be some peril in picnics, too, of course. And rain isn't the only unforeseen hazard that can send them south. As P.G. Wodehouse knew all too well, so can, say, an ill-secured bottle of Bollinger. And in
Very Good, Jeeves he inserts a short warning about the pitfalls of picnics. Here's his bumbling toff hero Bertie Wooster to explain:
“I met a fellow the other day who told me he unpacked his basket and found the champagne had burst and together with the salad dressing had soaked into the ham, which in turn had got mixed up with the gorgonzola cheese forming a kind of paste… Oh, he ate the mixture but he said he could taste it even now.”
by Virginia Woolf (1927) To The Lighthouse
The Ramsays take their picnic on a boat in Virginia Woolf's First World War family psychodrama told across a series of holidays on the Isle of Skye. It's a simple, frugal affair, that takes place towards the end of the novel as Mr Ramsey breaks bread with his children and some fishermen, the eponymous lighthouse inching closer.
“Mr Ramsay opened the parcel and shared out the sandwiches among them. Now he was happy, eating bread and cheese with these fishermen.” The sandwiches clearly aren't much to write home about as Cam tries to throw hers into the water until her father makes her put it back in the parcel, telling her not to waste good food. “He said it so wisely, as if he knew so well all the things that happened in the world, that she put it back at once.”
But her father makes it up to her with another valuable lesson, this time in picnic etiquette when he offers her “a gingerbread nut, as if he were a great Spanish gentleman… handing a flower to a lady at a window (so courteous his manner was).”
“As they watched the sag got deeper and all the food fell into it, dragging the tablecloth right down into the ground”
by Ted Hughes (1968) The Iron Man
It's a pretty standard family picnic, at first, on top of a “lovely hill”. “They spread a tablecloth on the grass,” writes Hughes. “They set down the plate of sandwiches, a big pie, a roasted chicken, a bottle of milk, a bowl of tomatoes, a bagful of boiled eggs, a dish of butter and a loaf of bread, with cheese and salt and cups. The father got his stove going to boil some water for tea, and they all lay back on rugs munching food and waiting for the kettle to boil, under the blue sky.”
Idyllic. Only, then the ground begins to rumble. The table cloth begins to sag in the middle. “As they watched the sag got deeper and all the food fell into it, dragging the tablecloth right down into the ground.”
Suddenly a great iron head emerges from the hole, and an iron giant judderingly digs himself out. The family run in horror. Sanwiches ruined.
by D. H. Lawrence (1920) Women in Love
Clearly, D. H. Lawrence loved a picnic. They feature in a number of his novels, but mainly to set up feasts of the more carnal variety. The picnics in
Women in Love are his best, though. First there's a Highland “water picnic”, set beautifully by a lake.
Sisters Ursula and Gudrun sneak off from their group to a secluded spot where they swim naked before dancing dry before a herd of “wild Scotch bullocks”, and singing. They return to the picnic where they dive into a sumptuous spread of “hot and aromatic tea … delicious little sandwiches of cucumber and caviar and winy cakes”. The day doesn't end well, but it's lovely while it lasts.
Later, Ursula and Rupert take a trip to Sherwood Forest, where they buy “bread, and cheese, and raisins, and apples and hard chocolate”. They don't eat much of it, and feast on each other instead.
by Anton Chekhov (1891) The Duel
Even picnics get a dose of despair in Chekhov's universe. Take the one enjoyed by Laevsky, Samoylenko and friends in his novella
The Duel, after the group drive by coach to a gorge in the wild mountains. In an effort to bring harmony to the bickering party, Samoylenko prepares “an awfully good soup of grey mullets”, which seems a somewhat illogical choice of food for an outdoor picnic. Anyway...
“The fish soup was ready by now. They were ladling it out by platefuls and eating it with the religious solemnity with which this is only done at picnics.”
It picks up a bit, of course, when the wine begins to flow. “As is always the case at picnics, in the mass of dinner napkins, parcels, useless greasy papers fluttering in the wind, no one knew where was his glass or where his bread. They poured the wine on the carpet and on their own knees, spilt the salt, while it was dark all round them and the fire burnt more dimly, and everyone was too lazy to get up and put wood on.”
Laevsky declares it “a splendid picnic, an enchanting evening”. But of course, the idyll can only last so long. Bad times are to come, as implied by the story's title. This is Chekhov, after all.
"They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily"
by Enid Blyton (1946) Five Go Off in a Caravan
It would be daft to deny that some of Enid Blyton's work is problematic when it comes to her views on race and sex. Her views on food, however, court no such controversy. Her vivid, homely, sumptuously drawn high teas feel as nostalgic as a long queue outside the butchers.
And there are few passages in any text that better evoke the lazy, sun-drenched, Gingham-clothed pleasure of an evening picnic than when Timmy, George, Julian, Dick and Anne travel to Merran Lake for a spot of camping in
Five Go Off in a Caravan.
“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into. ‘I don’t know why, but the meals we have on picnics always taste so much nicer than the ones we have indoors,’ said George.”
Illustration by Mike Ellis.