Anna Trench. Laura Freeman on Charles Gibson-Cowan

Chekhov and Oysters

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The night the Evelyn Hope sailed from Hamble, there were sausages, potatoes and fried tomatoes cooked on a Primus stove for dinner. The captain opened a bottle of beer.

It took three days for the boat to reach Le Havre. There the captain and his first mate disembarked and ordered a dinner of moules marinières, followed by nougat and Calvados.

The diners were Charles Gibson-Cowan and Elizabeth David. It was 1939 and the two actors had abandoned the London stage for the Mediterranean. Their two-year odyssey was to turn her thoughts entirely from acting to writing. When she returned, reluctantly, to England she set out to write a recipe book of the cooking of France, Italy, Corsica and Greece.

To read her account, published as A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, you might think she had travelled alone. Charles, who bought the Evelyn Hope, made her seaworthy, charted their course and weathered the storms, is pitted from the story like a stone from an olive.

To learn anything of the young lovers who fled England, you have to turn to Gibson-Cowan’s own account, The Voyage of the Evelyn Hope, a slim volume published in 1946 and long since out of print.

Though the book is dedicated to ‘E.G.’ (Elizabeth’s maiden name was Gwynne) ‘with all my love’, his travelling companion is called ‘Caroline’ throughout the book. Elizabeth was fiercely private and she had no wish to appear in print as the love interest spirited away to the Med by a drunkard, a chancer, an East End actor, a Grub Street hack and sometime tramp.

Charles was all those things – and worse. When he took up with Elizabeth, he was married with a young child. He was 31, she 22. Her appalled sisters wanted rid of him, of the theatre and of the dingy flat the couple shared. Elizabeth, the daughter of a Conservative MP, was determined to break with convention and her family, no matter how many

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About the contributor

The last time Laura Freeman went on holiday she took seven books. She was away for two nights.

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