By Lillian Lu
In the recent Netflix film, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, set in 1946, London writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James), tired of publishing under her usual pseudonym and still recovering from the trauma of losing her parents and home during the war, is searching for something to write about. The answer comes when she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a farmer from the island of Guernsey, who was one of the founding members of the eponymous book club during the war years and who has come across her copy of Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia. As the island has no more bookshops, he asks if she can send him an address of a London bookshop that might carry more of Lamb’s books. The Romantic essayist, Dawsey tells Juliet, was a great comfort to him during World War II, during which Guernsey was occupied by the Germans, all children evacuated, a curfew put in place, land mines planted on the beach, and their livestock taken away.
I was surprised by Lamb’s role in the film. He catapults the romantic plot, connecting two unlikely people who, through letter-writing, find in each other mutual understanding and a love for literature. “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” in particular, serves as an inadvertent kind of pick-up line in Dawsey’s first letter. Why Lamb in this historical romance? Why, in particular, “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” (1822)?
Dawsey is drawn to the “Dissertation” because he and his book club friends had to keep a roast pig secret from the Germans. They weren’t allowed to have a pig—let alone eat it. One of his neighbors, Elizabeth, facilitates the clandestine neighborhood dinner and though they are all hungry, Dawsey says that the true hunger was for “connection.” Dawsey lives on an island that is extremely isolated and oppressed during the war, but the island’s culture itself is motley. Guernsey, though a British crown dependency, is an island much closer to France. In the film, some of its people speak Guernésiais, or Guernsey French. Characters are remarked by other characters to be of varying levels of “from Guernsey.” Elizabeth, who goes missing and is the main mystery that Juliet tries to solve, is whispered to have been educated off-island, and so is seen as an outsider. And of course, the island has been deeply affected by international conflict, Holocaust victims brought over to build German military towers and soldiers lurking around each Guernsey home.
Lamb’s “Dissertation,” too, is wrought with the interconnectedness of the world. This essay begins with Elia telling us that his friend has “read and “explain[ed]” to him a Chinese manuscript which summarizes the origins of the roast pig in China, the discovery causing a frenzy, several houses set on fire to enjoy this newfound culinary delight. Scholar Karen Fang has written in-depth about the prominence of Chinese commodities in Lamb’s writings, and how they serve as a tool for asserting English superiority: “The essay thus not only portrays the Chinese as irresponsible consumers but also, more importantly, authorizes English culture as the one safe site of consumption” (827). Elia’s domestic and literary worlds are filled with tea-cups and porcelain, illustrating a Britain that is international because of its imperialistic endeavors. While this is probably far, far from what the Netflix film is trying to talk about, it does seem to be talking about how to live with one another during and after hard times marked by violence, colonization, and globalization—how to responsibly form and live in communities that are now irrevocably international.
Connection to Elia, after all, offers pleasure and fear. Elia is keenly aware of his tendencies to go to the extreme. In the Chinese story, the roast pig is delicious but scalds the fingers that try to handle it. The physical contact between consumer and roast pig is one that requires utmost care. Elia says that young pigs are all virtue, and that he would like himself to be virtuous and generous. “But a stop must be put somewhere…Methinks it is an ingratitude to the Giver of all good flavours to extradomiciliate, or send out of the house slightingly (under pretext of friendship, or I know not what), a blessing so particularly adapted, predestined, I may say, to my individual palate.” In other words, he worries that giving too much to another under the guise of friendship, of interpersonal connection, might be “an insensibility,” a sort of violation. Such an act might not be welcome, and might also be an insult to the giver’s loved ones. This is what the film’s Juliet is concerned about when she invites herself to the island to meet the literary society; she has been asked by a magazine to write a piece about the importance of literature and has decided to write something about Dawsey’s reading group. When she meets the members, it is clear they are all embroiled in some past traumas they don’t wish to talk about. Who has the right to say? Who gets to own a secret? Would Juliet be writing about them for herself? Are her claims about her own motivations truthful, felt? Storytelling pushes up against ethics, and both bristle at the contact. This tension moves the plot of the film forward, complicating what could’ve been a pure and predictable love story in interesting ways, and unsettling the grounds of the romantic plot altogether at times.
Who has the right to say, indeed? Elia’s dissertation, which began in China, ends on a more personal note, with a childhood anecdote and the conversational “you.” Perhaps it is easier, more ethical, more right to speak about oneself, even if and even because one exists in this world saturated with other people. At the end of the film, Juliet decides to write a novel about her experiences in Guernsey: her friend and publisher assures her that now, after her journey, it’s her story, too. She sends the manuscript to her friends on the island and says that it is only for their eyes. The insistence on small communities, on the intimacy of letter-writing, on the power of the second-person, is central to the film. And maybe this is what Lamb’s famously conversational Elia essays are doing in this film: connecting intimate groups of people amidst an overwhelmingly globalized world.
Fang, Karen Y. “Empire, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb’s Consumer Imagination.” SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, vol. 43 no. 4, 2003, pp. 815-843. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/sel.2003.0039
Lamb, Charles. “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig.” New York: K. Tompkins, 1874. https://archive.org/details/ adissertationup00lambgoog