While the working class toiled away for scanty portions of food, the aristocracy enjoyed the luxury of eating fifteen-dish meals garnished with an additional eleven-dish dessert (Soyer 415). Conspicuous consumption in the highest levels of society eventually spurred a backlash from writers and critics. For instance, Benjamin Disraeli criticized England for being "two nations" that were "fed by a different food." While half of the Victorian population subsisted on almost nothing, the other half, as V. S. Pritchett writes, was "disgustedly overfed" (Houston 8-9). In response to having an overabundance of food, the upper classes viewed eating as an exercise in self-control, particularly for girls and women.
"The negative representation of eating in much nineteenth-century children's literature," as well as novels targeted to adults, "was matched by real restrictions on eating in many girls' lives," notes Silver. "Most often, girls were urged to eat a bland, unstimulating diet" (58), as evinced by the insubstantial meals of watery porridge forced upon the students of Lowood school. Wanton indulgence in food, no matter how little, symbolized moral looseness and a general lack of discipline. Whether or not Victorian writers genuinely shared this view, they successfully captured this attitude in many of their writings. In Jane Eyre, when Mr. Brocklehurst discovers that Miss Temple had offered meals of bread and cheese to her students, he reprimands her liberality by saying,
You are aware that my plan in bringing up these girls is, not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying. . . Oh, madam, when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge, into these children's mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!
Here, Mr. Brocklehurst draws a connection between eating and spiritual purity — a connection explored by several writers of this period. He implies that fasting paves a road to redemption and a higher spiritual state. As a result of theOxford Movement in the Church of England, as well as a few dissenting churches, religious fasting enjoyed a small revival in the nineteenth century (Silver 136). Tennyson touches upon the idea of religious fasting in "The Holy Grail," from Idylls of the King. By describing the actions of the fasting nun, he "highlights the slippery distinctions between secular and sacred fasting. . .The nun's fasting renders her incorporeal, merely a walking spirit whose fasting brings her a glimpse of the Grail" (Silver 156).
Christina Rossetti, an important High Church poet, wrote "Goblin Market" as a discourse in consumption and redemption. In the poem, the goblin men entice two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, with plates of luscious fruit, which symbolize original sin (Scholl). Laura soon gives into temptation and eats the goblin fruits, but when she learns that she will never see the goblin men again, she falls into a listless daze. In a desperate measure to revive her sister, Lizzie confronts the goblin men, asking for their fruits but refusing to eat them herself. In this example, Rossetti portrays self-denial of food as a spiritual act that purifies one's soul, as well as the souls of others who have fallen.
Self-denial of food is not limited to a religious context, however; it can also take the form of thwarted desires. InGreat Expectations, Miss Havisham keeps her rotting bride-cake upon a long table that had been laid for a feast, so that she can obsessively remind herself and others of a thwarted romance. At the same time, Miss Havisham also appears to have starved herself, for when Pip first sees Miss Havisham, he describes her as "shrunk to skin and bone." By depriving herself of nourishment, Miss Havisham symbolically deprives herself of romantic desire.
The Decadent poets have also characterized unrequited love as a form of self-starvation. Swinburne's "Dolores" — replete with images of fruit and wine — evokes the pains of unfulfilled passions where "fruits fail and love dies." Similarly, in "Laus Veneris," the speaker describes his empty, purely physical relationship as "a feverish famine in my veins." Again and again, the speaker refers to his love in terms of hunger:
They lie, they pluck sweet fruit of life and eat;
But me the hot and hungry days devour,
And in my mouth no fruit of theirs is sweet.
The "fruit" of fleshly pleasures fails to satisfy the speaker's hunger for a higher, more spiritual form of love. The lack of spiritual love devours him instead of satiating him. Still, he pines away at Venus, effectively choosing self-starvation in the end.
The theme of hunger pervades throughout much of Victorian literature. Rooted in the eating habits of both the rich and poor, literary depictions of hunger serve as an anchor for realism and social commentary, as well as a point of departure for other subjects such as sin and love. Because the act of eating takes such an important place in the daily lives of humans, as well as in the universal struggle for survival, it becomes a powerful force that drives the action and plot in Victorian writings.
Literary Context: 19th Century Novels
Five main kinds of novel were popular in the mid-19th century.