A History of Hunger
Calamitous shifts in food production and distribution, as well as a food scarcity that occurred during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, established a preoccupation with hunger and food in much of Victorian literature. Even before these events befell England, however, the typical commoner's diet already proved meager. In The English Rural Laborer, G. E. Fussell cites Sir Frederick Eden's contemporary accounts of the rural poor, who were "habituated to the unvarying meal of dry bread and cheese from week's end to week's end" (Fussell 82). Likewise, in Great Expectations, Pip's and Joe's pastoral meals consist of only bread and butter — the only two food items Dickens mentions again and again at the start of the novel.
The latter half of the eighteenth century heralded the rise of the Industrial Revolution, during which rural laborers migrated en masse to the cities for employment. No longer able live off the land, and "alienated from their food source," this new working class became sensitive to fluctuations in food availability (Houston 8). Between 1815 and 1846, Parliament established the Corn Laws as a protectionist measure against cheaper foreign imports of wheat and other grains, collectively called "corn" in England (Bloy). Although the land-owning aristocracy benefited from increased profits brought about by the Corn Laws, the working class suffered mightily from high food prices. Compounded with the potato famine of the 1840s, this bottleneck on food availability caused great misery for much of England (Drake). During the decade that would come to be known as the Hungry Forties, the procurement of food escalated from daily nuisance to national obsession.
Victorian literature, in turn, captures this obsession with food. Hunger serves as the driving force behind plots in many Victorian novels. For example, Great Expectations begins with Pip being throttled and threatened by the convict Magwitch, whose monstrous hunger is satiated by the food Pip steals from his own home. Later in the novel, Dickens reveals that Magwitch had devoted his entire life to the betterment of Pip, simply because Pip had helped him as a starving man. In Jane Eyre, the obsession with hunger presents itself in a lengthy description of the chronic undernourishment at Lowood School, where
the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid. From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion. Many a time I [Jane] have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.
Sufffering from unrelenting hunger, Jane meticulously accounts for her portions of food. Extreme hunger also compels the older girls to take advantage of the younger ones, paralleling the rampant food adulteration and the cheating of buyers by giving short weight during the early 1800s (Horn 50-51). Another instance of hunger driving the plot appears when Jane finds herself at the brink of starvation after running away from Rochester's estate. The "pang of famine" eventually takes her to the steps of a cottage where she meets St. John Rivers, who later informs the impoverished Jane that her late uncle John Eyre left her a fortune of 20,000 pounds.
That hunger plays a pivotal role in Victorian storytelling demonstrates the pervasive threat of hunger throughout all levels of Victorian society. Even to the upper classes, hunger posed an indirect threat — for extreme hunger often leads to riots of the lower classes. The Victorians' preoccupation with food is shared not only by writers of fiction, but also by the day-to-day journalists and readers of newspapers. In The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel, Laura C. Berry notes that "endless stories of starvation and spoilage reprinted in the London Times. . .betrayed a nervous interest in what, and how much, paupers ate" (Berry 48). Thus, writing about hunger serves as a vehicle for conveying the underlying social malaise that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
The Dichotomy of Hungers: Making Disturbing Issues Palatable
Two forms of hunger exist in Victorian literature: pitiable hunger and threatening hunger. Women and children — such as the pupils of Lowood school and Pip — display a pitiable hunger, for which readers can easily express sorrow and sympathy. When the hunger belongs to an adult male, however, it becomes dangerous. Orlick and Magwitch, of Great Expectations, both examplify voracious adult male hunger. To the most extreme end, in Lord Dunsany's "The Hoard of the Gibbellins," hunger belongs to the truly monstrous. Victorian authors show a preference for the pitiable, however, as demonstrated by protagonists who are usually women or children. According to Berry, "Novels and social documents" prefer to transform "the dangerous hungers of powerful adults into the blameless and pitiable needs of infant victims" (10). When the adult male hunger suggests the threat of an encroaching mob, authors make issues concerning social unrest and widespread hunger more palatable by embedding hunger in a pitiable child's or woman's body.
Lewis Carroll's Alice provides a notable exception to this dichotomy. Although she rarely expresses her hunger in a direct manner, the inhabitants of Wonderland frequently perceive her as a hungry, threatening being. For example, when Alice eats the left and right sides of mushroom, her neck grows high into the trees, where she frightens a bird who mistakes her for a serpent. When Alice does ask for food directly — at the Mad Hatter's tea party, for instance — she is blatantly ignored. One could interpret Alice's treatment by Wonderland characters as feminist commentary. Victorian society traditionally viewed women as caretakers of house and husband, with few rights of their own. Meek women were praised while assertive "hungry" women were considered a threat. At the same time, women who sought privileges and employment, with the exception of governesses, often went ignored.
Another interpretation of Alice's hunger explores the concept of feminine maturity. "The problem with appetite," argues Anna Silver in Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body "is that it is always associated with physical change and, symbolically, with a girl's maturation and her concurrent loss of childhood identity" (Silver 71). The disastrous banquet at the end of Through the Looking Glass, which occurs after Alice becomes a queen, supports Silver's observation. Once Alice is crowned a queen, symbolizing her maturation, her adult hunger for food proves more of a threat than ever. The fantastic world inside the looking glass effectively banishes Alice upon her transformation from a child to a young adult. However, Alice still remains a pre-pubescent girl at the end of the novel. The final banquet scene's hostility, then, is perhaps a prelude to the actual world Alice might encounter upon entering womanhood, when she will face discouragement to eat as she pleases, as well as host of other expectations and prejudices. Once again, appetite serves as a vehicle for a more potentially disturbing issue — in this case, sexual maturation from girl to woman.
Hunger as an Instrument of Self-Control and Self-Denial
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 the Oxford 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. In Great 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:
There lover-like with lips and limbs that meet
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.
Berry, Laura C. The Child, the State, and the Victorian Novel. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Bloy, Marjie. "The Corn Laws." The Victorian Web. 1 May 2009.
Drake, Alfred J. "Introduction to the Victorian Period." E491 History of Literary Criticism, CSU Fullerton. Accessed 1 May 2009. http://www.ajdrake.com/e491_fall_04/materials/guides/gd_vic_intro.htm
Fussell, G. E. The English Rural Laborer: His Home, Furniture, Clothing & Food from Tudor to Victorian Times. London: The Batchworth Press, 1949.
Horn, Pamela. The Victorian Town Child. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
Houston, Gail T. Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class, and Hunger in Dickens's Novels. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.
Scholl, Lesa. "Fallen or Forbidden: Rossetti's 'Goblin Market.'" The Victorian Web. 3 May 2009.
Silver, Anna K. Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Soyer, Alexis. The Modern Housewife or Ménagère. London: Simpskin, Marshall, & Co., 1851.
Bibliography: New Publication
Hunger and Famine in the Long Nineteenth Century. Ed. Gail Turley Houston. London: Routledge, 2022.
Created 8 May 2009; last modified 8 September 2023