Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Domesticity and Food in Victorian Culture

Domesticity and food is a common theme throughout all Victorian literature. It was the one aspect of Victorian culture that was central to the everyday lifestyle of many people. Here we will be looking at Mrs Beetons book of household management which at the time was a revolutionary piece of writing for women in the middle and higher classes. You will notice that I have not mentioned the lower and working classes. This is because the lower classes would usually be too busy working to be able to worry about running a household. What food they would have, would usually be simple and not something that you would be able to do a lot with.

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management- morestylethancash.com

Barbara Megson writes in English Homes and Housekeeping 1700-1960 about how it was the industrial revolution that caused such a massive change in the domestic set up of Victorian Britain. She writes ‘The wife was left at home. Gradually her function became more and more idle and ornamental’. This gives us clear indication that life in Victorian Britain for a wealthy wife may not have been as glamorous as we imagine it to be and how popular TV serials depict these women’s lives. This is why when women like Isabella Beeton came along there was a huge surge in popularity for entertaining and throwing lavish meals. We get a very good example of this in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol where when Scrooge is looking in on his nephews Christmas feast we are shown the wide array of fancy delicacies and expensive food that was there not only to be consumed but to show how wealthy the couple were.

Mrs Beetons Book of Household Management not only contained recipes but also tips on how to manage a property and servants. She even went as so far to include how much wages each servant each person should get depending on their role. She seemed generous as she says ‘If, also, a benevolent desire is shown to promote their comfort, at the same time then their respect will not be unmingled with affection and they will be still more solicitous to continue to deserve her favour’ (what a typically wordy Victorian sentence!). This then disrupts the notion that most people that were middle and higher class women were mean to their servants when in fact this was probably not the case at all. 
Typical Victorian servants- www.tigermoon.co.uk

For the poorer classes, food was something that was basically boiled down to you either had it or you didn’t. This is something that comes up commonly in Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. The book itself is widely accredited for showing how hard life in Victorian-post industrial revolution Britain was for the working and lower classes. A dissertation written by Pirjo Koivuvaara called Hunger, Consumption, and Identity in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Novels examines closely how food is a central role in Gaskell’s works.  At the tea party in chapter 2 of Mary Barton Gaskell writes ‘while it’s father, in an opposite arm-chair tried vainly to quieten the other with bread soaked in milk’ and she also says ‘cups and saucers made a noise, but human voices were still, for human beings were hungry and had no time to speak.’. Both these quotes give a clear indication that for the less well off, food was their one comfort when they had it and for them to flaunt it as the higher classes would do, was just not an option at all.

Moving on from the doom and gloom of class issues in Victorian Britain, let us discuss the actual recipes in Mrs Beeton’s book. The ingredients themselves to us seem rather disgusting but were in fact just common ingredients used by the Victorians. A particular favourite of mine is turtle soup. The first few things in the ingredients list are: ‘A turtle (I struggled to keep a straight face when I read how matter of fact this sounded), 6 slices of ham, 2 knuckles of veal…’. For people in the west, who are not used to eating turtle, this seems so odd and although it was a bit of a delicacy for Victorians, it’s just the fact that it’s in a recipe book that seems strange to us. Furthermore, another thing that may make you chuckle and leads on from the point about how matter of fact it sounds is when describing the ‘Mode.’  or method to us non Victorian folk. The first sentence reads ‘to make this soup with less difficulty, cut off the head of the turtle the preceeding day.’ I now apologise to any of the vegetarian readers out there. Of course eating turtle is still common in some cultures in the far east, so perhaps for them this wouldn’t seem so odd. 

Vietnamese turtle broth- internationallanguageprograms.blogspot.com

With the sudden interest is fine dining among the rich, the interest in how elaborate and fancy dishes could be made, also became rife. This is particularly noticed in jellies. Victorians are famous for their use of elaborate and decorative jelly moulds which would get fancier depending on how much money you had. However Mrs Beeton is quick to remind her readers that ‘Jellies are not the nourishing food they were at one time considered to be…’ . As the technology was not quite there during this period, it was hard for cooks to create gelatine that would produce a completely clear result. This is why a lot of the jellies we see are in fact cloudy or milk based. One of the more famous jelly based puddings to come out of the Victorian era, was of course the blancmange. This is probably one of the puddings that older readers will remember getting slapped onto their plate during school dinners. However, it’s probably not as bad as the recipe in Mrs Beeton’s book called ‘calf’s-feet jelly’. How awful does that sound!

 Traditional jelly style- www.historicfood.com

Although the rich are infamous for their grand feasts we must also take into consideration about how much work for the poor, most middle and higher class women did. Under the soup ‘Useful Soup for benevolent purposes’ there is a note by Nicola Humble which says ‘The above recipe was used in the winter of 1858 by the Editress, who made each week, in her copper, 8 or 9 gallons of this soup, for distribution amongst about a dozen families of the village’. So not only were the higher classes, keen to learn how to make succulent feasts on themselves, they were also sure to distribute amongst the poor. This may have been because at the time it was considered very important for a woman to be spiritually connected as this meant that she would be a pure and pious person. In fact this is something that is clearly seen in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. From the moment Mr Rochester, tries to get frisky with her she declines time and time again until she is actually married to him. Furthermore, in chapter 27 she says ‘God must have led me on’ when describing how lucky she was to get away from the immoral life she would have led, had she stayed with Rochester. This is all clear indication that suggests how domesticated women in Victorian Britain were expected to present themselves; as God fearing women.

Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester from the 2011 BBC adaptation- www.altfg.com

So, what we can basically conclude from this short introduction on the domesticity and food culture of Victorian Britain is that: the rich had it all, the poor had nothing(though rich ladies, did like to do their bit for charity), Victorians ate some strange food, and it was important to seem that you were a God fearing woman if you were to stand any chance of being accepted into society. Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a book definitely to be read by any Victorian enthusiasts out there as it gives a fantastic insight on just how day to day life in Victorian Britain was for the average wife.

Works cited
Beeton and Humble, N. 2000. Mrs Beeton's book of household management. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hughes, K. 2005. The short life & long times of Mrs. Beeton. London: Fourth Estate.

Brontë, C. and Minogue, S. 1999. Jane Eyre. London: Wordsworth Classics.

Megson, B. 1968. English homes and housekeeping, 1700-1960. London: Routledge & K. Paul

Gaskell, E. 1994. Mary Barton. London: Penguin.

Koivuvaara, P. 2013. Hunger, Consumption, and Identity in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Novels. [online] Available at: http://tampub.uta.fi/bitstream/handle/10024/66893/978-951-44-8780-4.pdf?sequence=1 [Accessed: 5 Nov 2013].

1 comment:

  1. I loved your casual approach to your topic; it made it easy and fun to read. Also, your understanding of a modern day individual's reaction to the dishes you described was very engaging. Nice topic too, we all love food!