I’ve been on an Elizabeth Gaskell kick this spring: once I’d fallen in love with North & South, I downloaded everything else I could find. Food often functions to convey class in her stories, indicating not only presence or absence of the economic capital necessary to purchase fine food (such as when John Thorton buys grapes for Margaret Hale’s ailing mother), but also the cultural capital that instructs how to enjoy the right kind of food in the right ways at the right times. In the delightful cozy Cranford, the genteel but shabby houses of that neighbor serve light and affordable fare at daytime social gatherings; among the widows and spinsters who could scarcely afford more, modest luncheons are considered “elegant economy” while anything richer or heavier would be thought dreadfully showy and gauche.
In Wives and Daughters, which I recently finished, the time and place of the meal has just as many class implications as the kind of food served. In the 1830s in England, people who worked–including teachers and doctors, like Mr. and Mrs. Gibson–usually took their largest meal at midday. The meal around noon was usually served hot and both broke fast and kept eaters sated for the rest of their workday. At the same time, it was fashionable for families of leisure to delay the day’s major meal until later, and just take a light lunch. Hyacinth Gibson (nee Clare), a woman of social aspirations who has worked as a governess with well-to-do families, gets hungry in the middle of the day but is quite desperate not to show it. Her déclassé mid-day hunger is a subject of embarrassment to her on several occasions when she wishes to impress people of status with her small appetite.
But there is something sexual about hunger for Mrs. Gibson, and for her daughter Cynthia. Near the book’s beginning, when Hyacinth first meets Molly Gibson some years before marrying Molly’s father, she eats all of Molly’s picnic lunch when Molly is too faint from heat to eat it herself–but she insists to the earl’s family, who was hosting them both, that Molly herself ate the lunch. Many years later, coquettish Cynthia eats all of the blackberries Molly picked. Molly did pick the berries expressly for Cynthia’s enjoyment, but when she returned to the house she found that Cynthia had gotten engaged to the young man that Molly fancied, and so as Cynthia blithely pops berry after berry into her mouth, Molly is greatly wishing Cynthia would disappear. Cynthia does not love the young man in question, and the narrative makes a point of punctuating Cynthia’s expressions of not-love with the delicate, sensual, but greedy eating of the berries. Though Cynthia does not put on airs about having a little appetite the way her mother does, there is a parallel between to the two scenes: in both, the food that was meant for or picked by Molly is being gobbled up by the same women who threaten to consume the important men in her life.
If Elizabeth Gaskell is your bag and you want to read about the way she writes eating and hunger, you can read the entirety of Hunger, Consumption, and Identity in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Novels by Pirjo Koivuvaara online. Wives and Daughters and Cranford are both available on Project Gutenberg, both with illustrations.