The Food Plot in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2016) by Michael Parrish Lee

Oct 23, 2018 | Reviews

The nineteenth-century British novel is deeply textured in its narrative structure, and critical emphasis on the marriage plot has tended to occlude the shadow plots that contribute to the novel’s complexity.  Michael Parrish Lee’s well-argued and well-written study The Food Plot in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel makes visible one such shadow plot that has barely been noticed:  the food plot.  This cohesive and reader-friendly analysis makes a valuable addition to the food studies field and to narratology on the nineteenth-century British novel.  Lee’s survey of scholarship on the novel is admirable, as is his integration of examples from nineteenth-century British fiction; altogether, The Food Plot is extremely pertinent to students and advanced scholars of the nineteenth-century novel.  It would make a splendid addition to a graduate seminar.

Lee’s introductory first chapter situates his contribution to food studies in the nineteenth-century British novel, while carving out his critical methodology.  His essential claim is that the marriage plot, the long-recognized structural principle of the novel, is in tension with and challenged by the food plot.  The study differs from other recent food studies on the nineteenth-century novel (for example, Gwen Hyman’s Making a Man: Gentlemanly Appetites in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel and Annette Cozzi’s Discourses of Food in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction) in that Lee is less interested with what representations of appetite and eating signify than in how the bodily necessity of eating figures as a narrative principle.  Lee offers a new theory of the novel in turning to Thomas Robert Malthus’s 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population, particularly in Malthus’s claim that the two key laws governing human nature are the need to eat and the need to procreate.  The problem that these drives present however, is increased population in the face of limited food supply.   Within the novel, the marriage plot can only be a partial aspect of the form, since procreation will lead to increased population and hunger:  “At a time when the marriage plot was becoming central to the novel form, population theory. . .offered a narrative that helped establish this plot as the human story while also introducing a narrative impasse where the flip side of sexuality is a never-ending need to eat and where the reproductive future threatens to devour itself” (12).  With an astute example from Jane Eyre, Lee illustrates that the marriage plot thus distances itself from hunger and appetite in effort to ask readers to be most interested in the interiority of its heterosexual characters, interiority being a quintessential requirement of the marriage plot.

The chapters that follow the introduction chart the permutations of the food plot over the nineteenth century with a wide variety of canonical examples, from Jane Austen to the fin de siècle and beyond.  There are some notable exceptions to Lee’s wide selection of examples.  Analysis of Wilkie Collins’s fiction, for example, would shed light on his theory, particularly in exploring such food-obsessed characters as Count Fosco from The Woman in White and Miserrimus Dexter from The Law and the Lady.  A sensation novelist like Mary Elizabeth Braddon would likely also be relevant here because of her representation of material culture. Another absence is Anthony Trollope, in whose fiction the marriage plot figures importantly, as do details of eating and drinking.  These absences are less a criticism than a recognition of the opportunities to expand and test Lee’s theory, particularly within writers and genres that he does not discuss.  Lee’s study is most definitely not short on convincing examples, starting with Austen’s narrative paradigm.

In Austen’s fiction, Lee argues that the marriage plot is “defined against gustatory appetite” (22), in which characters who show interest in eating have a flattened subjectivity and consequently do not figure so importantly in Austen’s marriage plots.  A particularly compelling discussion on her “disruptive diners” features Mrs. Jennings (Sense and Sensibility), Miss Bates, and Mr. Woodhouse (both from Emma).  These characters, while “psychologically flat, strongly resist disappearing, or letting food disappear into the background” (38-9).  The influence of Austen’s model is key for Lee, because “the Austenian subordination of eating to the marriage plot provided the essential framework for the Victorian novel, and it continues to shape the way we read” (42).  Yet, Lee’s analysis is sensitive to the permutations of form as he charts the tension between marriage and food plots in the Victorian novel, careful not to see the “Victorian marriage plot merely as a stale formal convention constraining a more dynamically democratic plot” (46).  Indeed, in the chapters that follow, he illustrates Victorian novelists’ wide imaginative approach toward representing hunger, even as they write predominantly in the marriage plot.

In the Victorian novel, hunger develops into a more pressing matter than in Austen, particularly when many writers used their fiction to represent opposition to the 1834 New Poor Law and to foster sympathy toward the hungry poor.  In chapters on Elizabeth Gaskell, W. M. Thackeray, and Charles Dickens, we see writers who negotiate the role of hunger within an inherited form from Austen that privileges marriage as the primary plot engine.  In Vanity Fair, hunger cannot be made to disappear, particularly in Jos Sedley, whose eating disrupts romance and courtship.  In Cranford, a group of husbandless women largely live outside the marriage plot; at the same time, the novel represents female eating as one of its central concerns.

Lee’s chapter on Dickens, the Victorian novelist perhaps most preoccupied by food and eating, is a valuable addition to a growing body of food-oriented scholarship on Dickens’s oeuvre.  Lee shows a progression within the novelist’s manipulation of the food plots in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations; in the latter, we see an “inversion of Austen, unflinchingly representing the central love plot as determined by hunger” (76).  These works illustrate that Dickens does not abandon Austen’s narrative paradigm; rather, the sexuality of the marriage plot increasingly is not the driving force within the novelist’s fiction: “Dickens portrays the need for food as the primal driving force of human nature, in opposition to Malthus’s argument that procreative heterosexual desire has at least as much primacy as hunger” (80).

After Dickens, the role of hunger, appetite, and eating as narrative forces becomes more prominent particularly toward the end of the century in authors like Thomas Hardy, George Gissing, Bram Stoker, and H. G. Wells.  George Eliot’s realist fiction appears to be a transition to these later writers; when she integrates the food plot in Adam Bede and “Brother Jacob,” her emphasis is on the aesthetics of representing the materiality of food.  In Adam Bede, for example, Lee argues that Eliot has “the impulse to include the food plot and the impulse to delimit” for artistic reasons (111).  In an interesting analysis of “Brother Jacob,” a critically neglected work by Eliot, food and eating become a principle interest of the narrative; yet in this work, Eliot reaches her artistic limit in integrating the food plot in her realist project.

In Lee’s final chapters covering the fiction at the end of the nineteenth century, the formal power of the marriage plot diminishes.  Hardy and Gissing both show that hunger cannot be subordinated to sexuality; both naturalist writers explore how these two forces become inseparable and cannot be divided, as in the Austenian narrative paradigm.  Both Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure rely on a disrupted marriage plot by intertwining sexuality with the material necessity of food.  Jude the Obscure and Gissing’s New Grub Street also integrate a concern with literature and the life of the mind; reading and writing plots, however, cannot escape the bodily urgencies to survive, as presented in the food plot.

Lee concludes his discussion of the nineteenth-century British novel by turning to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H. G. Wells’s scientific romances.  While in Dracula, the marriage plot cannot be finally subverted when the food plot is “expunged” with the killing of the vampire, in The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, there is a radical disruption of the marriage plot.  In doing so, Well’s fiction explores what it means to eat in a “civilized” society, taking up questions about vegetarianism and vivisection.  In a brief afterword, Lee considers the food plot after the nineteenth century, speculating on the role of food within art and popular culture, with final commentary on the “multitudinous figure for endless hunger” (196), the zombie.

As noted earlier, one cannot help but wish for examples from writers that Lee must neglect.  What, for example, happens within the many female writers of popular fiction later in the nineteenth century?  What might be the role of food in New Women fiction?  It is a mark of value in Lee’s analysis of the food plot that one has an entry point to begin exploring these questions.