Abstract for the Mary Elizabeth Braddon Centenary Conference:
Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864) conforms to gendered displays of consumption as Isabel can merely pick out the ‘sugar plums’ from books as she is censured when she indulges her physical hungers and so is forced to ‘live upon’ her imagination. While at the same time, the ‘muscular’ George Gilbert is given permission to indulge his appetites in a masculine diet saturated with steak and even Sigismund Smith, the author of ‘half a dozen highly-spiced fictions’, can eat his full of bread and marmalade. However, in contrast to Victorian social codes the male protagonists are more often associated with the providing of food: Sigismund proudly insists on whipping a salad and labours like a ‘butterman’ over his latest novel and Sleaford, when finance allows, will offer ‘Sunday dinners’. The public and private dining experiences of these men sit in opposition, as mismatched cutlery and eating food from pickle jars is placed in a more positive light than the French diner that Sigismund Smith forces George Gilbert to endure.
The associations between reading and eating and discussions of ‘feeding’ the imagination at the expense of physical nourishment have already been examined in depth, and so this paper will merely touch on this as a means to contextualise its argument in the introduction. Instead, this paper will place its focus on the depictions of public and private dining in the male sphere and the masculine engagement with hospitality in this novel. Using a variety of contemporary sources, it will explore the extent of middle-class Victorian men’s engagement with the culinary arts. It will also engage with the representation of class through food and dining experiences as the French restaurant dinner is pitted against homely bread-and-cheese. This will lead into a brief discussion of the tensions represented through the use of French versus English cuisines.