Food and the Literary Imagination

Dr Jayne Archer, Prof. Howard Thomas, Prof. Richard Marggraf Turley, Aberystwyth University


Although their terminology may have differed, former ages were acutely aware of the importance of food security. Incorporating land ownership and management; food purity and processing; the integrity of the food chain; and issues of distribution and pricing, food security has been the focus of public policy in England (later Britain and the UK). It has also been central to the English literary tradition, informing both the evolution of its language and metaphors and the development of genre and narrative. Despite this, it is often assumed that ‘elite’, canonical writers such as Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Keats, Charles Dickens and George Eliot knew relatively little about the worked land and that their representations of plants, weeds and the environment are confected abstractions recycled from earlier writers.

Charles Dickens has provided the Western world with some of its most potent, emotionally-charged images of food consumption and distribution. Although Dickens’s association of food provision and feasting with love (especially familial love) is especially memorable, he also treats food politics and food security with a forensic and unsentimental vision. Oliver Twist’s seemingly simple request for more food is far from mawkish; it announces his understanding of the process by which the state starves those it claims it cannot afford to keep alive, together with his refusal to be a passive, silent victim of this economy. Significantly, Oliver’s intervention is perceived as a capital offence: he is put into solitary confinement and warned that one day he will be hung. For Dickens, then, food is political: it is embedded in concepts of justice and its administration, socio-economic relations and civic order. Focusing on Barnaby Rudge (1841) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859), this paper argues that civic disobedience in the form of the food riot plays a central role in Dickens’s analyses of revolutionary politics. In these novels, public insurrection – the Gordon Riots (1780) in Barnaby Rudge and the French Revolution (1789) in A Tale of Two Cities – is shown to be the consequence of contaminated food supply and inequities in food distribution. In the later novel, we argue, the revolutionary energies of the people of St Antoine are associated with the citizens’ physical intoxication with ergotism (‘St Anthony’s Fire’), a condition resulting from consumption of ergotised rye. Although their professed objectives differ, the rioters in Barnaby Rudge suffer similarly disordered and self-destructive appetites, and they exhibit many of the same physical symptoms, including choreomania, loss of control over physical movements, rage, enflamed skin and limbs, self-immolation and over-consumption of food and alcohol to the point of death. The London rioters, who are drawn from the socially disenfranchised and rootless, are identified with arable weeds and their march on urban centres of power is figured as nature re-appropriating its produce on behalf of those involved in its production. Their meeting place, a cellar formerly used for food storage, is infested with endophytic fungi similar to those described in an article published by Dickens in his periodical All the Year Round; according to the article, which also describes symptoms of ergotism, those who ingest the spores suffer ‘convulsion is all their limbs, followed by that sort of raving which accompanies a burning fever’, to the point of ‘suicide … or any other dreadful crime’. Dickens’s detailed examination of the relationship between food security and popular unrest reveals concerns strikingly similar to those we face in the early-twenty-first century. Attending to food politics in the work of past writers such as Dickens is important, not simply for the experiential and traditional knowledge they record – knowledge we have neglected or forgotten – but because the arts, through which imaginative responses to the challenges we face can be addressed most powerfully, is a crucial component to any successful approach to food security in the present.


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