Scholarly article on topic 'Food as the Representation of Idyllic Landscape of Victorian World in the Novels by Thomas Hardy'

Food as the Representation of Idyllic Landscape of Victorian World in the Novels by Thomas Hardy Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Academic research paper on topic "Food as the Representation of Idyllic Landscape of Victorian World in the Novels by Thomas Hardy"


DOI: 10.1515/clear-2016-0005

Food as the Representation of Idyllic Landscape of Victorian World in the Novels by Thomas Hardy

Agata Buda

University of Technology and Humanities in Radom, Poland


The aim of the paper is to analyse the idea of cooking/eating in two novels by Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure and Tess d'Urbervilles. Both works present the idea of food as one of the major points of reference in human relationships. One of the aspects worth analysing is eating as one of the most crucial primary needs. Another one is family eating. The meetings are preceded by careful preparation of meals (e.g. Sunday preparations in Arabella's house or cooking in the house of the Crick family). The food often becomes the major topic during these meetings, showing in this way the idyllic character of family eating: the looks of dining rooms and kitchens are essential as well as the possibility of talking to each other while eating. This idyllic space of collective eating (according to M. Bakhtin) can be frequently destroyed by social conventions; when Tess was rejected by society, she used to eat alone and did not take care of what she eats. Both novels explore the idea of food making it important for the creation of an idyll.


Victorian England, idyll, space, family eating


Eating and cooking has always constituted a very crucial part of human relationships. Before the twentieth century which can be perceived as the age of mass consumption, the rituals and habits connected with eating used to have significance as a distinguishing mark of a particular status (Gottwald and Kolmer 7). In Victorian England the role of preparing and eating was essential in shaping human relationships. Cooking was regarded as a female domain and it was not only connected with preparing meals, as Draznin claims, "the job included menu planning, marketing, and preserving food for future consumption, tasks which the advice manuals assured her were her responsibility whether she did the cooking or not" (59). In this way, women became preoccupied with their duties and not interested in the activities perceived as male. Due to the importance of preparing food and eating, the families used to have "lavish expenditures on food and entertainment for the guests" (Pool 85). The cookbooks became very popular in the nineteenth century; they were published for people of all classes (Mitchell 123) and were dominated by French authors of the recipes (Mennell 135). Eating found its representation in the majority of Victorian novels, among them, in the works by Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. The role of food in the novels can be analysed according to the following division: 1. the role of food as a primary need, 2. preparation of food and its importance, 3. the idea of eating with family and friends.

The role of food as a primary need

Thomas Hardy in his prose makes an attempt to present food and eating habits in order to emphasize different relationships among people; they serve as the examples showing social and cultural background of the epoch. The author frequently points out at the importance of eating as a primary need. In Jude the Obscure it functions as a factor defining life conditions. When Jude desired to move to a city in order to gain education, he was thinking of the best way to survive there: "But how live in that

city? . . . What was most required by citizens? Food, clothing, and shelter" (Jude the Obscure 35).

This very obvious conclusion shows the importance of food as a primary need. Jude was aware that it was also crucial both for people and animals, that is why he used to feed the birds that came to the farmer Troutham's field, instead of keeping them away from the seeds. Jude perceived the birds as similar to himself; there was some kind of brotherhood between them; their life was wretched and miserable as Jude's life, that is why the boy understood their greediness well: "'Poor little dears!' said Jude, aloud. 'You shall have some dinner—you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!'" (Jude the Obscure 15).

The presence of birds as representatives of nature constitutes an indispensable feature of Hardy's novels; it shows their idyllic character and concentration on human coexistence with rural life. One of the most symbolic representations of food in the novel is bread. Jude was brought up in his aunt's bakery, and, as a grown-up he thinks of going back to baking bread. Sue advises him to take up work connected with railway stations, bridges, hotels etc., which is, according to her, far from any morality. But Jude thinks of producing bread, as he has some experience in it and would like to be useful for society.

Jude is very much aware of the importance of food, and even when he separates with Arabella, he knows that every person should have this basic need fulfilled. That is why Jude offers Arabella the amount of money sufficient for something to eat and to live.

In Tess of the dUrbervilles, food also plays an important role of a primary need. The lack of victuals and the prospects of losing a house influence Tess's decision to agree for Alec's proposal and live with him. But before that, Alec decided to give up his preaching and visit Tess at Flintcomb-Ash farm. After hard work, Tess looked bad and Marian, one of her friends, tried to help her:

"You ought to het a quart o' drink into 'ee, as I've done," said Marian. "You wouldn't look so white then. Why, souls above us, your face is as if you'd been hagrode!"

It occurred to the good-natured Marian that, as Tess was so tired, her discovery of her visitor's presence might have the bad effect of taking away her appetite (Tess of the dUrbervilles 287).

Alec's appearance in Tess's life is always connected with her problem to survive. It is Alec who offers her and her family food and shelter, that is why she decides to be with him and in this way, provide her relatives with basic living standards.

Preparation of food and its importance

Victorian home was a place of a careful preparation of meals, as it was definitely a female duty expected from a woman by society. It was not only a typical action concerning cooking, but it also frequently had a form of a home celebration, involving all its inhabitants. In Jude the Obscure Hardy presents a special occasion for preparing meals at Arabella's house, underlining the importance of this idyllic meeting: "On Sunday morning the interior of Arabella's home was, as usual, the scene of a grand weekly cooking, the preparation of the special Sunday dinner. Her father was shaving before a little glass hung on the mullion of the window, and her mother and Arabella herself were shelling beans hard by" (53).

In Tess of the dUrbervilles the author presents collective eating of a meal in the Cricks' dairy. There was always a clear indication that the time for a meal is approaching, which made the workers be well-organized: "The milking progressed, till towards the end Tess and Clare, in common with the rest, could hear the heavy breakfast table dragged out from the wall in the kitchen by Mrs Crick, this being the invariable preliminary to each meal; the same horrible scrape accompanying its return journey when the table had been cleared" (116).

Careful preparation of meals played a crucial role in Victorian society, and it was the prelude to collective eating that contained characteristic habits and rituals.

The idea of eating with family and friends

Dining together with family or friends, presented in prose is an indication of idyllic elements in novels. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, food is a major motif of an idyll, especially when it refers to the presence of children (450-451).1 The members of families discuss their problems and enjoy their successes sitting by the table. In Jude the Obscure the conversations while eating concentrate mainly on discussing relationships. When Jude and Sue spent some time after her engagement, they decided to eat a meal and talk about their relationship. A walk to the railway station, and during their next meeting - to the castle, was accompanied by dining together and by analysing their lives:

"Oh yes, we will," he said quickly. "Your being engaged can make no difference to me whatever. I have a perfect right to see you when I want to; and I shall!"

(,..)she cried. "Only you don't know how bad I am, from your point of view, or you wouldn't think so much of me, or care whether I was engaged or not (130-131).

This kind of conversations is very frequent in the novel, and it has traits of the so-called destruction of an idyll. According to Bakhtin, it is a typical feature in the nineteenth-century novels to present the destruction of family life, which can be caused by numerous factors, among others, by degeneration and failure of idealism. (456-457, 459).

In Jude the Obscure the destruction of family life very often takes place while having breakfast. When Philloston, married to Sue, felt that she might not be quite happy with him and far from Jude, he decided to free her from their marriage. During having breakfast, he said she could leave with anyone she desires. The couple also used to have breakfast either separately or in total silence. Earlier, just before Sue's wedding with Philloston, both Jude and Sue regret having eaten breakfast together. The conversation about Sue's wedding and the relationship between her and Jude constituted the background for the meal. Jude wanted to turn back time and make Sue resign from her marriage, but her decision was irrevocable. That is why the idyllic atmosphere became destroyed.

In Tess of the d'Urbervilles having meals together is also connected with the idea of an idyll. The narrator pays attention to the idyllic picture of Tess and Angel, eating their first meal after their wedding: "They went into the ancient parlour to tea, and here they shared their first common meal alone. Such was their childishness, or rather his, that he found it interesting to use the same bread-and-butter plate as herself, and to brush crumbs from her lips with his own. He wondered a little that she did not enter into these frivolities with his own zest" (191).

Although the atmosphere of the above-mentioned meal looks innocent and pleasant, for Tess it is definitely difficult. Her behaviour presented at the end of the description indicates a situation she faces: Angel seems not to be aware of her past and that is why she cannot be fully happy and enjoy the moment. This is the beginning of the destruction of Tess and Angel's marital idyll. Later on, after having learned about Tess's previous life, Angel goes back to the Wellbridge farmhouse, when he spent some time with Tess as his wife, and recalls their first meal and conversation here. He regrets not having been informed earlier about his wife's past and leaves for Brazil (234).

Apart from presenting a family idyll and its destruction, Hardy also describes longing for love accompanied by dining. It is mainly connected with a presentation of a stormy relationship between Jude and Sue. Their meetings by the table are marked by constant changes in their liaison; they either dine together or, eating separately, long for their own company. At the very beginning of their acquaintance, Jude desired to have Sue closer, so he decided to ask his aunt for Sue's photograph. He put the photograph by the fireplace and kissed it. Sue's image accompanied him during meals and made him feel settled in Christminster, a new place in which he decided to start a new life. Although Sue married Philloston, she still had a weak spot for Jude; she tried to forget about him and forbade him to visit her.

1 The analysis of an idyll in the Victorian novel is also presented in the article: Buda, A. "Food as the Representation of Social Conventions in Victorian Female Novel." Journal of Language and Cultural Education, 2 (3). 2014: 225-232. Print.

Nevertheless, regretting this decision, she decided to write a letter to Jude, inviting him for dinner. Unfortunately, the letter arrived too late and Jude was furious that he could not dine together with his beloved woman. Just before a great disaster (the death of Jude's children) Jude asks Sue to accompany him during breakfast. They are discussing the possibilities of changing house by Sue and the children. While Jude was preparing breakfast for them, Sue found her children dead. This situation completely destroys the idyllic character of the relationship between Jude and Sue. What strikes the reader most in this part of the novel, is a great contrast between the events: on one hand - a preparation of family breakfast, on the other hand - a disaster that happens in the children's bedroom. By combining these events together, the story seems to be similar to a drama; the characters are unaware of danger and the atmosphere appears to be full of dramatic irony.

While in Jude the Obscure dining together is mainly connected with a destruction of an idyll, in Tess of the d'Urbervilles it is frequently presented as a ritual. While working on a farm, Tess participated with other workers in eating lunch: "As the hour of eleven drew near . . . the harvesters ceased working, took their provisions, and sat down against one of the shocks. Here they fell to, the men plying a stone jar freely, and passing round a cup" (79).

This rural atmosphere attracted Angel Clare, who, tired with modern city life, decided to live on a farm and dine together with its workers: "At first he lived up above entirely, reading a good deal . . . But he soon preferred to read human nature by taking his meals downstairs in the general dining-kitchen, with the dairyman and his wife, and the maids and men, who all together formed a lively assembly; for though but few milking hands slept in the house, several joined the family at meals" (103-104).

Angel's attitude towards living in the countryside and working in the dairy constitutes a praise of rural life and its simplicity. It is at the same time criticism of modern, technologically advanced city and artificiality of those who live there. Eating together in the countryside is a great opportunity for Tess to observe her husband and discuss their lives. Noticing him from a distance, she is always ready to serve meals and create family atmosphere. In his novel Hardy pays also attention to the perception of rural, idyllic landscape by upper classes of society. When Angel visits his parents and brothers, he is struck by their attitude towards countryside. He notices that his family does not know real life; they are only familiar with the trends that they follow and real life has deeper meaning; "what the inner world said in their clerical and academic hearing was quite a different thing from what the outer world was thinking" (140). This attitude also contains the perception of food and eating; Angel's parents do not accept the way of eating popular among milkmen and country people; they do not want to try Mrs. Crick's blackpuddings or drink mead, as it is not a typical sort of food they are used to eating (141). Such an attitude has a wider meaning: upper classes do not feel obliged to be interested in poor people's lives.

A weak quality of food or poor conditions of dining also appear in the novels by Hardy, mainly in the context of presenting the characters as lonely or rejected by the society. In Jude the Obscure, Sue is punished for not going back to school on time, by staying in her room alone for a week and having meals by her own. Tess, as well, being forced to find a job, after an affair with Alec, travelled to the farm and "did not stop at Weatherbury after this long drive, further than to make a slight nondescript mea lat noon" (89-90). These situations seem to be some kind of punishment for the heroines for not following social rules or not fulfilling social expectations.


The role of food and its preparation plays a significant role in the novels by Thomas Hardy. It not only refers to the importance of eating as fulfilling a primary need, but it also has a social status. The preparation of meals belongs to a female domain and it is a part of an idyll that is described in both Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Dining together accompanies discussions about life, relationships and family matters, while eating alone refers to being condemned by society. Finally, showing family eating constitutes a picture of cultural and social England of the nineteenth century.

Works Cited

Bachtin, Mikhail. Problemy literatury i estetyki. Translated by Wincenty Grajewski. Warszawa: Czytelnik, 1982. Print.

Buda, Agata. "Food as the Representation of Social Conventions in Victorian Female Novel." Journal of Language and Cultural Education, 2 (3). 2014: 225-232. Print.

Draznin, Yaffa. Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife. What She Did All Day. London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. Print.

Gottwald Franz. T., and Lothar Kolmer. Jedzenie, rytuaty i magia. Translated by Elzbieta Ptaszynska-Sadowska. Warszawa: Warszawskie Wydawnictwo Literackie MUZA SA, 2009. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Jude the Obscure. New York: Signet Classics, 2009. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2000. Print.

Mennell, Stephen. All Manners of Food. Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987. Print.

Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. London: Greenwood Press, 2009. Print.

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. USA: Simon and Schuster, 1993. Print.


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