In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Food and Drink

  • Introduction
  • General Histories of British Food and Drink
  • Long Nineteenth Century and Victorian-Specific Histories of British Food and Drink
  • Single Commodity Histories
  • Histories of Protest, Famine, Starvation, Malnutrition, and Hunger

Victorian Literature Food and Drink
Andrea L. Broomfield
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0172


In the past decades, food studies has coalesced into a distinct academic field that is by its very nature cross-disciplinary and international. Literary food studies (or literature and food studies as the field is sometimes called) prioritizes or foregrounds food, encouraging readers to analyze literature in new and revealing ways. Victorian authors themselves, from philosophers to theologians, were keenly aware of food’s corporal and cultural importance. Novelists used food and dining to convey a wealth of information about characters without having to do anything more than detail the time they took their dinner. Social researchers devoted studies to hunger and malnutrition in urban and rural areas. Political economists theorized about the Corn Laws. Cookery writers wrote newspaper columns for middle-class women readers while aesthetes contributed to the growing canon of gastronomical texts. This explosion of food writing was in part due to seismic shifts that resulted from industrialization and the expansion of the British Empire. Centuries-old methods of agriculture and ways of procuring and preparing foodstuffs often became obsolete as steam power, canning factories, and refrigeration replaced sailing ships, horse-drawn plows, and older preserving techniques. Within three generations, most Britons had lost firsthand knowledge of how to preserve and cook most of their own food, while markets overflowed with a dizzying array of imported foodstuffs and convenience foods—as well as widespread adulteration. The Industrial Revolution was a lengthy and complex process that affected different classes and regions of people at different times and in different manners, but in all cases, people’s diets and access to food were affected.

General Histories of British Food and Drink

Literary scholars interested in food in Victorian literature do best if they have a firm understanding of the food history of this period in the United Kingdom as well as over the centuries. Researchers can better contextualize Victorian food and drink by reading general histories that explore pre-industrialization up through the globalization that accelerated in the twentieth century. Burnett 1999 and Drummond and Wilbraham 2012 address the social and cultural aspects of dining and drinking over several centuries. Paston-Williams 1999, Colquhoun 2007, and Pennell 2016 write material histories, likewise covering several centuries, but paying attention to kitchen and dining architecture, technologies, and hardware. Mennell 1996 and Spencer 2003 address the commonly held belief that British food is among the world’s least sophisticated—and how the Victorian period has been held largely to blame. Panayi 2008 and Collingham 2017 focus on the expansion of empire, globalization, and reverse colonization. Ehrman, et al. 1999 covers the history of London public dining over the centuries.

  • Burnett, John. Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drinks in Modern Britain. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

    Burnett explores how consumer demand for coffee, tea, chocolate, and sugar opened global trade routes and led to a rise in domestic manufacturing of paraphernalia associated with consumption of these beverages, such as silverware and porcelain. Each chapter, starting with water and ending with spirits, gives that beverage’s chronological history. Ample attention is devoted to the Victorian period in each chapter.

  • Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

    A popular history written by a trained academic, Collingham argues that imperial expansion was based largely on Britain’s need for foodstuffs, from Newfoundland cod to sustain the navy to Irish beef to satisfy the expanding English middle class, to New Zealand frozen lamb for an artisan family’s Sunday dinner. Several chapters concern the Victorians and how their tastes were shaped by the expanding empire and increasingly complicated, globalized food systems.

  • Colquhoun, Kate. Taste: The Story of Britain through Its Food. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

    Colquhoun writes a popular history of Britain through the lens of food, bringing the kitchen and dining room to life. A focus on accoutrements and artifice frequently usurped the importance of food’s quality or the diners’ gustatory satisfaction in the Victorian period. Excellent notes and bibliography lead readers to many scholarly sources.

  • Drummond, J. C., and Anne Wilbraham. The Englishman’s Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet. London: Vintage Digital, 2012.

    Revised by Dorothy Hollingsworth, introduction by Tom Jaine. Published in 1939 and fully revised in 1957, this oft-cited early history offers an authoritative but quirky overview of essential topics, including food consumption, procurement, and dining fashions from the medieval period through the mid-1920s. The addition of Tom Jaine’s introduction offers justification for why this book remains in print.

  • Ehrman, Edwina, Hazel Forsyth, Lucy Peltz, and Cathy Ross. London Eats Out: 500 Years of Capital Dining. London: Philip Wilson, 1999.

    A richly illustrated cultural and material history written by museum curators and art historians. Explores the history of urban public eating, including the complex food systems of England’s largest city. Alexis Soyer’s public soup kitchens are of particular interest to Victorian researchers. The authors draw on diverse primary sources, including drawings and paintings, diaries, letters, and artifacts.

  • Mennell, Stephen. All Manners of Food: Eating and the Table in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present. 2d ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

    Mennell, a sociologist, speculates as to why and how French and English culinary traditions diverge in the later Middle Ages. Of particular note to Victorian researchers is the chapter “Gastronomy as a Literary Genre,” and Mennell’s theories of how the French Revolution built French restaurant culture while Britain’s early industrialization resulted in its loss of centuries’ worth of culinary traditions and its tendency to ape French traditions instead.

  • Panayi, Panikos. Spicing Up Britain: The Multicultural History of British Food. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

    A history of Britain’s multicultural food heritage. Panayi details the taste revolution that gathered momentum in Britain in the 1800s and how it resulted in a 20th-century culinary renaissance where foreign flavors overtook a meat-bread-and-potatoes diet. Panayi complicates the meaning of “British” food, offering a history of reverse colonization as well as that of European refugees settling in Britain. Extensive coverage of immigrant-run restaurants and groceries in Victorian Britain.

  • Paston-Williams, Sara. Art of Dining: A History of Cooking & Eating. London: National Trust, 1999.

    Combining material, architectural, and social history, this National Trust book includes many illustrations. Five chronological chapters (including ones on the Victorian and Edwardian periods) describe foodstuffs, including newly available ones; the workings of kitchen and scullery; and dining etiquette. Fifty historical recipes help readers understand the labor and technology that went into creating dishes associated with the upper-middle and upper classes.

  • Pennell, Sara. Birth of the English Kitchen, 1600–1850. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781474217743

    Although Pennell concludes her study in the 1850s, this in-depth material and social history helps readers understand the kitchen that middle-class Victorians took for granted, from its equipment and contents (including kitchen drawers and cupboards) to the specific tasks associated with it. Essential to researchers seeking to understand Georgian and Victorian domestic guides and cookbooks.

  • Spencer, Colin. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

    Spencer, a former food editor for the Guardian, takes readers through the peaks and valleys of Britain culinary status as viewed by its citizens and visitors. Begins with Celtic Britain and moves through 21st-century globalization, arguing that Britain’s reputation for bad food was born of Victorian uniformity and the ills of industrialization. A lively far-ranging study that includes a glossary to assist readers with unfamiliar culinary terms.

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