chapter  6
To Eat and Be Eaten in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature
Pages 12

Throughout the nineteenth century, food was a contentious issue. Whether it was the dining etiquette newly demanded by an increasingly prosperous middle class, or the outrage occasioned by the scandal of food adulteration, or the moralities attached to eating too much or too little or the right stuff or the wrong stuff, eating, appetite, and digestion occupied many minds.1 The children’s literature of the period uses the motif frequently: children eat, often sweet things, and often against the wishes of those who bring them up. For the middle and upper classes, for whom the next meal was a certainty and the question was, rather, how many courses it might consist of, children’s appetites received regulation that those of adults often did not; as Carolyn Daniel describes it, “the austerity of the traditional nursery upbringing, a child-rearing regime much infl uenced by Puritan discourses . . . recommended an extremely bland and restricted diet for children,” a reality that is complemented, in children’s literature, by “fi ctional feasting: copious quantities of rich, sweet, and . . . fat-laden foods . . . served to children who seem to

have huge appetites” (11, 2). Children thus read or were read texts wherein their own privations were overturned. And yet, as Daniel points out, although appetites may have been satiated in literature, moral codes nonetheless mandated punishment: hence Carroll’s Alice and her misadventures with food and drink, Rossetti’s trio of girls for whom eating is rendered impossible, Kingsley’s water-baby Tom whose greed physically deforms him, and Ewing’s little “MacGreedy” whose attempts to eat the “delicious” almond at the core of a Christmas cracker comfi t require him to “suck his way” through “a large amount of white lead . . . white paint and chalk.”2 Allingham’s motto, above, is perhaps necessarily vague on “what does me good.”