We know from countless photographs that Queen Victoria in old age was vastly stout, her huge, froglike head sunk into her neck and her cheeks as pouchy as a hamster’s. But it takes a picture of one of her surviving frocks, a broad, crinolined armour of mourning black, to bring home just how spherical was the royal form: at 5ft 1in, the Queen was as wide as she was tall and had a 50in waistline.
In her youth, Victoria was reprimanded for her tendency to eat too much and to gobble. There was no privacy for a Queen in waiting and the grisly realities of 19th-century digestive problems were agonised over by everyone – including Victoria’s mother, her uncle Leopold and Lord Melbourne, the prime minister. The young Victoria herself fretted over her weight – at her very slimmest, she was just over seven stone. After Albert’s death, she became a trenchant if joyless eater, ploughing through course after course, still gobbling. The weight piled on. A politician forced to endure a meal with the old Queen wrote that it was a dismal experience: “I personally never heard her say anything at dinner which I remembered the next day. Her manners were not affable; she spoke very little at meals, and she ate fast and very seldom laughed.” Her physician Sir James Reid left detailed notes on the weary regularity of the Queen’s problems with flatulence, bowel irritation and stomach upsets.
Food historian and broadcaster Annie Gray has taken Queen Victoria’s meals as a starting point for an exploration of other aspects of 19th-century culinary life – both royal and non-royal. But it is mostly about the Queen. She wants us to like Victoria’s greediness, as if it were a celebratory, free-spirited part of her youthful, “party animal” self later suppressed by the dark forces of establishment convention and male expectations. She concludes that Victoria “embraced, wholeheartedly, all the world had to offer her to eat, for all of her life, and for that she deserves respect”: which by any measure is an odd way of looking at history, character or social mores.
Gray covers the royal kitchens, cooks and meals (on which there are vast amounts of information) but there is little here that is new (and quite a lot that is very familiar). Her best chapters are those in which the Queen herself is not at the forefront but when she gets to grips with the details of 19th-century food, both everyday and for occasions. The two-day processes for example that went into the creation of espagnole sauce, a Victorian classic, or the “melted butter” that was customary on vegetables but which wasn’t butter at all but a roux thinned with water and vinegar. For the modern reader there are plenty of gasps at the absolutely vast quantities of sugar consumed in the royal household (and in other households too). There are lots of interesting details about the royal kitchen gardens with their acres of hothouses, cold frames and forcing sheds. In 1837, they produced 2,900 cucumbers. At Osborne, Victoria and Albert built their own Petit Trianon, a miniature Swiss cottage with a kitchen where their children could play at cooking and housekeeping.
Lists of historical food are always evocative but one can weary of the nose-to-tail strangeness of it all if the dishes are not put into a wider context. What exactly is a larded hare’s kidney or a plum toast? The book tends to move between royal particularity and large generalisation. Away from her area of expertise, Gray is often heavy-footed: in her chapter on the Queen and motherhood, she breezily tells us that Victoria “seems to have behaved much like any mother, alternating between wanting to throttle her increasing band of hoodlums and absolutely adoring all of them”. Mmmmm, somewhere in Gray’s extensive bibliography there must have been a book that suggested it was more complicated than that. But then The Greedy Queen runs up against the problem that royal families are never like us: they are exceptions rather than rules. And digestive problems aside, when it comes to her eating habits Queen Victoria cannot really stand for anything but herself.
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