- Gentlemanly Appetites
This Book contains six chapters, each devoted to a novel, ranging from Austen’s Emma to Stoker’s Dracula, these analytical chapters flanked by an introduction and conclusion in which Hyman’s more general principles are the focus. Hyman’s argument is straightforward: what a man eats and drinks constitutes a reasonable barometer to his status as a gentleman. Don’t suppose, however, that the contents offer mere lists of what passes the lips of any of the characters assessed. Hyman’s critiques illuminate these novels; her evocations of Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse, Anne Brontë’s Arthur Huntingdon (and his cohorts), Dickens’s Arthur Clennam (as well as old Mrs. Clennam and Merdle), Collins’s Misserimus Dexter, Stevenson’s Jekyll-Hyde and Stoker’s vampire Count and his antagonist, Jonathan Harker, make these characters and their circumstances come alive in new ways, those ways assuredly sending readers to visit or revisit the novels. To cite a mere several examples, Dexter has usually been highlighted in terms of his physical handicap, Jekyll-Hyde and Count Dracula simply as monsters. Hyman implicitly urges us to rethink these characters in terms of food and drink and the interrelationships between the aliment and the social-political scene in nineteenth-century Great Britain. She is particularly incisive in noting the idea of an invasion by foreign forces signaling the demise of empire for that nation, perceiving Dracula’s contemplated invasion by vampires as coalescing with this anxiety. In the chapter on Jekyll-Hyde she may likewise present a downside in the medical scene of that era.
In many respects this book might well take a place on the shelves of nonfiction critiques of present-day life. Medical issues continue to shift and to cause social unrest; dietary habits, such as those of Arthur Huntingdon’s mounting alcohol addiction or Dexter’s ideas of diet, also occasion many concerns in ideas about health and diet today. Jekyll’s drug overdosing parallels much that we read and hear about in the current news media. Thus indeed we may discern kindred outlooks as to what makes for gentlemanly (and, by implication, feminine) stability or lack thereof. Not intending to demean Hyman’s fine work, I am nevertheless surprised that two other novels wherein the nature of a gentleman is paramount—namely, Meredith’s Evan Harrington and Dickens’s Great Expectations—are omitted from this book, more [End Page 497] especially because each author had pronounced ideas about food and drink. Dickens’s refusal to modify his diet contributed to the cardiovascular troubles that ultimately led to his death at a fairly early age. Meredith’s strict notions of diet led to digestive problems (which were, however, temporary). Lest I seem too much of a Zoilus in regard to this fine book, I add that enough is as good as a feast, and that Hyman has unquestionably provided us that “enough.” Her book should enjoy a long, useful shelf life.