- Making a Man: Gentlemanly Appetites in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
In Making a Man, Gwen Hyman sets out to trace “the construction of gentlemanliness through aliment across the nineteenth century,” arguing that appetites and the consumption of food, drink, and drugs “constitute a crucial means of casting light on the shifting, elusive identity of the gentleman” (3). Hyman’s analysis focuses on six novels that span the century: Jane Austen’s Emma, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit, Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The consuming men in these texts present a bewildering range of types, some of whose claim to the moniker of gentleman is dubious rather than elusive but all of whom, according to Hyman, represent a “dangerous alimental force” that threatens community and social stability (3). This is a provocative argument, to be sure, but it is one that Hyman develops with aplomb and conviction.
Her unconventional interpretations of characters such as Mr Woodhouse, whom we all thought we knew, are backed by cultural and historical data on such relevant topics as the production and distribution of food or, in the case of the vampires and vampire-hunters in Dracula, on late-nineteenth-century scientific treatises on narcotics and hypodermic injection. Within these carefully developed cultural contexts, Hyman’s [End Page 259] readings of characters’ actions, obsessions, and alimental ingestions take on a sometimes startling resonance and provide genuinely fresh insights into the nineteenth-century gentleman and the fictional worlds that he inhabits, if for no other reason than that she draws our attention to the pervasiveness of alimentary consumption throughout these novels.
In her readings of Mr Woodhouse and William Dorrit, in chapters 1 and 3 respectively, Hyman develops her most effective reinterpretations of the fictional gentleman. In both cases, she demonstrates how the gentleman’s fixation on his dietary needs both control and undermine the community of which he is the leading member. Both men, in Hyman’s analysis, imagine themselves in a neofeudal world that, in the case of Mr Woodhouse, allows him to resist the pernicious effects of industrialization and technology that would corrupt the wholesomeness of his diet by introducing food that is processed, adulterated, or foreign. Because of his large estate, he is able to control the purity of his own food, but, as Hyman points out, his insistence on pressing his values about food on everyone who eats with him or accepts the largesse of his stores becomes a form of self-aggrandizement. He projects his own alimentary obsessions and fixations on those around him, imagining “himself to be not simply the man of first importance in the neighbourhood but rather the embodiment, the incorporation of the town” (38). William Dorrit, having no largesse to dispense, nevertheless manages to restore, within the walls of the Marshalsea, “the old-fashioned feudal realm that Austen’s Mr Woodhouse works so hard to recoup” by accepting what he terms tributes from his petitioners that enable him “to turn his paltry dinners into displays of excess and mastery” (98). Hyman’s exceptionally detailed analysis can be illuminating, but her overall argument at times becomes entangled in the overreading that chasing down every cultural association can create, as it does in her treatment of Mr Woodhouse’s devotion to gruel. Gruel becomes a signifier of too many contradictory things. Gruel is a safe and unknowable nutrient for Emma’s father, but it is also poverty food and as such apparently “undermines the position he attempts to insist on for himself” (42). Gruel, according to Hyman, is also slimy and slippery; it is, moreover, invalid food, “an obscene invader of the drawing room and the dining room,” and Mr Woodhouse, in swallowing it, “must give off … the odors of want and misery” (43, 42). In Hyman’s analysis, Mr Woodhouse finally becomes the embodiment not of the...