- “Mighty through thy Meats and Drinks Am I”:The Gendered Politics of Feast and Fast in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King
In the penultimate book of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, a novice at the convent to which Guinevere has flown following the discovery of her adultery recalls the festivities that accompanied the founding of Arthur’s court:
And in the hall itself was such a feastAs never man had dreamed; for every knightHad whatsoever meat he longed for servedBy hands unseen; and …Down in the cellars merry bloated thingsShouldered the spigot, straddling on the buttsWhile the wine ran: so glad were spirits and men.1
This evocation of fantastic plenitude is countered, four hundred lines later, by Guinevere’s pledge to confine herself within Almesbury convent’s “narrowing nunnery-walls” and “fast with [the] fasts” of its inhabitants in penance for her sins (ll. 665, 672). Whereas Arthur’s knights celebrated the founding of the Round Table with copious food and drink and unbridled displays of appetite, Guinevere, following the dissolution of this brotherhood, severely restricts her diet in order to signal Christian submission and the renunciation of her secular, bodily desires. Such contrasting patterns of consumption emerge repeatedly in Idylls and indicate one of the contemporary ideological concerns running through Tennyson’s Arthurian epic: in its representations of male feasting and female food refusal, the poem appears to reproduce the gendered ordering of appetite implicit in Victorian culture.
The act of eating has, of course, long been imbued with specific gender values but, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg points out, in the nineteenth century, in [End Page 225] particular, “food and femininity were linked in such a way as to promote restrictive eating.”2 The idealized Victorian woman was dainty, slender-waisted and self-disciplined, capable of controlling her somatic cravings. Given this cultural context, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that several of the female figures in Idylls display abstemious eating behaviors for, as Ingrid Ranum notes, Tennyson approached his poem “with concern for its relevance to modern society,” reflecting within it many of the values and anxieties of his age.3 Yet, while the body and its appetites are undoubtedly leitmotifs in Idylls, surprisingly little critical attention has been paid, to date, to the literal acts of consumption and abstention represented in the poem, with scholarly focus instead tending to concentrate on the metaphorical themes of sexual hunger and fulfilment. Two exceptions to this rule can be found in James R. Bennett’s essay on “Tennyson’s Theistic Skepticism” and Anna Krugovoy Silver’s Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, both of which offer readings of Perciviale’s sister’s pious fast in “The Holy Grail.” While Bennett reads the nun’s ascetic behavior in relation to the medieval phenomenon of “holy anorexia,” Silver uses it to highlight the slippage between secular and sacred fasting in nineteenth-century culture, arguing that “Tennyson’s representation of the saintly religious woman … shares traits with the representation of the virtuous secular women.”4 Silver also suggests that while Tennyson “genders the activity of fasting as female, … he indicates that it can be honorably undertaken by … men,” citing the spiritual fasts of Percivale and Galahad in support of her claim (p. 146).
Tennyson’s own reading of Idylls appears to validate the association of virtuous or chivalrous conduct with the denial of bodily appetites. In the closing dedication to Queen Victoria, he describes his poem as “shadowing Sense at war with Soul,” his combative image pitting the corporeal, the worldly, and the sensual against the spiritual, the ethereal, and the ascetic, and implicitly endorsing the latter states (“To the Queen,” l. 37).5 Interestingly, though, the poem is not unequivocal in its censure of appetite and advocacy of abstemiousness. As this essay will show, fasting is enveloped in discursive uncertainty in Idylls, its ambiguous representation pointing toward the anxious debates that surrounded food refusal in the Victorian period. How was the abstentious body to be read? As the vehicle of a healthy Christian asceticism? Or as the visible signifier of an underlying psychopathology? In Tennyson’s poem, I argue, both interpretations...