This interview was first published in the May 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine.
After a childhood constrained by draconian strictures – including on her diet – Victoria was determined not to deprive herself in later life. Her appetite would earn her scorn as “England’s fat queen”. Producing food and drink for the royal household was a vast enterprise and, with regular banquets and six-course meals, Victoria put on a significant amount of weight in mourning – at a time when many in her country suffered malnutrition. As Annie Gray’s book reveals, her diet also brought several unpleasant health problems to the queen.
How much did you know about Queen Victoria’s eating habits before you started writing the book?
I had a sense that she may have had a complicated relationship with food just by looking at photographs of her in later life, when she was boasting her famous 45-inch waistline. But I had no idea of the excitement she had about food, nor that it was a lifelong love.
Do you think that Victoria’s strict upbringing impacted her later eating habits?
Definitely! There’s no doubt that Victoria was affected by her childhood experiences in ways that stretched far beyond food.
As a young princess, kept in virtual isolation at Kensington Palace under the critical eye of her mother, Victoria’s life was under constant scrutiny, especially her eating habits. She was repeatedly told not to gobble her food, not to be greedy, not to mix salt in with her gravy, and so on.
From an early age, food – and her own appetite – became something that Victoria could control and she developed a relationship with food that was very much about her and the plate in front of her.
As a teenager, Victoria chose to go on a diet and gave up lunch for a year or so. She would also – rather ostentatiously – refuse to eat dinner after arguing with her mother, stomping off to her room. She had so little control over anything else in her life that food became a crutch and a way of asserting control in a world where she had none. It was a weapon she would use throughout her life.
How did her friends and family feel about Victoria’s food intake?
Just about everyone seemed to have an opinion on Victoria’s eating. Even her mentor Lord Melbourne would tell her off for overeating and drinking too much beer. Uncle Leopold, king of the Belgians, was particularly concerned about her and we have some wonderful correspondence between the pair. “I hear a certain little princess is gobbling again,” he writes in one letter, rather patronisingly. He also believed, quite bizarrely, that if Victoria controlled her diet and took more exercise she would grow taller!
Did she really eat that much?
She could certainly pack it away when she wanted to, but again this was often done as a way of controlling those around her. Victoria was notorious for being able to eat seven or eight courses in half an hour, but she could also do the same over two-and-a-half hours if she wanted. The pacing of a meal was very much set by the queen.
We don’t really know too much about Victoria’s favourite foods. There are a lot of secondary sources that state she enjoyed a boiled egg for breakfast and ate plain food, but this is mainly based on hearsay. Even her journals can’t be relied on too heavily as, in the early years, they were overseen by her mother and later edited by her daughter Beatrice, both of whom may have removed any overly gluttonous food references. We do know that she loved fruit and she would often visit the kitchen gardens to inspect the freshness of the fruit before a state banquet. Mutton, too, was a food she enjoyed immensely, as was curry.
Victoria constantly sought out new challenges in food and was quite adventurous in her tastes. For her it was a way of exploring the world when – as queen, as a woman and as a Victorian – the world was actually quite a restricted place for her.
How did Prince Albert influence the queen’s eating?
By the time she married Albert in 1840, 20-year-old Victoria was something of a party animal, staying up until 5am, getting drunk and staying in bed until late morning. Albert, on the other hand, found entertaining exhausting and regarded food as fuel rather than something to be enjoyed for its own sake. Albert certainly calmed Victoria down and probably did control her eating to some extent. During their 21-year marriage, Victoria maintained a very trim figure and didn’t feel the need to yo-yo diet as she had as a teenager. But when Albert died she turned back to her first love – food – and put on weight incredibly rapidly.
Was Victoria regarded as overweight by her contemporaries?
People were pretty cruel about Victoria’s figure, describing her as podgy and plump and declaring that she was growing “enormously fat”. But by modern standards she was far from overweight. There are two occasions in her journals where Victoria mentions her weight, so we know that just before her wedding she had a modern BMI of 18.8. Today that would put her at the lower end of ‘Normal’ weight, and to modern eyes she would, at 5ft 1ins, have seemed absolutely tiny. But in the 19th century, when so much of the population was malnourished, she certainly wouldn’t have looked dangerously thin.
Was Victoria interested in where her meals came from or did she just like to eat?
We have to remember that even if she hadn’t become queen, Victoria, as a member of the aristocracy, would never have been expected to have any knowledge of how food was prepared. But she did have an interest in the food that she ate and almost certainly kept a cookery book. She also had her children taught to cook and there are records of the royal family watching ice being harvested and of visiting farms, during a stay at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, to see the cattle before they were slaughtered. Her interest in food clearly extended beyond simply eating it.
Was Victoria a healthy eater?
The queen wasn’t a setter of food fashions: she ate fashionable food but only once it had become fashionable. In the 1850s, if she wasn’t entertaining, she would probably have had soup, fish, perhaps a couple of meat dishes, vegetables, a couple of puddings and ended the meal with some fruit – a fairly muted meal of about six different dishes. Meals were very meat-heavy, with few carbohydrates and vegetables as a garnish.
We know that Victoria did have some digestive problems and suffered from gout on at least one occasion. One of the most interesting documents I found was her doctor’s notes from the mid-1830s, which make reference to her constipation and terrible indigestion. People suggested she cut out certain foods from her diet, but she seems to have ignored them.
Looking at the menus from some of the state banquets, though, it’s not surprising she suffered from digestive complaints. There is evidence of some quite extraordinary dishes being created for the royals. One example, which became the centrepiece for a banquet in York in the 1850s, is chef Alexis Soyer’s ‘Hundred Guinea Dish’ – his elaborate take on the common mock turtle soup. He created a dish that, if cooked from scratch, would have cost an incredible 100 guineas to make. Enormous turtle heads form the main structure of the dish, with skewers of turkey sticking out of their mouths, quails, and bread carved into a dish containing prawns. The level of effort required and the beauty of some of the dishes created was just unbelievable. He was a real showman.
Your book also goes below stairs into the royal kitchens. What did you discover there?
When we look at royal dining it’s very easy to be distracted by menus, the numbers of diners, the settings and so on, and to assume that it was all fine dining. But the royal kitchens were catering not just for the queen’s table, but for thousands and thousands of other people. The people being fed each month by Victoria’s royal kitchens always numbered several thousand. If Victoria was putting on a ball supper, for example, there could be as many as 2,000 people being fed incredibly elaborate high-end food.
The kitchens worked liked factories, churning out elaborate food and drink and feeding the royal household – down to the lowest chambermaid. Windsor Castle kitchens, rebuilt by George IV in the 1820s, were the hub of food preparation, often sending baked goods out to the queen wherever she may be in the country.
Buckingham Palace kitchens, on the other hand, were in an appalling mess when Victoria moved in. Badly ventilated, with open drains nearby and overflowing rubbish, the smell from the kitchens was so bad that the neighbours complained that the palace was bringing the area into disrepute.
Queen Victoria with Princess Victoria of Schleswig Holstein, Princess Beatrice, Princess Henry of Battenberg, Sheikh Ghulan Mustaha and Sheikh Chidda having a meal in Nice. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
How well did the royal household eat compared to the rest of Victorian society at the time?
When you look at Victoria’s palaces, you almost see 19th-century society in microcosm. With the exception of the very poor, everyone was represented in the palace household. There was an incredible variety of people eating at the expense of the crown – from the queen’s ladies in waiting, dressers and maids, to gardeners and the lowest servants.
But perhaps the most surprising thing is that everyone in the palace ate meat on a daily basis, two or three times a day. As a comparison to the fare of the general population at the time, it’s almost unbelievable.
Annie Gray is a historian, cook, broadcaster and writer who specialises in the history of food and dining in Britain from c1600 to the present day, conducting her research both in libraries and in kitchens. She is resident food historian for BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet, presented Victorian Bakers and has consulted on several TV series, including The Great British Bake Off and Royal Recipes.
Books: The Greedy Queen: Eating with Victoria by Annie Gray (Profile, 288 pages, £16.99).