Queen Victoria was certainly an enthusiastic eater. “Her little majesty”, as one observer called the five-foot monarch, had a hearty appetite, and displayed a healthy enjoyment of food from her earliest years. According to historian Cecil Woodham Smith, this worried Victoria’s relatives, who urged her to take more exercise and slow down. They fretted that the teenaged princess “eats a little too much, and almost always a little too fast”.
As a child, Victoria was subjected to a rigorous regime of controlled eating – dinner might consist of bread and milk. As a result, the young Victoria vowed to eat mutton every day when she grew up – and she certainly showed no intention of depriving herself once she reached adulthood.
An engraving of the young princess Victoria, who “displayed a healthy enjoyment of food from her earliest years”, says Rebecca Earle. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mealtimes with the queen
Once queen, Victoria’s breakfast usually included porridge, fish, eggs on toast, ‘fancy breads’, and in later years, finnan haddies, a form of smoked haddock. Of course, she did not necessarily eat everything on offer, but felt it was important to have a choice.
Dinners might entail soup, fish, cold boiled chicken or roast beef, dessert and fruits, perhaps some of the pineapples grown specially for the royal household. She was also a fan of seasonal eating: “She never permits her own table or that of her household to be served with anything that is out of season,” it was noted in The Private Life of the Queen by a Member of the Royal Household, an anonymous account published in 1901. “Her Majesty confesses to a great weakness for potatoes, which are cooked for her in every conceivable way,” the same observer reported.
The queen particularly enjoyed sweet foods – her wedding to Albert in 1840 offered a taste of things to come. The mammoth bride cake (a slice of which was recently sold at auction for £1,500) weighed nearly 300lb and measured three yards across. Meanwhile, satirical ballads at the time suggested that the German Albert was equally attracted to “England’s fat queen and England’s fatter purse”.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding cake, which weighed nearly 300lb and was three yards across. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mulled wine, ice creams, cakes, and pastries of all sorts were an enduring pleasure. According to the anonymous account from 1901, she had a great appetite for: “chocolate sponges, plain sponges, wafers of two or three different shapes, langues de chat, biscuits and drop cakes of all kinds, tablets, petit fours, princess and rice cakes, pralines, almond sweets, and a large variety of mixed sweets.” “Her Majesty”, it added, “is very fond of all kinds of pies, and a cranberry tart with cream is one of her favourite dishes”.
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In contrast, Victoria’s children were fed on the plain roasts and broths that she viewed as appropriate for the nursery. She also selected the meals of her grandchildren, using a violet pencil to annotate the day’s proposed menu.
Alongside tea, which “has ever ranked high in the royal favour”, the queen was also a lover of whisky, particularly in later years, when her tastes were influenced by John Brown, her Scottish ghillie and close confidante. A small distillery near Balmoral produced a version specially for her, which she took with soda water. Her taste for the spirit however predated her relationship with Brown. For instance, on a visit to Scotland in 1842 the queen enjoyed a glass of Atholl brose (a mixture of whisky and honey) served out of a glass said to have belonged to Niel Gow, the legendary Scottish fiddler.
Queen Victoria taking tea with her relatives. Tea “has ever ranked high in the royal favour”, says Rebecca Earle. (Photo by Getty Images)
The ‘dangers’ of a hearty appetite
Over the years, all this food and drink took its toll. “She is more like a barrel than anything else”, observed one doctor in the 1840s, who predicted that if the queen carried on eating she would become enormously corpulent. She soon abandoned her corset and was described as “very large, ruddy and fat”. By the 1880s, when she was in her sixties, Victoria’s body mass index was over 32, which would qualify her as obese by today’s standards. When advised to reduce her intake, she simply ate patented diet foods on top of her existing programme.
Victoria’s enthusiastic eating did not conform to the dietary advice typically dispensed to women at the time. Good table manners demanded sedate and measured eating and discouraged visible surrender to gustatory delight. The female digestive system was moreover said to require soft, dainty and bland foods. William Alcott’s A Young Woman’s Book of Health (1855) recommended avoiding “high-seasoned and exciting foods… as if they were rank poison”.
One reason for this was that too hearty an enjoyment of food suggested a dangerously enthusiastic attitude towards other bodily pleasures. After all, as the doctor and social reformer Mary Ward-Allen warned, an unnatural appetite for spicy, exciting food was the inevitable result of the equally unnatural practice of masturbation. A bird-like appetite, accompanied by a disregard for food, demonstrated a woman’s moral state, at the same time as enabling her to maintain a slim and dainty physique.
Queen Victoria herself, on the other hand, also enjoyed a tumble between the sheets. Things got off to a good start with her marriage to Prince Albert on 10 February 1840. “We did not sleep much”, she noted in her diary a few days later, describing their first nights together. According to historian Paula Bartley, the royal couple possessed a fine collection of erotic art, and Victoria responded with dismay when advised by her doctor to forgo sexual activity so as to prevent further pregnancies. She regarded her nine pregnancies as a tiresome impediment to married life.
Queen Victoria at her jubilee service in 1887. (Photo by Getty Images)
It has been suggested that the cultural roots of anorexia nervosa lie in the Victorian era’s denigration of eating as inherently unfeminine and dangerously sexual. Medical accounts from the 1890s began to describe cases of teenagers who stopped eating “on account of her mother talking to her about being so fat”, or because of a “fear of being seen as a bit heavy”. By not eating, young women distanced themselves from the taint of sexuality, and demonstrated their proper, genteel, and moral status. Deprived of other avenues for self-expression, young women could at least decline to eat; refusing food provided these women with a voice. As the historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has argued, “young women searching for an idiom in which to say things about themselves focused on food and the body”.
If appetite was a voice, then Victoria was speaking loudly when she relished roast beef and whisky. Her uniquely powerful position allowed her to ignore some of the social constraints imposed on other young women, and make her own choices about her diet and her body.
Today, over 60 per cent of the UK population is classified as overweight, and sexual pleasure is considered something to celebrate. These may not be the ‘Victorian values’ that the Conservative Party urged us to adopt in 2006, but Victoria herself might endorse both aspects of contemporary British society, at least when applied to her own life. Certainly, sex and eating were activities dear to ‘her little majesty’.
Professor Rebecca Earle is a food historian and professor of history at the University of Warwick and the author of The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America (CUP 2012).
This article was first published on History Extra in February 2017