Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Meat of the Movement: Food and Feminism in Woolf

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Meat of the Movement: Food and Feminism in Woolf

Article excerpt

It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten. It is part of the novelist's convention not to mention soup and salmon and ducklings, as if soup and salmon and ducklings were of no importance whatsoever, as if nobody ever smoked a cigar or drank a glass of wine. Here, however, I shall take the liberty to defy that convention [...] (AROO 10)

Woolf followed her own dictum; her novels are replete with food. While she does not articulate this defense of the alimentary in terms of a feminist imperative, she does place it within her feminist manifesto. Several scholars have argued that Woolf's focus on food elevates the status of women. Diane McGee argues that food scenes allow Woolf to showcase traditional women's work and that she is one of the first writers to present the traditionally invisible work of the hostess in literature (108). Similarly, we can note her presentation offemale cooks: Susan in The Waves, Mrs. Walker in Mrs. Dalloway, and Mrs. Sands in Between the Acts. Approaching the issue from another angle, Allie Glenny suggests that Woolf's attention to food celebrates a female sensual epistemology. Glenny writes, "this dwelling on food was, as Woolf saw it, an act of female liberation. It was part of the process both of seeing the world through our own, female, lenses and, more actively, of righting a skewed world which had purged the sensual and elevated the rational" (xii). In addition to foregrounding women's work and material orientation, I propose that Woolf's food dictum is also feminist for a third reason. While women were accepted as producers and servers of food, and while western tradition long categorized them as the bodily other of man's transcendence, the upper-and middleclass Victorian norms in which Woolf was raised did not acknowledge women to be consumers of food. (1) As has been well-documented by Helena Michie and Joan Brumberg, middle and upper-class Victorian culture taught women to perform their femininity by denying their appetites. Popular rhetoric and iconography equated the feminine woman with weakness and dependency: hungry women, like fainting or wasting women, were models of delicacy. And so the narrator of A Room of One's Own who presents herself as a hungry and demanding consumer, grousing that the nourishment is unsatisfactory, is notably indecorous. She complains of the "transparent liquid" passed off as soup, of the plain hunk of beef and of stringy prunes for dessert, bemoaning the conventional and unimaginative food. This appetite transgresses the Victorian norms within which Woolf grew up that dictated women not take an interest in food.

Women's expression of female hunger is important because Woolf saw appetite as bound up with all aspects of personhood, physical, mental and emotional: "The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments [...] a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well" (AROO 18). This comment not only lays bare Woolf's modernist aesthetic bias toward the mundane and the sensual; from a feminist viewpoint, it should also suggest that restricting women's appetites curtails their manifestation of selfhood. In this article, I propose that Woolf's work engages a concept of alimentary subjectivity. By this I mean that, in eating, her characters take a desiring, interactive position toward their worlds and manifest themselves as subjects. Employing this concept, I specifically argue that it is fundamentally through depictions of meat-eating that Woolf empowers her New Women characters Mary Datchet of Night and Day and Sara Pargiter of The Years.

Women Eating

Abundant scholarship on women and food in the humanities and social sciences has shown that what and how a woman eats is not merely a personal choice but culturally and socially determined. …

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