Queen Victoria was certainly an avid eater. “Her little majesty,” as one observer called the five-foot-tall monarch, had a hearty appetite and demonstrated healthy enjoyment of food from early childhood. According to historian Cecil Woodham Smith, this worried Victoria’s relatives, who urged her to exercise more and slow down. They were annoyed that the teenage princess “eats a little too much and almost always a little too fast”.
As a child, Victoria was subject to a strict controlled eating regime – dinner could consist of bread and milk. As a result, young Victoria vowed to eat mutton every day when she grew up – and she certainly showed no intention of depriving herself when she was an adult.
- Did Queen Victoria have an unhappy childhood? Lucy Worsley on the life of the monarch under the ‘Kensington System’
Dinner with the queen
Once Queen Victoria’s breakfasts usually included porridge, fish, eggs on toast, “fancy breads” and, in later years, Finnan Haddies, a form of smoked haddock. Of course, she didn’t necessarily eat everything that was on offer, but it was important to her to have a choice.
Dinner may include soup, fish, cold cooked chicken or roast beef, dessert and fruit, perhaps some of the pineapples that are specially grown for the royal household. She was also a fan of seasonal food: “She never allows her own table or that of her house to be served with anything out of season,” wrote a member of the royal household in The Private Life of the Queen, an anonymous report that Published in 1901. “Her Majesty admits a great weakness for potatoes, which are cooked for her in every possible way,” reported the same observer.
The queen particularly enjoyed sweet foods – her wedding to Albert in 1840 offered a foretaste of the future. The mammoth bridal cake (one piece of which recently sold for 1,500 pounds) weighed nearly 300 pounds and was ten feet in diameter. Meanwhile, satirical ballads suggested that the German Prince Albert was equally attracted to “England’s fat queen and England’s bigger wallet”.
Mulled wine, ice cream, cakes and pastries of all kinds were a lasting pleasure. According to the anonymous report from 1901, she had a great appetite for: “Chocolate, biscuit, waffles in two or three different shapes, langues de chat, biscuits and pies of all kinds, bars, petit fours, princess and rice cakes, pralines, almond sweets and one large selection of mixed sweets. ”“ Her Majesty, ”she added,“ is very fond of cakes of all kinds, and a cranberry tart with cream is one of her favorite dishes ”.
In contrast, Victoria’s children were fed simple roasts and broths that she considered appropriate for the nursery. She also selected her grandchildren’s meals by using a violet pen to comment on the daily menu suggestion.
In addition to tea, which “has always been highly favored by the king,” the queen was also a lover of whiskey, especially in later years when her taste was influenced by John Brown, her Scottish ghillie and close confidante. A small distillery near Balmoral made a version especially for her, which she drank with soda water. Her taste for the spirit, however, predated her relationship with Brown. For example, on a visit to Scotland in 1842, the Queen enjoyed a glass of atholl brose (a mixture of whiskey and honey) served from a glass that is said to have belonged to Niel Gow, the legendary Scottish violinist.
The ‘dangers’ of a hearty appetite
Over the years, all of these foods and drinks have taken their toll. “She’s more like a barrel than anything,” observed a doctor in the 1840s who predicted that if the queen continued to eat, she would become enormously corpulent. She soon gave up her corset and was described as “very tall, red and fat”. In the 1880s when she was in her sixties, Victoria’s body mass index was over 32, which would classify her as obese by today’s standards. When advised to reduce her intake, she simply ate patented diet foods in addition to her existing program.
Victoria’s enthusiastic food did not meet the then common nutritional recommendations for women. Good table manners demanded a calm and moderate meal and discouraged visible devotion to the pleasure of taste. The female digestive system also needed soft, delicious, and bland food. William Alcott’s A Young Woman’s Book of Health (1855) recommended “avoiding highly flavorful and exciting foods … as if they were high-level poison”.
Queen Victoria’s appetite for sex
One reason for this was that eating too heartily suggested a dangerously enthusiastic attitude towards other physical pleasures. After all, as 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 condition while also enabling her to maintain a slim and petite body.
Queen Victoria herself also enjoyed tumbling between the sheets. Things got off to a good start with her marriage to Prince Albert on February 10, 1840. “We didn’t sleep much,” she wrote in her diary a few days later, describing their first nights together. According to historian Paula Bartley, the royal couple owned a fine collection of erotic art, and Victoria reacted with dismay when her doctor advised abstaining from sexual activity to prevent further pregnancies. She viewed her nine pregnancies as an annoying obstacle to married life.
It has been suggested that the cultural roots of anorexia nervosa lie in the vilification of food in the Victorian era as inherently unfeminine and dangerously sexual. Medical reports from the 1890s began to describe cases of teenagers who stopped eating “because their mother talked to her about being so fat,” or “out of fear of being seen as a little heavy.” By not eating, young women distanced themselves from the stigma of sexuality and demonstrated their fair, noble, and moral status. Without other options for self-expression, young women could at least refuse to eat; Refusal to eat gave these women a voice. As historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg argues, “young women looking for an idiom to say things about themselves have a focus on food and the body.”
If appetite was a voice, Victoria spoke loudly when she was enjoying roast beef and whiskey. Her unique position of power enabled her to ignore some of the social constraints imposed on other young women and make her own choices about their diet and body.
Today, more than 60 percent of the UK population is considered 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 could support both aspects of contemporary British society, at least in relation to her own life. Sure, sex and eating were activities that “Her Little Majesty” loved.
Professor Rebecca Earle is a nutrition historian and professor of history at the University of Warwick and author of The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America (CUP 2012)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in February 2017