Reading Gwen Hyman’s book reminded me of eating a meal based on the new “molecular cuisine,” which often combines foods in startling ways (like sucking a foam through a vanilla straw, for instance) with an emphasis on spectacle; the meal had several enjoyable moments but left me overall feeling dissatisfied. Hyman’s book includes some memorable insights into the novels that she analyzes, but overall the individual chapters, while well crafted in themselves, did not cohere into a satisfying argument. The central terms in the study, especially those of “gentleman” and “appetite,” were extremely diffuse, allowing Hyman to bring together disparate novels from throughout the nineteenth century but without a clear overall explanation of how they were connected.
This is partly a side effect of the scope of the book. Hyman deals with Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1857), Wilkie Collins’ The Law and the Lady (1875), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). This is a span of some 80 years and covers several much-scrutinized texts that could, in themselves, be the subject of an entire book. But in Making a Man each one gets approximately the same 35 pages.
Within each chapter there are often arresting aperçus. The discussion of Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, for instance, is quite interesting as Hyman argues that through his defensive diet he is trying to protect his status as a gentleman. In his insistence on eating only food grown within the confines of his own little universe he is acting quite rationally, given the problem of contaminated and adulterated foods in the early nineteenth century. However, his love for gruel undermines the defense of his gentlemanly status because it was a kind of alimentation (to use Hyman’s preferred term) associated with the poor. In this chapter Hyman’s focus on the connection between food and the status of a gentleman works very well.
The chapter on The Law and the Lady is also enlightening as Hyman analyzes the transgressive figure of Miserrimus Dexter, a gentleman who cooks rather than consuming a meal prepared by others as he attempts to enmesh Sara in his schemes. In a striking phrase Hyman terms Dexter “a nineteenth-century cyborg” (143) and does an excellent job of weaving together his appetites and his strangely truncated body in order to analyze the ways in which he transgresses norms of gender and sexuality.
Other chapters are much less satisfying. The chapter on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tries to tie together alcoholism and the “unproductive” gentleman, but the terms “productive” and “unproductive” are never really examined and the discussion does not add a great deal to our understanding of the relationship between landed capital and new forms of identity based on liquid rather than material assets. In the whole discussion not one reference is made to Thomas Carlyle, who is essential to understanding the contradictory nineteenth-century reaction to new industrial forms of capitalism. The theoretical framework for the chapter was severely undernourished.
In the chapters on Stevenson and Stoker, the shortcomings of Making a Man are even more evident. The past twenty years has seen a veritable explosion of critical commentary on Gothic horror, but it makes very little impact on Hyman’s reading of Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula in these pages. The analysis of the former spends far more time on Utterson than Mr. Hyde, and much of what is said does not deepen our understanding. A great deal is made of Mr. Utterson’s drinking gin instead of wine. Thomas Reed in The Transforming Draught (2006) has already placed Utterson’s abstinence and Jekyll’s drinking of a potion in the context of temperance movements and anxieties over drinking. Hyman discusses wine as a form of escape from the social pressures of “professional” status—an escape that supposedly allows men to become, temporarily at least, true “gentlemen” thanks to the release provided by the drink.
At moments like this the book seems insubstantial. While Hyman talks about class contradiction in the narrative (186), the issue of class conflict is lost in an analysis of a “placeless” Dr. Jekyll (187). The emphasis on food and drink in this chapter obscures the profound class divisions that inform the representation Jekyll’s body and late-Victorian London. It is not Dr. Jekyll who is “placeless” but the analysis itself here, caught up as it is in a consideration of issues that have no compelling connection with Jekyll and Hyde. Hyman’s discussion of Utterson and wine could have easily been added to the lengthy discussion of alcoholism in The Tenant of Wildfell.
This brings us to the central problem for this book. Hyman states at the beginning that the gentleman was a “slippery ranking” (11) and difficult to define (a point recognized by many recent commentators), and concludes that definition is “not only impossible but beside the point” (242). However, she also states that the “alimental gentleman” is “intimately imbricated in the sociocultural, political, economic, technological and scientific movements” of his time, which is again true (243). This suggests that, if we were to apply the concept of “taste” as defined by Pierre Bourdieu and quoted by Hyman (68), we could locate the “gentleman” quite precisely in terms of food, clothing, furniture and bodily disposition. This is what Hyman does quite successfully, for instance, in the chapter on Mr. Woodhouse.
However there is not enough material in this study on what gentlemen actually chose to ingest or wear. As I read Making a Man I was continually reminded of Brent Shannon’s The Cut of his Coat: Men, Dress, and Consumer Culture in Britain, 1860 –1914 (2006) which very successfully analyzes men’s clothing in terms of “taste” and the body. Shannon uses periodicals and advertising from the period to chart changing ideals of genteel masculinity. Hyman, by contrast, makes not a single reference, for instance, to Isabella Beeton or to the social history of food in the nineteenth century. The study would have benefited from fewer novels and more attention to the range of alimentation available in the period in order to place the “gentleman” more precisely in what, after Bourdieu, I would term the “field of alimentation.” The insubstantiality to which I refer arises from the lack of a sense of the sociocultural context for the “gentleman” and his choices of food and drink. As Mr. Hyde demonstrates there were some “tastes” that were inappropriate for the status gentleman, and a better sense of what these were (and what Mr. Hyde was eating during his nighttime excursions) would allow us to define more precisely the slippery category of “gentleman.”
Martin Danahay is Professor of English and Director of the Center for Digital Humanities at Brock University. He has published books and articles on Victorian literature, art and culture and is the editor of the Broadview edition of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2005).