From Excess to Austerity
Cheyne’s books remained popular for another 50 years, and it is tempting to see his method as laying the foundations for the more controlled attitude to diet and life that came to be epitomized by the Victorians. By the Victorian period, doctors had acquired a better understanding of the workings of the body and the effect of diet upon it. Medical practitioners such as Thomas Kings Chambers began to build upon Cheyne’s methods, advocating much plainer meals. Chamber’s breakfasts were simple affairs, and dinner was recommended to be a wholesome but limited meal, with a typical menu consisting of boiled macaroni and lean meat.
Indeed, Britain could not afford to jeopardize her burgeoning empire because those running it were too fat and sick to cope. However, the need to curb obesity was motivated by more than a need to improve the health of the upper classes. For the political survival of that class was at stake. The French Revolution had shown Europe that the lower classes would no longer tolerate oppression and hardship while their decadent rulers flaunted their privilege. As the French Monarchy fell, Britain and the other European powers looked on in concern.
The late Georgian period was marked by war in Europe- and social unrest at home. Movements such as the Luddites protested against the hardship increased mechanization was causing the working classes while the unemployment and poverty brought about by the Napoleonic wars resulted caused an increase in radicalism and workers protests. These movements were seen as possible precursors of revolution and harshly suppressed. However, the establishment knew that force could only achieve so much.
It became essential for the ruling elite to cultivate a more responsible, moderate image that showed their worthiness to run Britain. The political class began by distancing itself from the still extravagant British monarchy, headed by the now profoundly unpopular King George IV, the former Prince Regent. George had once been a fashionable rake. Now he was an obese joke. His size and his love of extravagant French and Persian food were used to portray him as decadent and at worse, unpatriotic. British food, epitomized by roast beef, was now seen to be hearty, sustaining and unfussy. Those who overindulged themselves to the point of obesity were no longer seen as successful but unfit to rule.
By amending their diet and lifestyles, the Victorian ruling classes were not solely trying to maintain their health and wellbeing. Instead, they were primarily concerned with maintaining the status quo. Victorian upper-class society became more austere to prove their worthiness to control Britain’s destiny. Whereas in the Georgian period, the ruling classes indulged themselves with leisure and excess, their Victorian counterparts cultivated an image of industriousness and self-control. In this way, they served as an example of the benefits of hard work and a modest lifestyle to the lower classes. Being able to control their excesses even when wealth and privileged could tempt them to indulge themselves proved they deserved to be at the helm of British society.
Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:
Revealed: how the Georgians taught us to Diet 300 years ago, History Extra
George Cheyne, Encyclopedia.com,2004
George Cheyne and his Work, Jonathan Freedland, BBC Radio 4, October 7, 2003
Uncovered recipes for excess from Georgian England, David Brown, The Times, July 15, 2013
The Georgians, English Heritage