I found the following stories in Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003).
We’ve talked a little bit on this blog about the Victorian cult of childhood and the medical idea that by keeping children as free and youthful as long as possible, the healthier they would be as adults. This doesn’t, however, mean that things were necessarily fun for children. One of the major ideas in scientific communities about child development was that rich or spicy food (or food in excess) was bad for kids. The blander the diet, the better.
Flanders writes, “Breakfast for children in prosperous middle-class houses was almost as Spartan as it was for their lower-middle-class coevals. Gwen Raverat, a granddaughter of Charles Darwin and the daughter of a Cambridge don, throughout her childhood ate toast and butter, and porridge with salt. Twice a week the toast was ‘spread with a thin layer of that dangerous luxury, Jam. But, of course, not butter, too. Butter and Jam on the same bit of bread would have been unheard-of indulgence – a disgraceful orgy.’ She first tasted bacon when she was ten years old and away from home on a visit.
“Louise Creighton first tasted marmalade and jam only after her marriage, when she was in her twenties. Compton Mackenzie, the novelist, had a similar prospect in his childhood:
“‘Nor did the diet my old nurse believed to be good for children encourage biliousness, bread and heavily watered milk alternating with porridge and heavily watered milk. Eggs were rigorously forbidden, and the top of one’s father’s or mother’s boiled egg in which we were indulged when we were with them exceeded in luxurious tastiness any caviar or pate de foie gras of the future. No jam was allowed except raspberry and currant, and that was spread so thinly that it seemed merely to add sweetish seeds to the bread.'” (46).
There was a deep anxiety in Victorian parents to bestow morality upon their children, in ways that are rarely seen today. If too much food is seen as a weakening factor for your child’s health, it’s best that that child learn early on that they will eat a regulated amount to a set schedule, and nothing should deviate from it. There are records of people trying to teach this lesson to infants:
“Most parents felt that discipline could not begin too early. A mother or nurse’s refusal to feed her infants except at stated hours taught the infants the benefits of ‘order and punctuality’. Having their crying ignored taught babies self-restraint: Mrs Warren said that, if a child cried for something, on principle it should never be given – ‘even a babe of three months, when I held up my finger and put on a grave look, knew that such was the language of reproof’” (35).
NO, LADY. A BABY OF THREE MONTHS OLD DOESN’T KNOW WHAT ITS HANDS ARE, LET ALONE WHAT YOUR VAGUELY DEFINED HAND GESTURE SIGNIFIES
Perhaps this was less shocking to Victorians because parents resorted to corporal punishment that sometimes bordered on what we’d now think of as torture, especially for small children. Many wouldn’t bat an eye at denying a hungry infant food, especially in light of other punishments.
Author Louise Creighton “punished her own children in a way she acknowledged ‘may be considered brutal by some people. Cuthbert was a very mischievous boy, & used to play with fire & cut things with knives, so when he played with fire I held his finger on the bar of the grate for a minute that he might feel how fire burnt, & when he cut woodwork with his knife I gave his fingers a little cut.’ Despite what might today be described as savagery, she thought it important to end, ‘I never whipt any child‘” (35-36).
Ah, well, that’s okay then.