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Manitoba History: Review: Arnold Palmer, Movable Feasts: Changes in English Eating Habits

by Peter Bailey
University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 10, Autumn 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Movable Feasts: Changes in English Eating Habits. Arnold Palmer. Oxford: The University Press, 1984. xxxiv, 153 pp. ill. ISBN 0-19-28141-1.

It is a great pleasure to re-read Palmer’s ‘Reconnaissance of the Origins and Consequences of Fluctuations in Meal-Times’ (as it was subtitled on its first appearance in 1952). Palmer charts the reshaping of the modern day and what might be called its gastronomic cum social economy by plotting the increasing lateness of dinner time and the invention of luncheon and then afternoon tea to provide succour in the space dinner had vacated. He focusses on 1780-1950 and relies primarily on literary evidence, confining his attentions, as he says, to “gentlefolk.” Thus we follow dinner’s long march into the evening hours in the company of Jane Austin’s Mr. Woodhouse, dining at 4 p.m., Mr. Podsnap at 7, and Henry James’s young Americans at 8. (The longer haul is anchored in historical references - William the Conqueror dined at 9 a.m., Henry VII at 11, and Cromwell at 1 p.m.) The modern acceleration of the trend, Palmer attributes, not unsurprisingly, to the demands of the new standardized and extended business day and the growth of suburban commuting. As part of its embourgeoisement (though the author’s discerning style would never admit such a clumsy coinage) dinner also became less informal and gregarious, more ostentatious and select. “Dinners,” observed Thackeray, “are given mostly in the middle classes by way of revenge.”

With the main meal increasingly postponed till the evening return of the head of the house, women relieved their now enforced and solitary domestication with luncheon, elevated from a furtive snack to a fashionable innovation by the 1820s. To appease their children, they devised afternoon tea sometime in the 1860s. Although, in Palmer’s words, luncheon secured “the nineteenth century’s great gift to man-kind, the afternoon,” men locked in battle of commerce despised the usurper till the turn of the century, restricting their mid-day refreshment to a biscuit and glass of sherry; the first sightings of today’s replete business lunch came only in the 1920s. But the rise of lunch had already reinforced the sexual division of the day into two forms a good point — though here Palmer’s formulation becomes uncharacteristically frisky. Victorian men took their hasty refreshment standing up; their wives did otherwise, stretching lunchtime dalliance into afternoon adultery. (But with whom, the tidy-minded will demand, if all the men were at the counting house?) The social function of afternoon tea, understandably enough, was gossip.

In telling us when people ate, Palmer also tells us a good deal about what they ate. Inevitably we get the crapulosities of Parson Woodforde and the prescriptions of Mrs. Beeton (she listed 251 dinner menus for the Victorian hostess), but Palmer has an eye for the exceptional and the eccentric. Woodforde’s contemporary William Cowper supped on ‘a Roman meal — a radish and an egg’ and another divine is recorded in the year of Waterloo taking a medicinal breakfast in bed of buttered ale and anchovy toast.

This paperback re-issue comes with the illustrations of the original and a new introduction by David Pocock of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. In bringing the story up to date, Pocock provides a test of some of Palmer’s predictions, providing further proof of the latter’s acuity but leaving us still ignorant of the man himself, the only clues being his own brief references to a late-Victorian (?) middle-class childhood, and his stay at a house where the servant removed and ironed his shoelaces.

Palmer, one may venture, was an amateur scholar in the best sense, and after thirty years his book has itself become a piece of historical evidence, for it is an excellent example of that now almost defunct literary form, the essay. It is speculative yet circumstantially well-grounded, erudite without being donnishly arcane, and well-written without being self-regarding. If, to use diet as a metaphor, Palmer’s essay constitutes no more than a light lunch, it is nonetheless more nourishing and palatable than the indigestible wodge of some modern scholarship.

Pocock records that the British invention of afternoon tea has found its final apotheosis at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, B.C. As a non-Canadianist I have often wondered how many other Victorian-era genteelisms were translated into Canadian practice and with what consequence. With Palmer’s record of changes in English mealtimes —‘the hinges of the day’ — to hand, this would make more than an antiquarian exercise, for he alerts us to the complexity of cultural formation and the constant process of negotiation between social needs and economic imperatives (though he might wince at such a less than elegant formulation).

Tea at the Empress Hotel, Victoria, BC.
Source: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, Cat. No. 63484

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