Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 June 2019
This essay uses Elizabeth Gaskell's industrial novels Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1955) to chart an intersection between biopolitics, food studies, and questions of novelistic form. First, the essay develops the argument that with the emergence of population as a key cultural concern, the Victorian novel became a biopolitical form structured by an interplay between the marriage plot and what I call the “food plot.” Following Thomas Malthus's uneasy connections between reproduction and the food supply, the nineteenth-century British novel was animated by a biopolitical tension between sexuality and appetite that took the shape of an uneven relationship between the dominant marriage plot and the subordinate food plot. However, the essay goes on to argue that Gaskell's industrial fiction reworks this dynamic to expose its limits and elisions. Through its commitment to representing working-class hunger, Gaskell's industrial fiction reshapes the relationship between the food plot and the marriage plot, giving appetite a central place in Victorian narrative but also drawing attention to the problematic ways in which marriage plots push appetite to the margins. My main test case is Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton, which deploys in order to scrutinize and finally destabilize the novelistic framework that subordinates appetite to sexuality.
I would like to thank Caroline Herbert, Ned Schantz, Kate Thomas, and the editors of Victorian Literature and Culture.