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The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray

The Greedy Queen by Annie Gray
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Queen Victoria was exceptionally fond of eating, said Jane Ridley in The Spectator. For breakfast, she would enjoy a “hearty” meal of enriched breads, eggs and lamb chops. Though lunch might be relatively simple, dinner would typically be a multi-course affair, consisting of a “choice of soups” followed by a fish dish, an entrée of meat (“often lamb chops again”), a roast (“typically game, cooked on the spit”), a selection of “puréed and creamed” vegetables and, finally, a “variety of sweet dishes such as meringues and profiteroles and jellies”. Not only did Victoria eat a lot; she also “wolfed her food at record-breaking speed”, often getting through “all six courses” in half-an-hour. Not surprisingly, this had digestive consequences – including irregular bowel movements and, especially later in life, chronic flatulence. She also had to wear very large bloomers and loose gowns. In The Greedy Queen, food historian Annie Gray tells the story of Victoria’s life through her dietary habits, uncovering, in the process, an often overlooked “slice of royal history”. The result is “a wonderfully researched and entertaining book”.

In her youth, Victoria’s weight fluctuated considerably, and she was often reprimanded for her tendency to “gobble”, said Lucy Lethbridge in The Observer. During her marriage to Albert, food was less important – largely, it seems, because he wasn’t very interested in it. But after his death, it functioned as a comfort and she became a “trenchant if joyless eater, ploughing through course after course, still gobbling”. Though this book makes interesting wider observations about 19th century food culture, it is marred by Gray’s tendency to project modern ideas back into the Victorian Age, said Lewis Jones in The Daily Telegraph. She calls Victoria’s greediness an “escape mechanism”, and describes the young Queen as a “party animal” who was “deeply in lust” with Albert. Sadly, the “feasts that punctuated” Victoria’s life eventually become as “tedious to read about as they must have been to sit through”.

I disagree, said Paula Byrne in The Times: The Greedy Queen is “one of the most fascinating royal biographies I have read”. Gray draws on “extensive new research” to take us behind the scenes of the royal household. And she contrasts Victoria’s extravagant diet with the far more modest fare – “mainly” meat and potatoes – consumed by the working classes. Culinary biography is an “undersubscribed genre”, but this book, written with “authority, verve and confidence”, suggests it has “great potential”.

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