The numerous images of food in [Shakespeare's] Troilus and Cressida and their association with love and lust have been remarked upon by many critics. Troilus himself passes from a giddy anticipation of "the imaginary relish" of consummation to the bitter discovery that "the fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics" of Cressida's pledge of love have gone to Diomedes. (Rowland 1970: 191)The Veil of Night includes many descriptions of food and in general, as with other physical matters, this is dealt with in a very earthy, realistic manner. An example of this realism is the inclusion of the detail that the hero notices that the sleeping heroine has 'an endearing, commonplace hint of dampness on one cheek. Byron smiled despite himself at the thought that she could forget herself even in her sleep so much as to drool' (2005: 138). Although such prosaic details might not please some readers, Byron finds it 'endearing' and similarly the heroine, having seen that the hero is 'just a man, a mere man, tired and frustrated and approaching middle age' (2005: 166), realises 'that his moment of weakness - of reality? humanity? - had done nothing to stifle her desire for him' (2005: 167).
Some romances seem rather perfunctory in their descriptions of the more physical aspects of desire and the erotic, and although they may use somewhat euphemistic phrases, such as 'a scent that was uniquely his' to refer to the hero's body odour, they fail, at least in my opinion, to fully explore the physicality of their characters.* Maybe it's because many readers are somewhat squeamish and prefer a sanitised, more 'romantic' portrayal of such matters. Mary Reed McCall, for example, once commented that
Even in contemporaries, I've read more than one lovemaking scene that takes place first thing in the morning, before either h/h has used the bathroom or brushed their teeth. The reality of that is quite off-putting, but the fantasy of it, provided one doesn't focus on those little details, can seem romantic [...] each reader's threshold for sexual situations/realism is different, and it sounds like yours is fairly high on the reality side. Mine is pretty high, too, I think - though I do find myself glossing over, even as I'm writing lovemaking scenes, some things (i.e. my stories are set in the middle ages, when of course sanitation, deodorizing soaps, teeth cleaning etc aren't exactly high on the list of living conditions, and yet I don't make a point to have the h/h chewing on mint leaves right before they end up making love, or even always bathing directly beforehand - though I do admit to trying to work a bath in prior to a lovemaking scene whenever possibleLucy Blue, quoted in the same At the Back Fence Column, had a rather different opinion:
About all those personal hygiene issues – people giving oral sex after conventional sex without stopping for a bath, etc. – again, it’s fantasy, so the writer may consider personal hygiene pretty much a non-issue to be ignored, like hairy legs in a medieval. But personally, I find it sexy, not gross, and not unrealistic – there are heroes out there that do that kind of stuff, and heaven bless them for it.We've taken a look at the distinction between the high and low mimetic styles a number of times, so I won't repeat myself, but it seems to me that what Mary Reed McCall is describing isn't really at the low mimetic end of the spectrum: one can get more considerably more realistic, and that's what Lucy Blue appreciates.
In Lydia Joyce's The Veil of Night the hero touches the heroine's nose: 'No one had ever touched her nose with such delicate inquisitiveness before. It was strange and somehow almost more intimate than a flagrant caress' (2005: 40) and reviewers on Amazon had very strongly divergent opinions about this. For SusieQ, 'the whole line just made me laugh out loud. Her NOSE? I could maybe see a man touching a woman's BREAST with "delicate inquisitiveness", but...well, maybe I shouldn't go there!!'. Shereads, on the other hand, thought that this passage demonstrated one of the strengths of the novel: 'I disagree adamantly with the notion that touching a nose instead of a breast isn't erotic. In the right hands, tying shoelaces can be erotic. The fact that the love scenes veer away from a well-worn path is one of my favorite things about this book'.**
The scene is an interesting one, in which the couple are involved in verbal exchanges, eating and physical exploration. No-one could accuse Joyce of only going skin-deep. Instead she chooses to describe the way in which the heroine 'put a slice of roast into her mouth and bit down hard, her jaw muscles bulging slightly with the force of her anger' (2005: 41) and, later, she 'seemed to look through his skin, too, to the sinews that bound his muscles to their bones, to the surface of his brain where his thoughts were read as they flashed fleetingly across. Could she also see the hidden debility, the one no doctor could ever understand?' (2005: 43-44). Perhaps for some people this level of detail, of engagement with the physical, is unromantic, even repugnant?
I'm reminded of a couple of passages in C. S. Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress. The pilgrim has come to Zeitgeistheim, 'home of the Spirit of the Age which is Freudian reductionism' (from here) and the pilgrim is thrown into jail where:
Every day a jailor brought the prisoners their food, and as he laid down the dishes he would say a word to them. If their meal was flesh he would remind them that they were eating corpses, or give them some account of the slaughtering: or, if it was the inwards of some beast, he would read them a lecture in anatomy (1944: 61)Reason then appears and rescues the Pilgrim and reassures him, but even she has to admit that 'Such pictures are useful to physicians. [...] there is truth mixed up with the giant's conjuring tricks' (1944: 71). Joyce, however, rather than dismiss this aspect of existence as being 'ugly sights' (1944: 71), seeks to uncover the beauty that may be found beneath the first impression of ugliness, the truth in the material and in the quotidian realities of daily life. Back to SusieQ, 'And who ever thought of ending a romance novel with the heroine's telling the hero she has her period? [...] Sure, they end up together, but...EWWW' and Shereads, 'It's simply true-to-life. A serving of reality on the banquet table of happily-ever-after. I'm always grateful when an author trusts her readers that way.'
Another meal they share is also described in somewhat unappetising terms:
He uncovered one of the dishes, revealing cold tongue, pallid boiled vegetables, and some sort of potatoes that looked grayish and unappetizing. But the smell that wafted out was at least wholesome, if not tantalizing. (2005: 107)Joyce has said of one food item described in the novel that: 'I admit it. I hate English food. This isn't what the aristocracy normally dined upon, but there was such a great potential for horridness that I could not pass it up. The cook is dreadful, and she will be gently retired between the last chapter and the epilogue.' While this 'unappetizing' , if wholesome, food may not appeal to some, it is nonetheless welcome fare to Victoria and Byron; much as they may appear physically 'unappetising' at first glance to others, they are 'wholesome' for each other.
Though not the most visually appealing of desserts, the peach crumble they are served next is more obviously sensual, and Joyce has said that 'I decided that I'd been giving them enough terrible food that they deserved something good, and, well, this is what happened.' It's 'The best peach crumble north of Manchester' (2005: 110):
The cinnamon-rich syrup flowed onto her tongue, and when she bit down, the firm peach flesh yielded in a rush of juice. "Oh!" she said when she'd swallowed. "That's lovely." The taste of it lingered, sweet and enticing. (2005: 110)Victoria may claim that she doesn't deserve 'Sympathy, kindness, compassion' (2005: 115) and Byron may respond wryly 'Heaven preserve us from our just desserts' (2005: 115) but they are literally and metaphorically going to get their 'just desserts': the succulent flesh of the peaches in crumble and the physical enjoyment and love they find in each other as they 'shrug [...] off the confines of ordinary existence to grab at the rich, sweet fruit of life' (2005: 118).
Whether we find this sort of romance romantic really depends, I suppose, on how processed and purified we like the food at our banquet to be. Do we wish to share the ambrosia served to the Gods, or will a thick broth prove more to our taste? Perhaps sometimes we crave one, and sometimes the other?
- Joyce, Lydia, 2005. The Veil of Night (New York: Signet Eclipse).
- Lewis, C. S., 1944. The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (London: Geoffrey Bles).
- Rowland, Beryl, 1970. 'A Cake-Making Image in Troilus and Cressida' , Shakespeare Quarterly, 21.2: 191-194.
** Byron touches Victoria's nose again later on, when he asks her to trust him by telling him her secret: 'Raeburn traced the line of her nose, resting his finger briefly on its tip' (2005: 103). There is a tenderness in this touch, and while the nose is is a sensual organ, it is also a part of the face which is not usually touched by strangers, or focused on by others, so there is a strange intimacy to the gesture.
The image of the muscles of the pharynx and cheek is from the 1918 edition of Gray's Anatomy, available at Bartleby.com. According to Wikipedia this and other images from the 1918 edition are in the public domain because the copyright has expired. It seems appropriate given the descriptions of the act of eating, and Victoria at one point says that in revealing her secrets to Byron she's 'spread myself out bare for you, like an eager cadaver on an anatomist's table' (2005: 214).