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Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement In Nineteenth-Century Britain, by James Gregory

Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement In Nineteenth-Century Britain, by James Gregory
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  160  VICTORIAN STUDIES / VOLUME 51, NO. 1 Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth-century Britain , by James Gregory; pp. xii + 313. London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007, £57.50, $79.95.Most nineteenth-century Britons viewed vegetarianism as a marginal practice, and taking their cue from their subjects, historians, through trivialization or omission, have tended to concur. James Gregory challenges the prevailing wisdom by arguing for the centrality of vegetarianism to Victorian culture. Though Victorians may have considered vegetari-anism peripheral, argues Gregory, it was nonetheless significant that they considered it at all. Not only did they consider it, a small but substantial proportion experimented with or committed to the bloodless diet, comprising a movement that fundamentally challenged core aspects of daily life and   faith. In this social history of the Victorian vegetarian move-ment, Gregory asserts that to understand Victorian vegetarianism is to understand Victo-rian society itself, and he provides a persuasive argument to this effect.   Gregory opens with a tidy history of the movement, spanning the late 1830s, to the founding of the first Vegetarian Society in 1847, to the close of the century. This groundwork is followed by exploration of the movement’s overlapping “hygienic, reli-gious, zoophilist, radical and ‘fadical’” dimensions (3). The study concludes with a snapshot of the lived experience of Victorian vegetarianism, reconstructing what adherents ate—both at home and on the town—what they wrote and read, and how they  were represented by their flesh-consuming contemporaries. Some of Gregory’s stron-gest work comes in his analysis of menus and recipes in order to reconstruct what eating   as a vegetarian actually meant. Many of the study’s details will be familiar to those acquainted with later  vegetarian movements. Debates over the propriety of feeding pet dogs the meatless diets of their masters and the use of vegetarian athletes’ victories as evidence supporting food reform continue through the present day. Other examples shed light on long under-researched areas. Victorian vegetarians struggled against an association of herbivory with untimely death. Gregory’s skillful analysis of obituaries in vegetarian periodicals demonstrates their desire to avoid suggestions that the deceased’s diet may have contributed to anything other than his or her longevity. The work’s central arguments are significant for scholars of Victorian Britain and across historical disciplines. Gregory shows that Victorian vegetarianism was at once “counter-cultural and conventional” (188). Contemporaries commonly associated the movement with disparate strains of Victorian radicalism. Scraggly beards, long hair, and earthy socialism apparently paired just as well with meatless diets in the mid-to-late nine-teenth century as in the mid-to-late twentieth. Many vegetarians also sampled freely from a wide range of political and lifestyle reforms from Temperance to nudism. Gregory, however, positions food reform as emblematic of mainstream Victo-rian tendencies. Although it was perceived as eccentric, he argues, vegetarianism was a response to concerns that its adherents shared with most other members of their society. Belief that mass abandonment of meat would usher in a glorious new civiliza-tion freed from vice and war reflected Victorian millenarian perfectionism. Assertions that vegetarianism promised cures for countless illnesses evidenced common Victorian conflations of individual and social health with moral and spiritual wellness. The self-denial and “physical puritanism” of abstention from animal flesh (Gregory argues that   161 AUTUMN 2008 enjoyment of meatless cuisine was secondary to considerations of the diet’s hygienic properties) blended with the broader Victorian cult of self-discipline that promoted teetotalism and urge-suppressing Graham crackers. Gregory’s treatment of the interplay between vegetarian advocacy and labor activism is particularly helpful. Emphasizing thrift and self-mastery as means to indi- vidual and collective empowerment, vegetarian appeals to workers frequently high-lighted the diet’s wage-stretching advantages. Such appeals raised hackles within prominent leftist circles, leading to accusations that the diet was actually a thinly guised bourgeois conspiracy to reduce pay. Letters to a socialist journal decried the “Capitalist  Advantages of Vegetarianism.” Ultimately, Gregory dismisses much of this suspicion, arguing that many vegetarians viewed the two causes as inextricably linked. Still, even  when not perceiving food reform as an overt assault on workers, numerous “orthodox” socialists felt “beleaguered by vegetarians” and other kindred reformers and struggled to keep the dissidents in line or at bay (158).Gregory’s exegesis of vegetarianism’s relationship to science and medicine similarly unearths a competition over expertise posed by vegetarian agitators. Claims that the diet promised to make pills—along with professional pill-pushers—obsolete led many orthodox physicians to assail the movement as anti-scientific. Although there may have been some basis for this critique, the situation Gregory details is far more complex. Mainstream Victorian medicine insisted on the enfeebling and even fatal effects of a meatless diet and alleged that the diet could undermine imperial advances by demoting (British) man from his perch atop the natural order. In response, vegetar-ians joined anti-vivisectionists and anti-vaccinationists condemning the medical ortho-doxy as a pernicious “new priesthood” contaminating Britons with materialism and other poisons of the body, mind, and soul. Yet, vegetarians grounded many of their claims in mainstream science and actively sought out its support. Justus von Liebig’s new chemistry established the nutritional soundness of plant foods. Comparative anatomy, vegetarians argued, likewise demonstrated man’s true herbivorous nature.  Vegetarians insisted that evolution developed along physical and moral lines. London alone boasted three all-meatless, teetotal, anti-vaccination, anti-vivisection hospitals. Some leading vegetarians even opined that technological advances could obviate the slaughter of animals for food. It was not science as such, Gregory suggests, that most  vegetarians opposed, but rather an emerging experimental vision of science that many in the movement perceived as morally regressive. Gregory’s careful attention to vegetarianism’s oft-overlooked consequential and contentious position within Victorian society gives this meticulously researched and forcefully argued work substantial value for a wide range of scholars, despite a somewhat patchwork organization that at times limits overall cohesion. Joining Victo-rian social history with history of medicine, labor, and gender (Gregory’s treatment of the heretofore unstudied Women’s Vegetarian Union is particularly exciting), as well as radical, literary, food, and animal history, Gregory succeeds in establishing Victorian  vegetarianism as a primary object of study. Ryan Noah Shapiro Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
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