My dissertation is prompted by Virginia Woolf’s famous lament in A Room of One’s Own that writers “seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” I argue that, contrary to Woolf’s assessment, food imagery and scenes of consumption serve important (if largely unexamined) functions in early twentieth-century British and Irish fiction. Transformations in the way food was produced, distributed, and consumed during the first part of the twentieth century had a profound effect on the way people experienced, thought about, and wrote about the cluster of historical phenomena we call modernity. For many, eating became less a familial or communal experience than an individualized one" isolating for some, while liberating for others. My dissertation reads works by modernist or avant-garde authors like Woolf, Joyce, Mansfield, and Rhys, showing how changes in eating processes manifest through the failure of food to fulfill its traditional role as a basis for community. Food imagery is thus crucial to understanding the precise quality of “alienation” so characteristic of literary modernism.
However, other kinds of literature tell a rather different story about early twentieth-century foodways. My dissertation also explores several “feminine middlebrow” writers including E.M. Delafield, Stella Gibbons, and Barbara Pym, whose work, I argue, envisions a more optimistic response to modernity’s erosion of food-based ritual by creating consumption communities founded on shared tastes" both literary and gustatory. My work intersects with several vibrant strands of scholarly research, including food studies, women’s studies, postcolonial studies, and the “materialist turn” in modernist studies. Moreover, my work on middlebrow women writers is particularly innovative in its focus on the complex relationships between reading, gustation, gender, commerce, physicality, and pleasure. While recent scholars such as Jane Garrity and Ann Ardis have emphasized the importance of middlebrow literature in the period, my work also draws on Denise Gigante’s study of the eighteenth-century culture of taste to explore the relationship between literal and figurative taste in the so-called battle of the brows during the twentieth century.