The Science of Starving in Victorian Literature, Medicine, and Political Economy

Mangham, Andrew

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

  • Date of entry: Sep-26-2022
  • Last revised: Sep-26-2022


Andrew Mangham’s The Science of Starving in Victorian Literature, Medicine, and Political Economy examines how Victorian writers drew upon the era’s medicine and physiology to represent the physical realities of starvation. Wondering readers, at first glance, might ask if starvation can be described in any terms other than a physical experience; however, Mangham argues that prevailing nineteenth-century political economy theorized population growth and food scarcity in ways that radically obscured the corporeal suffering wrought by starvation. Undergirding Victorian-era political economy was the influential work of the British cleric-economist, Thomas Malthus, and the rise of statistics. Malthus’s well-entrenched theories maintained that starvation, or large-scale famine, was a natural (and therefore inevitable) response to overpopulation. “In Malthus’s thinking,” Mangham clarifies, “hunger is the greatest tragedy in human economics: in the worst of times it rises up as a horrible check on those nations whose resources have been overrun by improvident birth rates” (1). These theories further solidified within religious contexts, which produced the peculiar notion of “salutary starvation” (26) or “the providential law of starvation” (30)—an understanding of famine and other disasters as just consequences for exceeding the material capacities of God’s “natural system” (26). Malthus’s theories, imbued with religious interpretations, were pernicious and far-reaching, seeping into how the British government and affluent classes viewed and (mis)understood poverty. Mangham also maintains that Malthus’s theories were augmented by the emergence of statistics during the first several decades of the century, which enabled the government to measure and evaluate epidemiological patterns, demographic data, and other information about human populations (53). He notes that while statistics were used to collect data about starvation, the data were frequently presented in ways that skewed the prevalence of malnutrition, food scarcity, and diseases and mortality rates related to starvation (56). Using a range of literary and primary sources, Mangham underscores that support for statistics was far from monolithic, that for all the scientific certitude that government officials invested in the discipline, there were critics who vociferated about how statistics were often reductive representations of human experience. In other words, masses of tabulated numbers created a cold, mathematical distance between government authorities and those human lives suffering starvation (56–57). Overall, Mangham outlines a bleak picture of Victorian political economy and its views of material privation.

For Mangham, then, one of the most injurious consequences of political economy was its failure to observe starvation (and its manifold health complications) as a material, indeed physiological, experience. As noted, political economists viewed starvation as anything but a form of bodily suffering, using theories instead to explain the naturalness and necessity of hunger and thus blaming the poor, not government and industry, for their problems (31). While political theorists were preoccupied with these explanations, Mangham traces the era’s concurrent developments in medicine that examined the physiology of hunger and digestion. The gastrointestinal research of Italian Lazzaro Spallanzani influenced Victorian physicians, namely John Hunter, Charles Thackrah, George Henry Lewes, Thomas Southwood Smith, and others, who sought to describe the anatomical workings of the stomach and explain the bodily sensations of hunger (36). Against this backdrop, Mangham argues that Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens—united in their “antipathy towards Malthusianism” (17)—recognized the power in articulating starvation using physiological terms, and turned to science to limn “. . . the material sufferings of the starving and, more importantly, on detailed analysis of what it means to go hungry and to observe and to write about it in a way that seeks to be truthful” (16). In chapters that individually examine each author’s literary works, Mangham demonstrates how “. . . physiological ideas offered both an alternative way of thinking about hunger and an exploration of the ways in which it might be interpreted” (47). This volume’s close readings of these authors’ various novels, journalism, and speeches reveal that medical science offered a language that could undermine theories that misunderstood human starvation and the sociopolitical conditions that perpetuate it. Kingsley, Gaskell, and Dickens used new science to depict not only physiologically accurate but humanized renderings of the poor.


Mangham’s study traces compelling connections among nineteenth-century political economy, medicine, and literature, demonstrating that writers looked to science for inspiration to critique feckless government policy and represent the concrete physicality of hunger. If writers could emphasize that impoverished people experiencing starvation were undergoing an “unnecessary, unjust, and unnatural” process, their stories could begin to demystify for readers the opposite claims of political economy (18). Mangham provides close readings of novels (among them include Kingsley’s YeastAlton Locke, and Two Years Ago; Gaskell’s Mary BartonNorth and South, and Sylvia’s Lovers; and Dickens’s Bleak House and others) to emphasize how these authors used physiology’s vocabulary to describe the material dimensions of poverty, which enabled them to push back against the theories of political economy. It is not that Victorian writers resorted to stale clinical language, but instead worked in confidence, knowing that what they represented in their narratives was grounded in scientific fact. Mangham's analysis shows how literature and medicine intersected in ways that produced trenchant critiques of government policy.


Oxford University Press

Place Published

United Kingdom



Page Count