Browning, famine, and the Duke of Norfolk's curry.
In section XII of Easter-Day (1850) Browning contrasts St Paul's promise of immortality with the 'blind hopes' held out by the pagan Aeschylus. In an extended metaphor of food and cookery, Christian faith is seen as an integral part of the 'meal of life' rather than as a side dish or added flavouring. Why, though, does Browning refer to curry in this context as a placebo or food substitute, and what lies behind the allusion, seemingly familiar and topical, to 'that brave curry of his Grace'?
The giving men blind hopes to spice The meal of life with, else devoured In bitter haste, while lo, death loured Before them at the platter's edge! If faith should be, as I allege, Quite other than a condiment To heighten flavours with, or meant (Like that brave curry of his Grace) To take at need the victuals' place? If, having dined, you would digest Besides, and turning to your rest Should find instead . . .
('Easter-Day', lines 332-43)(1)
One of the most widely resented and ridiculed responses to the famines of the 1840s was the Duke of Norfolk's suggestion that the pangs of hunger might be alleviated by curried water. Speaking at agricultural meetings at Steyning and Arundel in December 1845, the Duke recommended to Sussex labourers 'a pinch of curry powder put into hot water', for 'if a man comes home, and has nothing better, it will make him warm and comfortable'. The Duke admitted that curry was an acquired taste, but declared that he himself liked it, as did the people of India, for whom, he added (compounding the gaffe), it was 'what potatoes are in Ireland'. The newspapers took up the topic with gusto. The Times devoted a third leader to deflating 'the noble gastronomist', quoting him verbatim ('He shall have the benefit of his own words') while objecting that 'if he were to take a fancy to eat mangelwurzel, or perhaps to try the congenial thistle, and find it agree with him, he has no right to expect the whole of his family to take to the same species of diet'. The writer concluded that 'He deserves to go down to posterity with a pinch of curry powder in his hand'.(2) French observers recognized the aristocratic spirit ('Vous n'avez pas de pain? Eh bien! mangez de la brioche?) and the British press kept the story alive by translating and reporting the response from the Continent.(3)
Five years later, in Easter-Day, Browning drew on the curry fiasco for a piquant image of illusory nourishment in matters of faith. In doing so he made one of his rare and oblique allusions to the specific material deprivations of the hungry forties.
1 The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, IV, ed. Ian Jack, Rowena Fowler, and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 394.
2 The Times, 11 December 1845, 4, col.c. The incident was first reported in the Sussex Agricultural Express: see David Roberts, Paternalism in Early Victorian England (London: Croom Helm, 1979), 107; Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-9 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962), 48.
3 'More Curry for the Duke', The Times, 24 December 1845, 6, col.d.
ROWENA FOWLER University of Bristol