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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 July; 54(3): 415–416.
PMCID: PMC2889472

Book Reviews

Of Victorians and vegetarians: the vegetarian movement in nineteenth-century Britain
Reviewed by Ian Miller

James Gregory.
Of Victorians and vegetarians: the vegetarian movement in nineteenth-century Britain,  London and New York,  Tauris Academic Studies,  2007, pp.  xii, 313, £57.50 (hardback  978-1-84511-379-7). 

Popular perceptions of vegetarianism often stipulate that its attractiveness as a dietary choice is essentially a recent phenomenon, with its recognition being mostly stimulated by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. Yet, as James Gregory rightly stresses, the complex interrelationships between abstinence from meat and modernity date much further back, especially in the British context. Gregory insists that the significance of the role in British vegetarian ideals and its organized activities throughout the nineteenth century was striking, paving the way for a movement that would ultimately attract thousands worldwide. Accordingly, one of the primary arguments of this book is that vegetarianism has not played such a marginal historical role as might be expected.

From the 1840s onwards, a well organized national network of meat abstainers developed whose members were often highly vocal in persuading the community at large to join their cause, promoting what they perceived to be the ethical, hygienic, moral and aesthetic benefits of a meat-free life. Notably, the Vegetarian Society formed branches throughout Britain and Ireland, organized campaign meetings, banquets and published a sophisticated series of publications, newspapers and pamphlets. Vegetarianism ultimately developed into a very vocal movement, attracting serious responses from various sectors of the community. This might take the form of the incorporation of vegetarian recipes in cookery books, support from scientific men and prominent adherents such as George Bernard Shaw and Annie Besant.

Yet Gregory is careful not to overplay the movement’s relevance. Certainly, the form of vegetarianism presented here is one that was never going to win over the public to a significant degree. In particular, the failure of the movement to attract much working-class support is noted. However, it is portrayed as holding a more successful function in helping to shape public education on dietary matters, a role that was not insignificant given the period’s obsession with issues such as food adulteration, digestion and food provision. It can also be seen to have provoked debate on such questions as the importance of non-animal foods, the relationship between man and animal, and controversies related to animal cruelty even amongst non-adherents. Crucially, it was a movement with much to say on the subject of women, not least because it appealed to female sensibilities. It was also self-consciously associated with teetotalism, utopianism and spiritualism. Ultimately, this allows us to perceive the movement as one which formed part of wide concerns rather than being solely a fringe issue. As Gregory successfully shows, this enables a far broader view of British Victorian society and the numerous social movements that emerged.

Gregory skilfully explores the phenomenon as a movement as well as a lived experience. Whilst the movement’s organization is explored in substantial depth, his most interesting chapter analyses vegetarian practice. Within this, we hear of the socialist Samuel Bower living on grey peas alone whilst the large, public vegetarian banquet is explored as part of an attempt to counter popular opinion that condemned the diet as austere and unpleasant. Vegetarian restaurants are analysed, and it is with surprise that we learn of their growth in cities such as London. Gregory’s analysis of cultural representations of the vegetarian is based upon a vast array of sources exploring the movement’s connection to the literary world. He examines the treatment of the movement in newspapers and journals, outlines its presence in works by ethnologists, anthropologists and philosophers, and discusses the presentation of vegetarian characters in prose fiction and poetry. Overall, this is an important addition to the heavily neglected area of Victorian attitudes towards food, diet and digestion.

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