Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Allusions to food and alimentary imagery pervade the novel. The culinary creations of Lotte Lippmann are described in succulent detail; she makes delicious meals for the nurses, for her idol, Elizabeth, and for Basil as well. The dietary habits of characters such as the Wyburds, Col Pardoe (Flora Manhood’s boyfriend), Flora’s lesbian cousin Snow Tunks, and Dorothy come under close scrutiny. One memorable scene shows Dorothy invading her mother’s kitchen in order to find proof for her suspicions that Lotte is wasteful; with evident relief and triumph, she discovers good filet of beef on the point of putrefying and then launches an attack on the hired help. Basil devours a meat pie in an attempt to recapture some of the flavor of his childhood, and Dorothy tries to eat a mutton chop her first night back in Australia in order to regain a taste for the land of her birth: Neither succeeds. Flora enjoys a good appetite, as does Elizabeth: To her dying day, the dowager eats heartily and spends some of her time conjuring up past meals out of her memory. Attitudes toward food reveal much about characters.

Not only food but also the entire alimentary process is invoked during the course of the novel. Ingestion, digestion, evacuation, and all the rumblings thereof are detailed: White focuses on bodily functions as the ultimate frame of reference for mankind’s beliefs about itself and the world. He suggests that no matter how lofty one’s ideals, they are tempered by the mere fact of one’s physical being. While she...

(The entire section is 623 words.)