“Bewitchingly lovely in the very act of eating”: Elizabeth Robins Pennell’s Gustatory-Visual Sensualism

Abigail Dennis

Palavras-chave: nineteenth century; aesthetics; feminism; food; the senses

Participação: presencial

Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1855-1936) was a pioneering female food writer, travel memoirist, and art critic active in Aesthetic London in the 1890s. These intertwined fascinations of food, travel, and art manifested in an abiding concern with visuality, landscape, and its representation in writing. In Delights of Delicate Eating (1896) and multiple travel memoirs, Pennell uses gustatory imagery to evoke the landscapes of the European centres of fine art (particularly Italy and France), confounding distinctions between rarefied visuality and “lowly” bodily appetites. Her writing thus undercuts the ancient privileging of the distal sense of sight, even as her profession as a visual art critic depends on it.

The term “aesthetic” originates in the Greek aisthesis, meaning “sense perception” (Raymond Williams, Keywords 1). The emphasis on the visual element in definitions of the aesthetic, and on beauty as a quality that is primarily judged by sight, reflects the enduring dominance of what Carolyn Korsmeyer calls the “hierarchy of the senses” (Making Sense of Taste 11). First elucidated by Plato and Aristotle, it places the “distal” senses of sight and hearing above the “proximal” (and thus, supposedly, more vulnerable to subjective distortion) senses of taste and touch. As Korsmeyer shows, however, this hierarchisation is itself inherently subjective: an elaborate system of values supports a gendered hierarchy, “for the higher senses turn out to be those [. . .] which develop ‘masculine’ traits and virtues” (5).

This paper will show how, in foregrounding her identity as an American and a self-described “greedy woman,” Pennell strategically and ironically constructs herself as spectacle, in order to disrupt this gendered sensorial hierarchy. Her husband’s sketches of her, combined with her own imagistic narratives of female sensuality, appropriate and subvert the satirical imagery of the New Woman that predominated in periodicals such as Punch. Her picture of a feminine gourmand at table, glossy- lipped, “bewitchingly lovely in the very act of eating,” is deliberately juxtaposed with a “picture” of the New Woman of periodical satire, “declaiming on the public platform. . .‘spanking’ progressive principles into the child-man” (Delights of Delicate Eating 12). Pennell’s vision of the female connoisseur, whether at table or riding her bicycle across the Alps, offers a counter-image to the vast corpus of graphic visualisations of female pleasure and vitality as ludicrous, even monstrous. As Richardson and Willis note, the spectacle of the female cyclist and the female gourmand offered “visual emblems of the social, sexual and political disquiet caused by women’s demands for equality” (24).

Pennell’s images disrupt the visual and aesthetic discourses that construct tastefulness as an exclusively male, Eurocentric, and disembodied trait, making space for a generation of female artists, critics, and food writers. The New Woman’s bodily and sensorial desire is, for Pennell, a determinative and essential element of her aesthetic constitution. Indeed, I will suggest, Pennell’s unique gustatory-visual style demonstrates that, at the fin de siêcle, she already comprehended the narrative and political power of the aestheticization of everyday life that resonates so strongly with our own contemporary visual culture.


Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford UP, 2015.
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. The Delights of Delicate Eating. U of Illinois P, 2000.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Cornell UP, 1999.
Richardson, A., and C. Willis, editors. The New Woman in Fiction and Fact: Fin-de-Siêcle Feminisms. Springer, 2019.


Abigail Dennis is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her doctoral thesis examines the ways that representations of food and eating in Victorian literature respond to Enlightenment discourses of “pure” or disembodied aesthetic taste, and the productive tension between physiology and psychology in Victorian literature. She was a recipient of the University of Queensland’s University Medal, and a Chancellor Jackman Graduate Fellow at the University of Toronto. Her research has been published in The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Womens’ Writing (forthcoming 2022), The Journal of Modern Literature, Studies in Popular Culture, The Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies, and The Oxford Companion to Sweets.