Browning, famine, and also the Duke of Norfolk's curry

Published: 08th May 2020
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Poet Robert Browning mentions in his work 'Easter Day,' published in 1850, the utilization of curry to appease hunger as an analogy between beliefs and food. The origin of the reference is traceable to the Duke of Norfolk's proposition throughout the famine of the 1840s, to workers in Sussex, England, to mix curry powder with water that is heated to alleviate them of hunger pangs. Browning likened this suggestion to pagans' fantasy-based religion as compared with true food that symbolizes the authentic faith of the Christians.

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In section XII of Easter Day (1850) Browning compares St Paul's guarantee of immortality with all the 'blind hopes' held out from the pagan Aeschylus. Why, though, does Browning refer to curry in this context as a food or placebo substitute, and what lies behind the allusion, seemingly familiar and topical, to 'that brave curry of his Grace'?

The giving blind hopes to guys to spice The meal of life with, else devoured In bitter haste, while lo, passing loured Before them at the edge of the platter! If beliefs ought to be as I allege, Rather other than the usual condiment To heighten flavours with, or meant (Like that courageous curry of his Grace) To take at demand the victuals' position? If, having dined, you would digest Besides, and turning to your own remainder Should locate instead . . .

('Easter Day', lines 332-43)(1)

Some of the very widely resented and ridiculed responses to the famines of the 1840s was the Duke of Norfolk's proposition the pangs of hunger might be alleviated by water that is curried. Speaking at agricultural meetings at Steyning and Arundel in December 1845, the Duke advocated to Sussex labourers 'a touch of curry powder place into hot water', for 'if a man comes home, and has nothing better, it'll make him warm and cozy'. The Duke acknowledged that curry was an acquired taste, but declared that he himself enjoyed it, as did the individuals of India, for whom, he included (compounding the gaffe), it was 'what potatoes have been in Ireland'. The papers took up the subject with gusto. The Times devoted a third leader to deflating 'the noble gastronomist', quoting him verbatim ('he'll possess the advantage 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 locate it agree with him, he's no right to expect the whole of his family to take to the exact same species of diet'. The writer concluded that 'He deserves to go right down to posterity with a touch 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 also the British press kept the story alive by interpreting and reporting the answer from the Continent.(3)

Five years later, in Easter-Day, Browning drew on the curry fiasco for a piquant persona of illusory nourishment in matters of faith. He made one of his rare and oblique allusions to the specific material deprivations of the hungry forties, in doing so.

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