Transgressing Food Rules: Children’s Food Consumption in Catherine Sinclair’s “Holiday House”

Ming Ming Cheung 

Catherine Sinclair, Holiday House: A Series of Tales; Dedicated to Lady Diana Boyle (New York: Robert Carter, [1839] 2018).

Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839) is frequently seen as a literary milestone in children’s literature. For example, in Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (1982), F.J. Harvey Darton identifies Sinclair’s novel as a turning point in children’s fiction because it progresses from didacticism to pleasure reading. He also praises it as “the best original children’s book written up to that time, and one of the jolliest and most hilarious of any period.”[1] Despite its literary reputation, the novel is underexamined in the fields of children’s literature as well as food studies. Since food studies is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship, examining the omnipresence of food in Holiday House reveals the relationship between food and numerous aspects of the human experience in nineteenth-century Britain. Furthermore, it helps to bridge the gap between two fields that have had few interactions.

Holiday House, as has been repeatedly observed, is divided into two halves with significant differences in both format and tone. The episodic chapters in the first half focus on the “scrapes” that the two “noisy, frolicsome, mischievous” child protagonists, Laura and Harry, get into (iv). In the second half, its episodic structure is replaced with a continuous flow of narrative that resembles the conventional moral and instructive tale. The plot follows the decline of Laura and Harry’s older brother, Frank, and this new narrative focus takes on a darker didactic tone. The novel’s inconsistent structure reveals an uneasy tension between its entertaining and didactic modes. This tension is intensified by an abundance of food scenes that reflect both. Food is often involved in the child characters’ escapades: for example, they throw food at people they dislike, while adults use it as a disciplinary tool. Not only does the representation of food intensify the shifts between entertainment and didacticism, it also reveals messages about the power dynamics between adults and children. On one hand, Sinclair fills her novel with food scenes to fulfill the child characters’ appetites and to endow them with the power to transgress food rules set by adults; on the other hand, she employs food as a means by which adults control the children’s appetites and behavior.

Children’s literature produced in nineteenth-century Britain frequently adopts the motif of food. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) is a well-known example. The scenes of plentiful eating and drinking allow Alice to better understand Wonderland’s logic. Similarly, the motif of food in Holiday House emphasizes the mischievous young characters’ attitudes and behavior. Peter Grey, Laura and Harry’s friend, is portrayed as a gluttonous and greedy child who indulges himself with rich and sweet food items but is never punished. One day, a generous lady allows Peter and his friends to shake the fruit trees and to eat whatever comes down. Peter takes advantage of the situation, resulting in the trees “very often [raining] apples and pears” (124). In this and other instances, he often oversteps food rules that adults have made. While his rebellion against authority through consumption seem to empower him, his insatiable appetite and gluttony are implicitly condemned in the narrative through Sinclair’s use of food symbolism, such as the apple. Through the apple’s Christian connotations, Sinclair suggests that Peter is sinful. Similar symbols, such as parental love symbolized by cakes, sugarplums and sweetmeats, are evoked in many of the food-based scenes in the novel, enabling the knowing reader to understand the social context of nineteenth-century family life.

Upon closer look, a compelling amount of food, sweet food in particular, permeates the novel to function as a powerful tool for transmitting social messages about what and what not to eat, how to eat correctly, and most importantly, who eats whom. The omnipresence of food and the characters’ food-related behavior provides an interesting perspective in reading and understanding the book as well as its inherent ideologies, such as cultural food rules and attitudes towards food that persist in contemporary society. It is, however, overlooked by critics in both children’s literature and food studies. Food in Holiday House, therefore, merits more attention as the meaning it carries reaches beyond the edibles themselves. Reading Sinclair’s novel as part of the field of food studies would allow scholars to examine the relationship between food and its sociocultural influences from a literary perspective in the nineteenth century.

Since the motif of food permeates Holiday House, an exploration into the role of food and how it is employed to construct the adult/child dichotomy might enrich existing literature both on the novel and in the field of food studies. Since literature is a mirror of society, albeit an imperfect one, Holiday House’s inclusion in food studies provides a glimpse of the food eaten and desired by children in nineteenth-century Britain. It also paints a clear picture regarding how food allows adults to not only exercise their power but also to reinforce children’s proper behavior and eliminate that which is undesirable. Moreover, an exploration into food symbolism in the novel reveals the relationship between food and the prevailing Christian paradigm in nineteenth-century British society. On the whole, Sinclair’s text offers an opportunity to explore intersections of food, literature, and culture, enriching food studies as an interdisciplinary field of scholarship.


[1] F. J. Harvey Darton, Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 220.


Ming Ming Cheung currently works as an English teacher at a local primary school in Hong Kong. She completed an MPhil in Children’s Literature at Trinity College Dublin with her dissertation focusing on food in nineteenth-century British children’s literature. She is also interested in ecocriticism, children’s film, and adaptation, Disney and Studio Ghibli in particular. Prior to Ming Ming’s studies at Trinity, she was trained to be an ESL teacher at the secondary school level. She is committed to engaging students with quality literature.