On Corpulence: Feeding the Body & Feeding the Mind

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Early this year we launched a series of books with Pushkin Press reprinting remarkable and quirky works still to be found on the Shelves at The London Library. Here, Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros – our Head of Bibliographic Services – looks at Lewis Carroll and Dr William Banting, the two authors whose work features in On Corpulence.

On Corpulence: Feeding the Body and Feeding the Mind contains two pieces which could not be more different yet, oddly, seem to have been made for each other. One is a well-intentioned self-help book by an overweight Victorian undertaker while the other is a typically witty and surreal bit of advice by the creator of one of the most famous children’s stories of all times.

William Banting (1796/7–1878) does not fit the Dickensian stereotype of a funeral director. Far from being tall, gaunt and hypocritically melancholy, he was a small, stout man with a truly charitable spirit. He was at the top of his profession, having been entrusted with the funerals of the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert, had a large family and kind friends but he suffered terribly:

“Of all the parasites that affect humanity I do not know of, nor can imagine, any more distressing than that of Obesity …”.

The excess weight that had plagued him since his thirties had become unbearable by the time he reached his sixties: “The word ‘parasite’ has been much commented upon, as inappropriate to any but a living creeping thing (of course I use the word in a figurative sense, as a burden to the flesh), but if fat is not an insidious creeping enemy, I do not know what is.” He sought medical advice and tried various forms of exercise, visited the Turkish baths, starved himself and consumed different remedies. Nothing really worked and, in fact, the exercise only increased his appetite and made things worse:

“Yet the evil still increased, and, like the parasite of barnacles on a ship, if it did not destroy the structure, it obstructed its fair, comfortable progress in the path of life.”

When his hearing began to fail him the specialist he consulted, believing this to be caused by the excess weight, recommended a low fat, low sugar and low carb diet (although copious amounts of alcohol were allowed). It worked! What is most remarkable about Banting’s story is that rather than rejoice quietly and jealously guard the secret of his weight loss, his immediate thought was to help relieve the misery of his fellow sufferers. To do so would require him to share many embarrassing details about the extent to which his condition had affected him and the very personal ways in which slimming had helped:

“ … I have been able safely to leave off knee bandages, which I had worn necessarily for twenty past years, and given up a truss almost entirely …”.

This level of disclosure was nothing to Banting who wanted his readers to know how profoundly their lives could be improved:

“I am … so perfectly satisfied of the great unerring benefits of this system of diet, that I shall spare no trouble to circulate my humble experience.”

His pamphlet, Letter on Corpulence, became an instant success in 1864 and ‘to bant’ and ‘banting’ literally became bywords for dieting in Britain and beyond. After printing two editions at his own cost and spending no small amount of money in replying to his many correspondents he was forced to sell the edition at cost price but donated all the profits of his book to charity.

Having found out about the correct way to feed the body we can turn to the next piece to learn about the correct way to nourish the intellect in Lewis Carroll’s Feeding the Mind.

The writer of the preface to the original publication, William H. Draper, tells us that in 1884 Lewis Carroll did something very unusual: he agreed to a friend’s request to give a lecture to a public audience while staying in a vicarage in Derbyshire.  Draper narrates that Lewis Carroll’s nerves were not helped by being exposed as the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by another visitor who did not realise what he was doing. The shaken Carroll nevertheless proceeded to deliver his lecture and afterwards gave the manuscript to Draper who did not publish it till 1907. In the preface Draper illustrates Carroll’s character further with extracts from his Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing. They contain wonderful advice, in language one would expect from a mathematician, about being kind and considerate to one’s correspondents, defusing quarrels, and “taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper and putting in honey instead”  when drafting a difficult letter:

“If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if in making friends, each  was  ready  to  go  five-eighths of the way – why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!”

Feeding the Mind is a curious piece. It offers advice on the correct way to ‘consume’ books, without overwhelming the mind with too much information, feeding it the wrong kind of literature, which will have a detrimental effect, or starving it and allowing it to become lazy. Choosing the right ‘food’ is as important as the digestive process, which he advises requires pauses or intervals for the “arranging and ticketing, so to speak, of the subjects in our minds, so that we can readily refer to them when we want them.” The message is serious enough and the brilliant author’s frustration with the owners of what he calls ‘fat minds’ is evident but the whimsy of Alice’s creator is present too:

“ … and it might  be well  for some if the mind were equally visible and  tangible – if we could  take  it, say, to the doctor, and have its pulse felt.

‘Why, what have you been doing with this mind lately?  How have you fed it? It looks pale, and the pulse is very slow.’

‘Well, doctor, it has not had much regular food lately.  I gave it a lot of sugar-plums yesterday.’

‘Sugar-plums! What kind?’

‘Well, they were a parcel of conundrums, sir.’

‘Ah, I thought so.  Now just mind this: if you go on playing tricks like that, you’ll spoil all its teeth, and get laid up with mental indigestion. You must have nothing but the plainest reading for the next few days. Take care now!  No novels on any account!’”

On Corpulence: part of our new series with Pushkin Press reprinting works found On The Shelves at The London Library

On Corpulence: part of our new series with Pushkin Press reprinting works found On The Shelves at The London Library

Dr William Banting: undertaker and a byword for successful dieting or "banting" in Victorian England

Dr William Banting: undertaker and a byword for successful dieting or “banting” in Victorian England

Banting's 1864 pamphlet "On Corpulence", describing his successful introduction of a low carb regime

Banting’s 1864 pamphlet “On Corpulence”, describing his successful introduction of a low carb regime

1907 reprint of Lewis Carroll's humorous 1884 lecture on a work out for the mind

1907 reprint of Lewis Carroll’s humorous 1884 lecture on a work out for the mind