Soup-in-the-beard was a condition which affected many Victorian gentlemen possessed of disgusting table manners. It commonly took the form of patches of beard hair becoming soaked in spilled soup, which then dried out, causing the hairs to become matted and malodorous. The spillage would usually occur at the point where the Victorian gentleman, wielding a spoonful of soup and aiming to transfer the full amount into his mouth, would fall at the last hurdle, and send some or all of the spoonful dribbling down his beard. If the bowl of soup was a generous one, as it often was at Victorian banquets, repetitions of this manoeuvre could result in the beard being absolutely drenched, with droplets of the spilled soup dripping on to the elegantly embroidered tablecloth.
Although we do not have precise figures, it is believed that a significant proportion of cases of soup-in-the-beard were caused by uncontrollable tremors of the hand, symptoms of withdrawal from the gargantuan doses of opium favoured by almost all Victorian gentlemen. This does not, of course, excuse their disgusting table manners, which were disgusting, almost as disgusting as – at another time, in another place – those of Franz Kafka.
Contemporary written accounts of soup-in-the-beard are surprisingly few, possibly because it was so prevalent, so much a commonplace, that chroniclers of the time did not consider it worthy of remark. A vivid exception is contained in a letter written by the Dowager Duchess Dipsy of Poxhaven, dated 14 January 1868:
Last night I attended a dinner to raise funds for the Society for the Promotion of Sending Working Class Orphans Down Mineshafts, held at Soot-Blackened House. I was seated next to Walter Mad, whose beard is prodigious. The poor man’s hands were shaking badly, and he confessed to me that he had not had a dose of opium for a full half hour. During the soup course – mulligatawny, to my horror – Walter Mad had a great deal of difficulty transferring the soup from bowl to mouth by means of a spoon, and after a minute or two his beard was sopping wet, almost more soup than hair. I was amused to note that he summoned his valet, who proceeded to wring out the beard, much like a janitor with a mop. Cleverly, Walter Mad commanded him to do this directly over the bowl, so that the soup in the beard replenished the soup in the bowl. By this means, and by several further wringings-out, Walter Mad was still busy with his soup while the rest of us had moved on to the jugged hare and the strangled weasel. His table manners are disgusting, but he gave ten shillings to send urchins from the lower orders down the mines, so his cold black heart is in the right place.
Next week : Egg-On-The-Waistcoat.
I believe Lord Salisbury once spent several weeks in the charming Cotswold village of Soup-in-the-Beard, recovering from a nasty bout of Stow-on-the-Wold he’d picked up in the Far East.