Let Them Eat Cake

Life is a complex barter system.

You make a cup of tea for someone every day, you make it just the way they like it, you park it on their desk first thing in the morning.

And that person never says anything. They never thank you; they never meet your eyes in a Β friendly acknowledgement of your gesture. They never make you a reciprocal cuppa. They just take, take, take.

It will not be long before the most saintly of us begin to be a little impatient. The goodwill is so often withdrawn; and a black mark thumbed in the air above that person’s head.

But the smallest return of the favour ensures a friendly working relationship.

In 2008 one of our best science programmes Horizon featured a documentary entitled “How to make better decisions.” It showed that our minds are programmed to make decisions based on some very strange data.

And we don’t even know we’re doing it.

Footage exclusive to the programme demonstrated candidates in job interviews were more likely to get a job if they handed a warm drink to the prospective employer on entering the interview. We’re programmed: something as simple as a mug of warm liquid can predispose us to favour someone.

If only those French aristocrats had known the strength of a little hospitality. What was it the queen said? Let them eat cake?

Actually, it was brioche. Sweet, fluffy bread.

Let them eat brioche, said someone some centuries ago, oblivious to the plight of peasants forced to eat grass and sawdust to stave off starvation.

Whether it was Marie Antoinette is open to some debate. Lady Antonia Fraser argues it was Marie-Therese, wife of Louis XIV. And variants exist elsewhere: there was the Chinese emperor, for example, who when someone told him the peasants had no rice to eat, suggested they eat meat instead.

This is one of those instances, though, when a piece of propaganda – and possible misinformation – expressed the zeitgeist if the time. Inequality and injustice had stalked the streets of Paris for too long.Β In 1793, the French people beheaded their queen.

End of story: for the queen, but not for the rest of Europe. By the mid 19th century, Europe was in turmoil and revolution rife.

It could have happened in England, too; but for the paternalistic interest which grew among the upper and middle classes in helping those less fortunate than themselves. And nowhere was that interest more passionate than with Prince Albert, the British queen’s husband.

Albert was president of a society which had begun in 1830 to help the working classes. It started modestly with allotments- plots of land where people could grown their own provisions – but went on to become a housing society. It was called the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes.

In a speech to the society, Albert told listeners that all men should have “sympathy and interest for that class of our community who have most of the toil and fewest of the enjoyments of this world.” He added it was the “duty of those who, under the blessings of Divine Providence, enjoy station, wealth, and education” to help.

Albert persuaded Victoria that it would be a good idea to hold gatherings to which all levels of society were invited: those who had performed valuable service in their field could be commended with tea and cake.

And so once again, “Let them eat cake” became a byword; but this time, tea and cake were a symbol of how valued every man was in this great Victorian society.

They started as breakfasts; these days, though, they are afternoon tea. Gates open at 3pm and crowds flood in; the Royal family arrives at 4pm. There are three a year, signs that if you work hard and contribute to society, whether you are a commoner or a peer, the Queen will entertain you at Buckingham Palace with cake, and sandwiches, and tea.

Such a small gesture in the life of a nation. It would be preposterous to argue that garden parties prevented revolution.

But little things like the garden parties were a sign of a broader mindset. And it is often the little things, isn’t it? We make our decisions based on comfort so often, disregarding the loftier issues. There’s a wonderful piece of Pathe News footage of her arriving at a garden party as an old woman. Her subjects are clearly delighted she is there with them. Passing the time of day with Everyman was a clear signal of his value.

Victoria insisted on this most civilised of hospitality rituals.She made a lot of mistakes; but she also gave generously to her subjects.

And there was no revolution in 19th century Britain.


Wrutten in response to ide View’s weekend theme, Let Them Eat Cake, which you can find here


40 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Cake

    1. Are you referring to dour Mr Cromwell, EB, the man who abolished Christmas? You are right, though; the English people had a king’s head. But his replacements made them so grumpy and uncomfortable they begged his son to come back after just over one decade….

      1848 was a year of revolution throughout Europe: it was like a domino effect. German states were toppled and those with whom Albert would have been familiar were cast out. The threat of a 19th century revolution was on the doorstep. But it never happened. Some would argue that this happened because those estranged working classes never reached the point when life as it was was intolerable. Social reforms made life better instead.

  1. Another interesting ‘slice’ of history Kate – I had no idea that the Buckingham Palace Garden Parties were the Idea of Albert. I wonder what other changes he would have brought about if he had lived longer.

    1. It is a sad business, his early death, Rosemary: not least for poor Victoria. She went on to live a very long time without him. And he was just hitting his stride, I feel.

  2. Interesting blog Kate. I always feel one should look after staff – I make tea often when we’re hectically busy and some surprise cakes are always appreciated. Bit difficult to present your interviewers with a hot drink though – unless one takes a flask and a bit of a picnic. I can imagine that going down a bit oddly, spreading the gingham cloth out in the big table in the boardroom…. πŸ˜‰

    Peachy Pathe news film there too. Thanks!

    1. πŸ˜€ You are right, Jan – Horizon’s theoretical testing situation was very far from you average job interview. I have an interview soon. Must remember to pack a picnic. Hot chocolate and spam sandwiches.

      Glad you likes the Pathe. Amazing to watch Victoria in action. And the dresses! My dear!

      1. Oh yes, the dresses! And let’s not forget the hats! Confections of gorgeousness. I was born to be a Victorian. I reckon that with the help of an expert corset winder, I might have achieved quite a tiny waist! πŸ™‚

  3. I loved watching that PathΓ© clip, Kate! πŸ™‚
    I was chuckling at the part you mentioned of handing a warm drink over to the interviewer… I don’t interview very well, in fact I’m a nervous wreck in interviews, and shake from beginning to end. If I remembered to take the warm drink in with me to start off with, it would be empty in no time due to it spilling from the cup – and most likely all over the interviewer. They wouldn’t give me a job in that case!

    1. Perhaps the hot drink is not for you, Tom :-D. Although the effect remains the same. Hand someone you hate a hot drink and they are more disposed to look favourably in your direction. It sounds like something Titania from Midsummer NIght’s Dream would counsel

  4. A most enjoyable and informative read, as always,
    I imagine the movie’s reflections of Albert being sidelined for so long, and having his attempts at reform ignored, were historically accurate. When allowed to get going, though, he certainly did.
    Isn’t it ironic that many of the most famous quotes are either misquotes, or were probably said by somebody else? Or both.

    1. Poor old Albert. What a millstone, being married to such a powerful, headstrong woman: however, love seems to have conquered all and as you say, he was at the heart of some key reforms. As Rosemary said: I wonder what he would have done, had he lived longer?

      Quotes and misquotes: so often humans hear what they want to hear and attribute with the same selectivity. Ho hum.

      1. I wonder who REALLY sat on a termite-infested ceremonial seat which collapsed, and commented that people who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones?

      1. the garden is a long way from beautiful just now. Lots of work required! The only good parts are the crocus and the hellebores.

  5. What a very interesting post about how we should all treat one another, Albert was definitely well ahead of his time. Loved the Pathe Newsreel, the formality of a garden party looks like such fun.

    When all is said and done, how we treat one another is the best measure of our worth as a person.

    1. I agree, Lou. Shabby treatment hides a small self esteem; those who know their own worth are in a position to share what they have with others. Lovely comment πŸ™‚ Thanks.

  6. My friend Shelly lives in one of those Victorian structures with her husband David outside Peterborough. Their allotment is long and narrow, accessed by a grassy lane outside their back door. They have to abide by many rules about what can and cannot be done on the allotment, and David somehow built a Man Shed that has not raised a eyebrow. Perhaps the shed is the 21st century equalizer for every man…..

    1. The allotment and the shed: by my understanding, Andra, the two go together like a horse and carriage.For where will you take your flask and sandwiches, when the morning’s labour is done? Where will you use for your control tower,lovingly storing spade and fork, mulch and slug pellets? And where will those extra-large veg be stored lovingly for the local garden show, but in a shed? It is a very special place for the owner of the allotment πŸ˜€

  7. A great to start my lazy Sunday — thank you! Here in Canada we’ve never known much in the way of rebellion (unless you include the Red River Uprising); England has much to be proud of — it is their example I’m sure that led the rest of the Western world in developing social reform policies.

  8. The movie, Another Year, shows the lead couple gardening on their allotment . . . and sharing a picnic with a WARM drink at the edge of the man shed.

    Good for Albert . . . nothing like a Garden Party to set the world to right:

    I went to a garden party . . . to reminisce with my old friends . . . a chance to share old memories . . . and sing our songs again!

      1. Thanks, Kate.

        I couldn’t resist, Lou. Lyrics commence playing in my head with far less provocation than one of Kate’s provocative and tasty posts. πŸ™‚

    1. Ah, Nancy, you have tied so many ends together for me! Thank you! And thrown in Ricky Nelson to boot…I’ve still not seen Another Year, despite your recommendations. A project for the Easter hols πŸ™‚

      1. Wonderful character study which reveals all the “untidy ends” we tend to get wrapped up in as each year unfolds into the next. πŸ˜€

  9. Ah, wonderful to read your fabulous writing again, Kate…I’ve been missing it! There’s always so much to learn from you. If only I could pop in for some actual tea and cake πŸ˜€

  10. Another wonderful and informative post, Kate. It is said that Golda Meir often held important political gatherings and decision making sessions in her tiny kitchen, where she made the coffee, and groups were said to demand a seat at her table.

  11. “let them eat cake” I say this often as a snarky quip for various issues regarding our patrons’ demands… of course, I hate cake (i know, I know, only royal icing for this one). Most interesting, too, the warm drink business…you do weave so many great things together ~

  12. Surely a prospective employer would think it weird if I arrived for an interview with a tea for them? And what if it was a panel and I only had one cup? Or one person and I brought a tray, in case there was a panel? And what if they like coffee? Should I bring a selection of brews? Do I add the milk and sugar or serve it separately?

    Help me, Kate! I’m imploding!

  13. I’ve often wondered why we in the United States will spend “big bucks” on going to tea at a hotel or posh little nook, but don’t make tea time a standard in our homes.My grandmother was raised in Scotland until her teens, and we always had afternoon tea, but that isn’t typical. I’m sure there are many reasons, but it’s an unfortunate loss, I think! But I think it’s a wonderful tradition, and now I have some new ways to think about it. Anywhere we can add a little graciousness…we need it! Debra

    1. Many of us still enjoy tea, Debra. It only takes 15 minutes to whip up and bake a round of scones; and jam and thick cream make a heaven of teatime, washed down with a cuppa πŸ™‚

  14. He seems like such an interesting man, Prince Albert. I remember stumbling on the monument in Hyde Park (I wandered a great deal in London) and getting a little weepy thinking about her losing him.

    And it is the little things. My first employers once offered me a beer and a slice of pizza at the end of a particularly difficult and late day. Then they gave me cab fare so I wouldn’t have to ride the subway alone that night. My loyalty never wavered after that night.

    It was not the most generous or impressive thing they ever did for me, but it’s the one I remember first.

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