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In the December 1885 Lippincott's Magazine article COOKHAM DEAN, about an artistic area 40 miles up the Thames from London, Margaret Bertha Wright (an American author) wrote:

Probably nine-tenths of the Continental artists who are not entirely beyond the dread of yet eating "mad cow" travel third-class. But Dean artists, however they may travel when out of England, generally slip quietly away from the sight of their acquaintances when their tickets are other than at least second. Our Bohemian was once presented with a second-class ticket to London. As he scrambled in upon the unwonted luxury of cushioned seats, he saw familiar faces blushing furiously.

"The first time we ever travelled second-class in our lives," murmured Materfamilias.

"I too," responded the cheeky Bohemian.

I'm having trouble understanding the meaning of

not entirely beyond the dread of yet eating "mad cow"

The overall meaning may be something along the lines that 90% of Continental artists who aren't rich travel third-class, but that those residing at Cookham Dean are less oblivious to social scorn and don't willingly travel so. Such a meaning would fit into the context of the article.

Can someone who is actually familiar with what eating “mad cow” meant in 1885 please properly construe the sentence?

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In The Transactions of the American Medical Association, Volume 9 from 1856, "mad cow" is used to refer to a cow with rabies (or hydrophobia).

there were at least seven mad dogs, probably more, one mad cow, and two rabid human beings in that part of the country during that period, all of whom died

The article is referring to the poverty and lack of finesse of Continental Bohemian artists compared with their counterparts from Cookham Dean. Hence, the sentence

Probably nine-tenths of the Continental artists who are not entirely beyond the dread of yet eating "mad cow" travel third-class.

is an expression of the Continentals' poverty, in that beef that would normally be destroyed, or declared unfit for human consumption, would be affordable and thus palatable to them. I'm not convinced, though, that anyone would eat rabies-infected beef, so it is presumably a generic term for cattle that are not of prime quality, and hence would be sold off at a grossly reduced price.

Explanation from Balzac - 1895

In Scenes of Parisian Life is the following paragraph:

"Confess that they are sadly in need of being taught how to live, and that you and Colleville are feeding on what is known as mad cow,* an old acquaintance of mine! But those Minards what ghastly cupidity! Your daughter would be forever lost to you ; these parvenus have all the vices of the great nobles of the old days without their refinement Their son, who has twelve thousand a year, can find women enough in the Potasse family without their dragging the rake of their speculation through this house. What fun it is to play on such fellows as one plays on a tuba or a clarionet!"

with the footnote

  • To feed on mad cow (manger de la vache enragée) is an idiomatic expression meaning; to be reduced to the point of eating the meat of a cow that had gone mad, that is to say, to be reduced to extreme destitution.

There is an explanation of the phrase (in French) in Wikipedia My translation is this:

Etymology Created in the 18th century, the expression came from the fact that during periods of deprivation, one is ready to anything to find nourishment, including eating sick animals such as mad cow

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After reading the whole of Margaret Bertha Wright's article, I can confidently say that all the (now deleted) speculation here pertaining either to 'mad cow disease' (bovine spongiform encephalopathy / BSE), or to the dining facilities aboard Victorian-era English trains and what victuals might be served there, is misplaced.

Margaret Wright's article makes great play of the social embarrassment of the British artists inhabiting the Cookham Dean artists' colony at actually either being impoverished, or fearing that they might be perceived to be so.

Wright contrasts their attitude with the less wealth- and status-conscious visiting Continental artists who are also staying there, and some of whom regularly have to pawn their valuables to make ends meet. To begin with, says Wright, the Continentals feel no inhibition about confessing to this practice. But soon the English mentality of being ashamed of one's poverty starts to infect them too:

It may be observed, however, that here, as everywhere else in this right little tight little isle, where habit is the very antithesis of the airy license of "Abroad," it is not, as it is in the artistic haunts of the Continent, en règle [socially acceptable] to vaunt one's self on the paucity of one's shekels or to acknowledge acquaintance with the Medici's pills in their modern form of the Three Golden Balls. [the traditional emblem of the pawnbroker's shop.]

Once upon a time, in a Barbizon auberge, a certain famous artist and incorrigible Bohemian brought down the table by describing an incident of his releasing a friend's valuables from durance. [captivity in a pawnbroker's establishment.]

"The moment I turned in at the Mont de Piété," he said, "my watch took fright, and stopped ticking on the spot."

That same Bohemian, after years of the Latin Quarter and Mont de Piété, found himself one summer on the Dean. One evening at the porch of Ye Hutte [a large shared artists studio] he met a lively group of painters and paintresses, just returned from corn-field and meadow.

During the short halt the Bohemian's watch was so largely and frequently en évidence as to attract attention.

"Yes," he said, with colossal, adamantine impudence, "I've just got it back from a two-years' visit to 'my uncle'." [the pawnbroker.]

Only a few evenings later the same party met again in the same spot.

"What time is it, Mr. S——?" asked Sophia Primrose, amiably disposed to resuscitate a forlorn joke.

A mammoth blush submerged the luckless Bohemian. For Dean propriety was already becoming engrafted upon Continental habit, and he crimsoned at having to confess what once he would have proclaimed upon the house-top,—that his watch was again with his "uncle."

Probably nine-tenths of the Continental artists who are not entirely beyond the dread of yet eating "mad cow" travel third-class. But Dean artists, however they may travel when out of England, generally slip quietly away from the sight of their acquaintances when their tickets are other than at least second. Our Bohemian was once presented with a second-class ticket to London. As he scrambled in upon the unwonted luxury of cushioned seats, he saw familiar faces blushing furiously.

"The first time we ever travelled second-class in our lives," murmured Materfamilias. [Presumably from embarrassment at finding herself seated alongside someone that she regarded as her social inferior.]

"I too," responded the cheeky Bohemian.

I found another reference to 'eating mad cow' in a French novel titled The Conscript, written by Emile Erckmann and Alexandre Chatrian in the 1860s and published in an English-language translation in 1908:

Then the old soldier said to me—
"You are going to rejoin?"
"Yes, the 6th, at Torgau."
"And where do you come from?"
"From Leipsic, out of hospital."
"Yes. one can see that," said he; "you're as fat as a dean. You've been fed on legs of fowl down yonder while we've been eating mad cow."
I looked at my sleeping neighbors, and I saw that he was right. These poor conscripts were reduced to skin and bone; they were yellow, and lined and furrowed like veterans; one would have thought that they could never hold out longer.

Evidently, the expression 'eating mad cow' probably had more to do with living in a state of poverty in a general sense than with the actual nature or composition of one's diet. Hence 'to eat mad cow' in the context of these texts simply means 'to be on one's uppers', 'to live like a pauper'.

So the author's observation that Probably nine-tenths of the Continental artists who are not entirely beyond the dread of yet eating "mad cow" travel third-class is a reference to the fact that 90% of those Continental artists who fear being reduced to poverty decide to travel by the cheapest possible means, i.e. in a third-class railway carriage.

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    Glancing through a few Google Books references to "mad cow" from the decade before and after OP's citation, it seems to me it was often attributed to rabies. Thoroughly cooked meat from a rabid animal wouldn't be infectious (esp if you avoided nerve tissue such as brains), but they probably weren't too sure about such matters back then. Besides which there's the "yuck factor", which is why most people wouldn't willingly eat a rabbit that had died from myxomatosis. So I think you're quite right - it's on a par with poverty = having a can of dog food for dinner. – FumbleFingers Dec 16 '14 at 14:23
  • @fumblefingers I have also seen "mad [animal]" used as a synonym of "[animal] having rabies", most prominently in "To kill a mockingbird" (where the animal in question is a dog). Although I'm not sure that a cow can catch rabies, or if yes, if it's common enough to give rise to such an expression. – rumtscho Dec 16 '14 at 15:20
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    @rumtscho: All mammals can catch rabies, but I wouldn't go so far as to say "eating mad cow" was ever really an "expression" in the sense of being generally understood by a significant number of native speakers as meaning "so poor as to be forced to eat rotten or diseased meat". – FumbleFingers Dec 16 '14 at 16:06

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