Charlotte Brontë’s Strange Little Figures

16 Aug

The heroines conceived by Charlotte Brontë’s are slender and, owing to their successful regulation of bodily appetite, embody contemporary ideals of the female form.[1] Elizabeth Gaskell describes Charlotte Brontë herself in 1831 as:

very small in figure – “stunted” was the word she applied to herself, – but as her limbs and head were in just proportion to the slight, fragile body, no word in ever so slight a degree suggestive of deformity could properly be applied to her[2].

Like Charlotte, Jane Eyre is slight, and in the red-room looking-glass perceives herself as a ‘strange little figure…like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’[3]. Caroline Helstone is also described as having ‘an apparently slender figure’[4] being ‘girlish, light, and pliant’[5], while Polly Home is a ‘small, delicate creature’[6] with ‘pale, small features…[and] fairy symmetry’[7]. Yet, despite being ‘exceedingly tiny’[8], Polly urges her father to put her down as she ‘“shall tire [him] with [her] weight.”’[9] Brontë states of the slender Polly that ‘the mighty burden slid to the rug’[10], reflecting Polly’s concern that she should inconvenience her father. Polly therefore maintains her fairy-like weight in order to be as small and as little trouble as possible so that her father will allow her to accompany him when travelling. Yet, ironically, it is because Polly is ‘“little and tender”’[11] that her father insists that she must stay with Mrs Bretton. At seventeen years old, Paulina still resembles a ‘mere doll’[12] as when Graham lifts her he remarks that ‘“[s]he is very light…like a child!”’[13]

However, while in some circumstances starvation may provide women with a means of self-control, it can only do so as long as starvation remains volitional. If control is lost or surrendered, the consumption of food instead becomes a tool of masculine domination. Rather than voluptuous, sexually aggressive women who threaten masculine agency, men advocate an ideal of female slenderness and ethereality. Brontë’s frail characters are perceived to be more desirable as, posing little physical challenge, they are easily brought within the domain of patriarchal control, wherein they can become domesticated and sexually dominated. Brontë’s male characters therefore desire women who are slim, child-like and vulnerable. Accordingly, Mr Rochester rejects the big and buxom Blanche Ingram. Instead, it is Jane, ‘“a beauty just after the desire of [his] heart, – delicate and aerial”’[14] whom he selects, causing Adèle to worry that Jane ‘“will have nothing to eat”’[15] and that Mr Rochester ‘“will starve her”’[16] in order to keep his ‘“pale, little elf”’[17] with ‘“fairy-like fingers”’[18]. Yet Rochester assures Adèle that he ‘“shall gather manna for [Jane] morning and night”’[19]. This God-given nourishment will thus provide her with divine sustenance, one befitting a spiritual, elf-like creature such as Jane. This indicates that, like the food that he offers, his love is divine, free from sin and sexual guilt.[20]

Similarly, in The Professor, Crimsworth rejects the plump Mademoiselle Reuter ‘a little and roundly formed woman’[21] who at the end of the novel ‘weighs twelve stones’[22] for the slim Frances Henri whose slight ‘figure might have suited seventeen’[23]. In comparison with the Belgian pupils, Frances is ‘less gifted with fullness of flesh and plenitude of blood’[24]. Likewise, in Villette Dr Bretton and M. Paul reject the image of the voluptuous female, Graham stating that ‘“le voluptueux” is little to [his] liking’[25] and Paul also conveying his dislike for the ‘huge, dark-complexioned gipsy-queen’[26] Cleopatra:

“[c]ela ne vaut rien…Une femme superbe – une taille d’imperatrice, des formes de Junon, mais une personne don’t je ne voudrais ni pour femme, ni pour fille, ni pour sœur. Aussi vous ne jeterez plus un seul coup d’œil de sa côté.”[27]

M. Paul’s preference for thin women is evident in the aversion of his gaze from the fleshy Cleopatra and the avidness with which he watches Lucy’s stage performance after depriving her of food. Imprisoned by M. Paul in a ‘solitary and lofty attic’[28] Lucy states that:

I, who had eaten nothing since breakfast, grew excessively hungry…(I had seen in the vestibule a basketful of small pâtés à la crême, than which nothing in the whole range of cookery seemed to me better). A pâté, or a square of cake, it seemed to me would come very apropos; and as my relish for these dainties increased, it began to appear somewhat hard that I should pass my holiday, fasting and in prison.[29]

Upon her release, Lucy complains ‘“J’ai bien faim”’[30] to which M. Paul responds with quasi force-feeding:

[t]he cook was imperatively ordered to produce food, and I, as imperatively, was commanded to eat…M. Paul superintended my repast, and almost forced upon me more than I could swallow.[31]

M. Paul also asserts that he would compel Lucy to take a dose of bitters, despite her protestation that:

“I never liked bitters; nor do I believe them wholesome. And to whatever is sweet, be it poison or food, you cannot, at least, deny its own delicious quality – sweetness. Better, perhaps, to die quickly a pleasant death, than drag on long a charmless life.”[32]

In reply, M. Paul consuls ‘“you should take your bitter dose duly and daily, if I had the power to administer it; and, as to the well-beloved poison, I would, perhaps, break the very cup which held it.”’[33] Despite his ostensible preference for slender women, M. Paul forces food upon Lucy in order to exercise control over her consumption. Rather than an intrinsic dislike of fat, he instead condemns female volition and self-indulgence, with its potential for sexual assertion.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] In contrast to Brontë’s slim heroines, those who oppose them are voluptuous and therefore morally inferior: ‘Mrs Reed was rather a stout woman’ of ‘robust frame, square shouldered and strong-limbed’. Madame Beck is ‘a motherly, dumpy little woman’ she is ‘short and stout’, Dr John calls Madame Beck ‘the little buxom widow’. Blanche Ingram is described by Mr Rochester as ‘”big, brown, and buxom”’.

[2] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.124

[3] Jane Eyre, pp.21-2

[4] Brontë, Shirley, p.65

[5] ibid, p.71

[6] Villette, p.293

[7] ibid, p.150

[8] ibid, p.10

[9] Villette, p.22

[10] ibid, p.22

[11] ibid, p.25

[12]  Villette, p.10

[13] ibid, p.291

[14] Jane Eyre, p.291

[15] ibid, p.299

[16] ibid, p.299

[17] ibid, p.290

[18]Jane Eyre, p.291

[19] ibid, p.299

[20]Rochester assumes the patriarchal role in assuming the role of Moses as he leading both himself and Jane out of slavery. He is released from the slavery marriage to a lunatic and Jane is emancipated from her occupation as a governess which is frequently referred to as slavery in Brontë’s novels.Rochester tells Jane that when they are married ‘“[y]ou will give up your governessing slavery at once”’.

[21] Brontë, The Professor, p.60

[22] ibid, p.212

[23] ibid, p.95

[24] ibid, p.95

[25] Villette, p.230

[26] ibid, p.224

[27] ibid, p.228. ‘“It is of no value…A superb woman – a figure of an empress, the form of Juno [the Roman goddess of marriage and childbirth], but not a woman I would want as a wife, a daughter, or a sister. Also you will not look one more time in her direction.”’

[28] Villette, p.148

[29] ibid, p.150

[30] Villette, p.150

[31] ibid, p.151. The full quotation contains the words ‘[t]o my great joy this food was limited to coffee and cake: I had feared wine and sweets, which I did not like. How he guessed that I should like a petit pâté à la crème I cannot tell; but he went out and procured me one from some quarter. With considerable willingness I ate and drank, keeping the petit pâté till that last, as a bonne bouche.’ Lucy does not like sweet food, even though she states elsewhere that she would rather have a short and sweet life than a long and bitter. She saves the best food until last, therefore inflicting delayed gratification upon herself.

[32] Villette, p.259

[33] Villette, p.259. In contrast, Dr John administers sugared water to Madame Beck’s daughter Fifine, because she will believe that it will assist her recovery:: ‘he called for a glass of eau sucrée, fed her with some teaspoonful of the sweet liquid (Fifine was a frank gourmande; any body could win her heart through her palate)’.


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