Food and Desire in Charlotte Brontë

16 Aug

In the novels of Charlotte Brontë, over-consumption is associated with excessive sexuality. Voluptuous characters satiate their desires for both food and sex without restraint. When invited to dine with Madame Pelet, Crimsworth interprets her offering of food as an invitation to feast with her and upon her:“[s]urely she’s not going to make love to me…I’ve heard of old Frenchwomen doing odd things in that line; and the goûter! They generally begin such affairs with eating and drinking, I believe.”[1]

Crimsworth gains evidence for his conviction by observing that the supposedly amorous old women ate ‘with no delicate appetite; and having demolished a large portion of the solids, they proposed a petit verre.’ [2] The association of hunger with sexual appetite is further propounded in Villette as the flirtatious Ginevra Fanshawe rejects the school’s ‘salt-fish and hard eggs’[3], preferring to indulge in sweet cuisine:[a]t all ordinary diet and plain beverage she would pout; but she fed on creams and ices like a humming-bird on honey-paste: sweet wine was her element and sweet cake her daily bread.[4]

Like the voluptuous and exhibitionistic Ginevra who ‘was in her element’[5] coquetting ‘between two suitors’[6] during the theatricals, the image of a fleshy Cleopatra that Lucy gazes upon at the gallery is openly displayed as a visual gourmet to be consumed by the onlooker:

[s]he was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher’s meat – to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids – must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh.[7] The meat to which Lucy refers was traditionally associated with sexuality. Elaine Showalter writes that:

[d]isgust with meat was a common phenomenon among Victorian girls; a carnivorous diet was associated with sexual precocity, especially with an abundant menstrual flow, and even with nymphomania.[8]

Therefore, spirited sexual behaviour could be prevented by avoiding meat. Mrs Brontë’s nurse described Maria’s children as ‘“spiritless…[i]n part, I set it down to a fancy Mr Brontë had of not letting them have flesh-meat to eat”’.[9] As a consequence, gluttony and excessive meat consumption are strongly condemned in Brontë’s novels.[10] In The Professor, Hunsden reprimands Crimsworth for dining upon meat: ‘“[c]old meat!…what a glutton you are, man! Meat with tea! You’ll die of eating too much.”’[11]

Since voluptuous women were perceived as capable of devouring men as well as food they were depicted as monstrously unfeminine, even vampiric. In contrast to the ‘“fairy-like”’[12] Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is ‘a big woman’[13], ‘tall and large’[14] whose ‘“bulk”’[15] Mr Rochester compares with Jane’s ‘“form”’[16]. Such monstrous portrayal is echoed by Jane herself who describes Bertha’s features as ‘“[f]earful and ghastly”’[17], reminiscent ‘“[o]f the foul German spectre – the Vampyre”’[18]. Consequently, Mr Rochester states that the habit of his sexually excessive wife is to attack people and ‘“bite their flesh from their bones”’[19]. Vampire-like, Bertha springs at Mr Rochester, ‘grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek’[20]. Her lust for blood is insatiable as Mr Mason recounts how during Bertha’s attack she ‘“sucked the blood: she said she’d drain [his] heart”’[21].

This ‘sexual “hunger” that, according to Sandra Gilbert, all the women in this novel…repress’[22] establishes a moral dimension to Brontë’s depiction of food: bodily appetite should be controlled since over-consumption denotes excessive sexuality endangering the soul’s salvation.[23] Accordingly, Brontë conceives corpulent women as morally corrupt, lascivious and even vampiric owing to their desire for physical gratification.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Brontë, The Professor, p.54

[2] ibid, p.55

[3] Brontë, Villette, p.94

[4] ibid, pp.156-7

[5] Brontë, Villette, p.155

[6] ibid, p.155

[7] ibid, p.223

[8] E. Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.129

[9] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.87

[10] Not only is fat is associated with sexuality, it also has connotations with slovenliness. In Villette Cleopatra is surrounded by ‘wretched untidiness’ and ‘an absurd and disorderly mass of curtain upholstery’. Lucy describes the painting in which Cleopatra ‘lay half-reclined on a couch: why, it would be difficult to say; broad daylight blazed round her; she appeared in hearty health, strong enough to do the work of two plain cooks; she could not plead a weak spine; she ought to have been standing, or at least sitting bolt upright. She had no business to lounge away thenoon on a sofa.’

[11] Brontë, The Professor, p.35

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.291

[13] ibid, p.328

[14] ibid, p.317

[15] ibid, p.329

[16] ibid, p.329

[17] ibid, p.317

[18] ibid, p.317

[19] ibid, p.339

[20] ibid, p.328

[21] ibid, p.239

[22] S. M. Gilbert, ‘Jane Eyre and the Secrets of Furious Lovemaking’, in
Novel: a Forum on Fiction, 31:3 (1998), pp.351-372 <> [accessed5 September 2007]

[23] The disgust for fat even extends to female perceptions of male bodies: Mrs Bretton says of her son ‘“[h]e used to be slender as an eel, and now I fancy in him a sort of heavy-dragoon bent – a beef-eater tendency. Graham, take notice! If you grow fat I disown you.”’


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