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Hysteria in the Victorian Novel

17 Aug

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir writes that the hysteric reveals herself through her body’s uncontrollability, expressing her ambivalent position within patriarchal society:

the woman denies responsibility [for her body]; in sobs, vomiting, convulsions. It escapes her control, it betrays her; it is her most intimate verity, but it is a shameful verity that she keeps hidden. And yet it is also her glorious double; she is dazzled in beholding it in the mirror; it is promised happiness, work of art, living statue; she shapes it, adorns it, puts it on show.[1]

However, Victorian hegemony refused to acknowledge any positive aspect of the condition, instead emphasising only its shameful connotations. This bias originated from the dominant ontology of Cartesian dualism, which posited a mind/body division that gendered the intellect as masculine and bodily urges as feminine. Hysteria was thus regarded as the feminine escaping masculine control. As will be argued, since the masculine ‘universal signifying order’[2] of symbolic language posited ontological possibilities, the hegemonic order was thus able to exclude alternative forms of female being. Central to such a strategy was the medical profession’s enforcement of a Cartesian theory in which the distinct mind and body were gendered in order to maintain the notion of hysteria as a feminine source of shame. However, the psychosomatic nature of hysterical symptoms destabilised masculine Cartesian dualism and thus threatened one of the foundations upon which the hegemonic order rested.

This nineteenth century Cartesian interpretation of hysteria is portrayed by Charlotte Brontë through Lucy Snowe’s internalisation of patriarchal ideology. By accepting the theory of a division between ‘Spirit and Substance’[3] Lucy is indoctrinated to perceive them as ‘divorced mates…[which] were hard to re-unite: they greeted each other, not in an embrace, but a racking sort of struggle.’[4] Lucy has therefore internalised the separation between mind and body that was established to promote values of masculine rationality over feminine, bodily drives.

Such internalisation, however, while suppressing hysterical expression and ostensibly leaving masculine society undisturbed, merely contains rather than removes the hysterical threat. When confronted with emotional stress Lucy Snowe separates her ‘masculine’ rational faculties from her ‘female’ emotional chora:

Feeling and I turned Reason out of doors, drew against her bar and bolt…Reason would leap in, vigorous and revengeful.[5]

However, such a division results in only a temporary controlling of ‘Feeling’ as Lucy’s emotional angst still remains beneath her ostensibly calm exterior, becoming vicariously expressed. Her wish that Polly ‘would utter some hysterical cry, so that [she] might get relief and be at ease’[6] is granted when Polly does drop ‘on her knees at a chair with a cry’[7] and Lucy is suffused with calm. Such relief, however, is only temporary, and while Lucy exhibits no hysterical behaviour and therefore poses no threat to the fabric of masculine society, the transgressive potential remains.

While such a mind/ body division allows Lucy Snowe to resist hysterical expression and thus pose no challenge to the masculine order, the psychosomatic nature of hysteria destabilises the Cartesian binary that attempts to control it:

[t]he body of a woman …is a “hysterical” body, in the sense that there is, so to speak, no distance between the psychic life and its physiological realization[8].

Through reintegrating the mind and body into a single ontological, psychosomatic verity, hysteria undermines the masculine Cartesian project that provided a justification for the subjugation of women. Rather than utilising the symbolic, verbal, masculine language of reason, hysteria instead expresses itself via the pre-symbolic chora of the body to articulate female experience within patriarchal society. This is exemplified in Bronfen’s description of Bertha Mason:

[her] preternatural laugh, her eccentric murmurs, her threatening “snarling, snatching sound”, in fact recall Kristeva’s concept of the “semiotic chora”. For her husband she is all that lies below acceptable femininity, the feminine body as dangerous Other to man[9].

Despite destabilising the founding binary of the masculine order through its psychosomatic symptoms, hysteria was inadvertently encouraged by the patriarchal empiricist focus of medicalisation. While the physician recognised an increasing variety of physical symptoms they were less inclined to accept the veracity of purely mental phenomena owing to the difficulty of their measurement, quantification and authentication. Consequently, this created a culture in which women suffering from mental anxiety were forced to invent or disproportionately emphasise physical symptoms in order for their distress to be acknowledged. This is portrayed in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein Mrs Bennet calls attention to the physical aspects of her emotional discomfort in order for her turmoil to be validated:

“I am frightened out of my wits; and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me, such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.”[10]

Such intertwining of the mental and physical was a source of concern for the patriarchal order, as is depicted in contemporary newspaper articles, one reader of the Times noting:

the “tendency of women to morally warp when nervously ill,” and of the terrible physical havoc which the pangs of a disappointed love may work[11].Therefore, while hysterics were encouraged to express their ontological angst in the form of physical symptoms, the hegemonic order was increasingly preoccupied with hysteria’s destabilisation of the empiricist, medical organisation through the transformation of the purely physical into the psychosomatic.

However, the destabilisation of the mind/body binary also impacts upon the hysteric as rather than externally expelling drives using masculine signifying discourse, psychological states are expressed through the medium of the body. As Kristeva noted, language is a defensive construction which provides a means of channelling urges, in particular the death drive, outwith the body:

[language] protects the body from the attack of drives by making it a place…in which the body can signify itself through positions…language, in the service of the death drive, is a pocket of narcissism towards which this drive may be directed[12].

Therefore, hysterical communication that undermines Cartesian dualism by expressing mental affliction through the medium of the body potentially results in self-destructive behaviour:

the daughter who succumbed to hysteria typically turned her rage against herself in a kind of masochistic biting of her own tongue instead of using it aggressively against the other and silently mimed in her body the script that had entrapped her.[13]

As both subject and object, the body of the hysteric becomes the site of signification and is thus damaged by the violent communicative urges that result from coercion.

For patriarchal society the ultimate form of hysterical psychosomatic expression was menstruation and the challenge that it posed to the hegemonic order. The existence of menstruation provided patriarchy with an excuse for increased stricture, which in turn increased female need for transgressive hysterical expression, further undermining masculine control. The self-perpetuating nature of such a cycle is illustrated in Jane Eyre wherein a convulsive, hysterical fit of ‘wild struggling…is aggravated by attempts at restraint’[14]. For Jane, coercion and the threat of being ‘“tied down”’[15] promotes a hysterical reaction and ‘a species of fit’. The pervasive and nightmarish red of the room that is the site of Jane’s first hysterical experience prefigures her explosion of passion when ‘something spoke out of [her] over which [she] had no control.’[16] Since she tells Bessie that she will ‘“never leave Gateshead till [she is] a woman”’[17], Jane’s sudden departure from her aunt’s house shortly after her outburst indicates the commencement of menstruation, supporting Laycock’s argument that the ‘first appearance of this secretion is almost always accompanied by symptoms of hysteria”’[18]. Like insanity, menstruation ‘was seen as a physiological marker of social disruption’[19] and since it existed beyond masculine control was linked with both the chora and hysteria, characterised as an ‘[i]nner excess and uncontrollable flow [which] gives rise to outward symptoms of disorder’[20].

This association of hysteria with menstruation and the female reproductive system is additionally represented in masculine attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth and their potential destabilisation of the Cartesian binary. According to Fielding Blandford:

[w]omen become insane during pregnancy, after parturition, during lactation; at the age when the catamenia [menses] first appear and when they disappear….The sympathetic connection existing between the brain and the uterus is plainly seen by the most causal observer.[21]

The admission of a connection between the physical process of childbirth and the nebulous mental phenomena of hysteria, in particular during ‘the six week puerperal period [that] marked the time within which insanity of child-birth could develop’[22] created further dissonance within the founding myth of the hegemonic order. As the protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret states, she suffered from puerperal mania after ‘“[her] baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to [her] mother arose for [her].”’[23] While the novel hints at hereditary, organic origins for the condition, the confusion of precepts which were caused by the psychosomatic nature of hysteria is illustrated by the fact that ‘[p]uerperal insanity was broadly depicted as a category of moral, usually temporary, insanity’[24] and hence partially a mental phenomena rather than a purely physical form of pathology.

The psychosomatic nature of puerperal insanity also weakened other patriarchal principles, undermining theories of the inherent qualities of motherhood, domesticity and the urge to nurture. Since women were masculinity’s Other, destabilisation of femininity against which the patriarchal order defined itself accordingly undermined the certainty of hegemonic form. Therefore, ‘[c]ases of puerperal insanity seemed to violate all of Victorian culture’s most deeply cherished ideals of feminine propriety and maternal love…[and] their deviance covered a wide spectrum from eccentricity to infanticide.’[25] By associating infanticide with various forms of hysterical, post-natal mania, the hegemonic order created a culture in which it was believed that during the throws of hysteria ‘the mother became “forgetful of her child”, or expressed murderous intent toward the infant’[26].

This perceived connection between infanticide and puerperal hysteria is explored in Eliot’s Adam Bede wherein Hetty Sorrel is imprisoned ‘“[f]or a great crime – the murder of her child”’[27], claiming that she ‘“seemed to hate it – it was like a heavy weight hanging round [her] neck”’[28]. Bram Stoker’s Dracula also portrays infanticide in a reversed maternal image wherein rather than an infant feeding from its mother’s breast milk, Jonathon Harker hears ‘a gasp and a low wail, as of a half-smothered child’[29] as female vampires consume an infant’s blood. Therefore, contrary to the nurturing female body of Victorian ideology the hysteric is non-productive, devouring blood instead of producing milk. The vampires are the anti-mothers of patriarchal propaganda, consuming baby’s blood in order to feed themselves rather than supplying milk to nourish the child as the living dead feed on the newly born.

Therefore, this connection between puerperal mania and inverted motherhood provided the hegemonic order with a means of projecting hysteria upon its Other. As Sally Shuttleworth notes, during the Victorian era:

theories of mental degeneration and inherited brain disease came to the fore. In the post-Darwinian period, Henry Maudsley and others emphasised the inherited qualities of brain disease.[30]

Accordingly, responsibility for the hereditary transmission and existence of hysteria was displaced onto transgressive women. As it was believed that ‘insanity descends more often from the mother than the father, and from the mother to the daughters more often than to the sons’[31], rather than being the product of a failure in medical intelligibility hysteria was instead blamed upon female frailty.

The hereditable character of hysteria is portrayed by the eponymous protagonist of Lady Audley’s Secret who states that ‘“the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was–insanity!”’[32]. However, through its depiction of Lady Audley the novel also reveals the fundamentally unscientific nature of contemporary views concerning hysterical heredity. For the protagonist, her mother’s hysteria provides both an excuse and a justification for socially transgressive, homicidal behaviour:

“[t]he hereditary taint…was in my blood…at this time I became subject to fits of violence and despair. At this time I think my mind first lost its balance, and for the first time I crossed that invisible line which separates reason from madness.”[33]

The novel therefore fails to indicate whether Lady Audley becomes hysterical because of a heredity over which she has no control, or that she makes little attempt to control her actions since masculine assumptions of hysterical inheritance provide an excuse for her behaviour. There is therefore an inherent subtext to Lady Audley’s hysterical communication with which the prejudiced hegemonic order is unable to engage. Similarly, Bertha Mason Rochester also supposedly suffers from the taint of hereditary insanity:

“[m]y bride’s mother I had never seen: I understood she was dead. The honey-moon over, I learned my mistake; she was only mad, and shut up in a lunatic asylum.”[34]

Mr Rochester’s altered behaviour towards his bride is owing to this revelation. It is only after the marriage that ‘“the doctors now discovered that [his] wife was mad – her excesses had prematurely developed the germs of insanity”’[35]. As is the case with Lady Audley, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling and any other possible meaning that could be conveyed by hysterical communication is accordingly ignored. For the masculine order such self-perpetuation served to maintain the prejudice that underlay the assumptions of such theorists as Henry Maudsley. The fact that a correlation between hysteria and heredity could not prove direction or cause, or disprove the existence of wider social factors, was therefore disregard.

Accordingly, while the masculine order was aware of hysteria, there was no attempt to understand its meaning and hysterical language was interpreted in a manner that ensured maintenance of patriarchal dominance. By promoting a gendered Cartesian binary and diagnosing hysteria as a hereditary transmission, the hegemonic order attempted to control the condition and use its existence to justify masculine superiority and the need for medicalisation. However, due to the amorphous nature of hysteria and the psychosomatic quality of its symptoms, the condition undermined the masculine precepts of control. In doing so, hysteria not only challenged the fundamental binary of gender itself but also questioned the conceptions of inherent masculinity, femininity and the entire epistemological project of Victorian society.


Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] S. de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, ed. by H.M. Parshley (London: Pan Books, 1988), p.630

[2] J. Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, in T. Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader: Julia Kristeva (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p.113

[3] C. Brontë, Villette (London: Penguin Books, 2004), chapter 16

[4] ibid, chapter 16

[5] ibid, chapter 23

[6] ibid, chapter 2

[7] Brontë, Villette, chapter 3

[8] Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p.356

[9] E. Bronfen, Over her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p.221

[10] J. Austen, Pride and Prejudice in, The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), chapter 47

[11] Letter on Militant Hysteria – The Times, March 28, 1912 in, Sir A.E. Wright, The Unexpurgated Case Against Women Suffrage (London: Constable and Company, 1913), appendix, p.77

[12] Kristeva, ‘Revolution in Poetic Language’, p.103

[13] C. Kahane, Hysteria, Narrative, and the Figure of the Speaking Woman 1850-1915 (London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1995), p.37

[14] F.M.R. Walshe, Diseases of the Nervous System, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: E. & S. Livingstone, 1941), p.106

[15] C. Brontë, Jane Eyre (London: Penguin Books, 1996), I, chapter 2

[16] ibid, I, chapter 4

[17] ibid, I, chapter 3

[18] T. Laycock, An Essay on Hysteria, (Philadelphia: Haswell Barrrington Haswell, 1840), p.69 in, S. Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.78

[19] ibid, p78

[20] ibid, p.78

[21] G. Fielding Blandford, Insanity and its Treatment (Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea, 1871), p.69 in, E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), pp.56-7

[22] H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.50

[23] M.E. Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), III, chapter 3

[24] I. Loudon, ‘Puerperal Insanity in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 81 (1988), pp.76-9 in, H. Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania: the Domestic Treatment of the Insanity of Childbirth in the Nineteenth Century’ in, P. Bartlett and D. Wright, eds, Outside the Walls of the Asylum: The History of Care In the Community 1750-2000 (London: The Athlone Press, 1999), p.48

[25] E. Showalter, The Female Malady (London: Virago Press, 2004), p.58

[26] Morland, ‘At Home with Puerperal Mania’, p.48

[27] G. Eliot, Adam Bede (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), chapter 39

[28] ibid, chapter 45

[29] B. Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, 1994), p.53

[30] Shuttleworth, Charlotte Brontë and Victorian Psychology, pp.34-5

[31] H. Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind (London: Macmillan, 1867), p.216

[32] Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret, II, chapter 3

[33] ibid, II, chapter 3

[34] Brontë, Jane Eyre, III, chapter 1

[35] ibid, III, chapter 1

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)’.

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.”’

Corpulence and Class in Charlotte Brontë

16 Aug

Charlotte Brontë’s fleshy female characters are often portrayed as requiring discipline and self-control. Corpulence is equated with mental inferiority in Villette as the Belgian pupils are depicted as lacking the requisite discipline for intellectual pursuits. Lucy Snowe describes the dining habits of one of her students whose:

quantity of household bread, butter, and stewed fruit, she would habitually consume at “second dejeuner” was a real world’s wonder – to be exceeded only by the fact of her actually pocketing slices she could not eat.[1]

Likewise, William Crimsworth’s intellectually deficient pupil Eulalie is ‘all curve and roundness’.[2] Despite being fifteen, the ‘broad waist[ed]’[3] Adèle Dronsart is ‘as full grown as a stout young Englishwoman of twenty’.[4] The slenderness of the English female figure in comparison to that of the voluptuous Belgian woman is also observed by Lucy who remarks that:

[t]he Labassecouriennes demonstrate the same lack of discipline over their bodies as they do over their school work…The inherently greater intelligence of the English woman is reflected in her sylph-like body.[5]

Reflecting contemporary socio-economic prejudices Brontë conceives corpulent women as belonging to the uneducated lower classes. According to Krugovoy Silver she ‘equate[d] the slim body with the educated middle class, and the heavy body with the lower classes, thus echoing widely held Victorian beliefs.’[6] Housewives and servants are frequently described as physically large such as the ‘“two buxom lasses in pinafores”’[7] between which Robert Moore finds himself in Shirley and the ‘“red and robust”’[8] milkmaids observed by Caroline Helstone. In addition, Hortense is described as ‘stout’[9] and Mr Moore’s nurse is ‘“as round and big as our largest water-butt – a rough, hard-favoured old girl”’[10] whom Martin believes ‘“eats most of what goes up on the tray to Mr. Moore.”’[11] In Jane Eyre Miss Abbot has ‘a stout leg’[12] and the ‘heavy Welshwoman’[13] Miss Gryce who shares Jane’s room at Lowood exhibits snoring that is indicative of her gluttony and sloth: ‘the heavy supper she had eaten produced a soporific effect: she was already snoring before [Jane] had finished undressing.’[14] At Thornfield, Mr Rochester’s servant, Grace Poole, is described as ‘a set, square made figure’[15] who refuses to dine with the other servants, content with her ‘“pint of porter and a bit of pudding on a tray”’.[16]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Brontë, Villette, p.240

[2] Brontë, The Professor, p.65

[3] ibid, p.77

[4] ibid, p.77

[5] Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, p.106

[6] ibid, p.22

[7] Brontë, Shirley, p.247

[8] ibid, p.392

[9] ibid, p.59

[10] Brontë, Shirley, p.552

[11] ibid, p.553

[12] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.19

[13] ibid, p.100

[14] Brontë, Jane Eyre, p.102

[15] ibid, p.123

[16] ibid, p.178

Charlotte Brontë: Spirit and Substance

16 Aug

In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell writes that on the four mile journey from Keighley to Haworth ‘[t]he soil in the valley…is rich; but, as the road begins to ascend, the vegetation becomes poorer; it does not flourish, it merely exists’[1]. The land that surrounded the Brontës was sparse and produced little vegetation, merely crops of ‘pale, hungry-looking grey-green oats.’[2] At Haworth parsonage the flower-border underneath the windows was so infertile that ‘only the most hardy plants could be made to grow there’[3], while in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley Mr Moore’s garden soil offers ‘scanty brown stalks’[4] near his porch ‘and likewise beneath the windows – stalks budless and flowerless’[5].Charlotte’s physical and mental landscapes were therefore hostile, infertile and unproductive.

The fortunes of the Brontë family reflected the harshness of their environment since hereditary and congenital afflictions suppressed the appetite and caused wasting of the flesh. Charlotte’s mother Maria suffered from delicate health following the birth of her last child, Anne in which ‘[h]er constitution was enfeebled, and her frame wasted daily’[6]. The Brontë children were also fragile and susceptible to disease. Charlotte’s sister Maria is described as ‘delicate and small in appearance’[7], as is Anne who became ‘“very much emaciated…her arms…no thicker than a little child’s”’[8], a description also applicable to Emily who was buried in ‘the narrowest adult coffin the local carpenter had ever made.’ [9]

Such emaciation and physical frailty within the Brontë household were further accentuated through their unconventional attitude towards the family meal, a cornerstone of Victorian domestic life and an embodiment of middle-class affluence and health. However:

[o]wing to some illness of the digestive organs, Mr Brontë was obliged to be very careful about his diet; and, in order to avoid temptation, and possibly to have the quiet necessity for digestion, he had begun, before his wife’s death, to take his dinner alone, – a habit which he always retained.[10]

In Elizabeth Branwell’s later years, she too ‘took most of her meals, in her bed-room.’[11] Eating was therefore antisocial and the procuring and consuming of food was accomplished in secrecy, as portrayed in Jane Eyre. Jane’s procurement of a meal for Adèle and herself from the kitchen during a dinner party at Thornfield is covertly undertaken: ‘issuing from my asylum with precaution, I sought a back-stairs which conducted directly to the kitchen.’[12] After securing ‘a cold chicken, a roll of bread, some tarts, a plate or two and a knife and fork’[13] she ‘made a hasty retreat.’[14] Rather than the wholesome meals of the archetypical middle-class Victorian family, the novels of Charlotte Brontë portray scenes of concealed, shameful eating that are underscored by the constant threat of subdued appetite and emaciation.

Deprived of conventional meal times and the solace and community which they could afford, Charlotte attempted to bestow moral aspects upon her mental and physical capacities. By utilising the Cartesian division of a superior mind and inferior body, Charlotte valorised the intellectually rich but physically deprived household at Howarth parsonage, within which despite the fact that ‘“there was plenty and even waste”’, [15] Mr Brontë ‘“thought that children should be brought up simply and hardily: so they had nothing but potatoes for their dinner.”[16] Such a sentiment is voiced by Villette’s protagonist Lucy Snowe who articulates a distinction between ‘Spirit and Substance’[17], a concept portrayed in Plato’s Phaedo which condemns ‘pleasures concerned with the service of the body’[18], instead claiming that the soul ‘disdains the body, flees from it and seeks to be by itself’[19]. Plato’s pronouncement that death causes ‘the separation of the soul from the body’[20] is echoed in Shirley wherein Brontë depicts the soul’s flight and departure from the physical form. Caroline Helstone asserts that following death, the inferior body merely ‘falls, decays’[21] while the superior soul:

wings its long flight upward, folds its wings on the brink of the sea of fire and glass, and gazing down through the burning clearness, finds the sovereign Father, the mediating Son, the Creator spirit[22].

Bodily inferiority is further propounded in The Professor as William Crimsworth is too concerned with emotional and intellectual affairs to consider such ‘coarse cares as those of eating and drinking’[23].

Mental and spiritual phenomena are thus depicted as more profound sources of sustenance. According to Plato, it is only possible to attain knowledge via the soul’s disassociation from the body since ‘the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom’[24]. In order to ‘escape the contamination of the body’s folly’[25], Brontë’s heroines ensure that the soul does not become ‘infected with [the body’s] nature’[26]. In Jane Eyre Helen Burns speaks of the human physical form as the residence of sin hindering the spirit: when ‘“corruptible bodies”’[27] are discarded ‘“debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain”’[28].

Within such a conception bodily affliction is a means of achieving divine fulfilment. The promise of heavenly comfort following a life of physical suffering was advocated by Charlotte’s mother who said that ‘[i]f the children of the poor were famished and cold…[they must] turn the mind to the world to come’[29]. Mr Brocklehurst expounds upon this in asserting that he must ‘“punish [Jane’s] body to save her soul”’[30], thereby promoting physical suffering in order to turn the mind to heaven[31]. He thus reprimands Miss Temple for providing food for her famished pupils:

“when you put bread and cheese, instead of burnt porridge into these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls!”[32]

Likewise, Reverend William Carus Wilson, the establisher of Cowan Bridge School which was attended by Charlotte and her sisters claimed that ‘the children were to be trained up to regard higher things than dainty pampering of the appetite’[33]. The lower things to which he refers are matters of the flesh, equated with sexuality by Mr Brocklehurst who states that by depriving the girls of food he will fulfil his mission ‘“to mortify in these girls the lusts of the flesh”’[34]. In a manner similar to Charlotte’s father who ‘wished to make his children hardy, and indifferent to the pleasure of eating and dress,’[35] Mr Brocklehurst commands his pupils to disdain the corporeal and the material so as ‘“not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying”’.[36]

Charlotte Brontë therefore emphasises the moral quality of physical endurance and suffering since the immortal soul is deemed to be of more importance than the mortal body. In Shirley, Brontë writes that pain should be embraced for the purposes of moral development. Therefore, Caroline Helstone should welcome the wound which symbolises her grief:

[s]how no consternation; close your fingers firmly upon the gift; let it sting through your palm. Never mind; in time, after your hand and arm have swelled and quivered long with torture, the squeezed scorpion will die, and you will have learned the great lesson how to endure without a sob.[37]

Brontë urges those who are disappointed in love to endure their pain in order to learn stoicism. Thus, starvation is also a lesson in self-control as Brontë ‘repeatedly favours suffering over the easy pleasures of appetite and sexuality.’[38] Charlotte herself renounced bodily desire in favour of the soul as Gaskell states that ‘[i]t was inevitable that ‘the intensity of her feeling should wear out her physical health.’[39] Described as slender yet passionate, Charlotte Brontë was unfashionably ‘thin and expressive’[40], sacrificing her flesh to feed her fervent spirit. When George Henry Lewes met Charlotte in 1850 he described her as ‘“a little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid”, yet on the strength of the novels, Marian Evans saw more: “What passion, what fire in her!”’[41]

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] E. Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (London: The Penguin Group, 1985), p.55

[2] ibid, p.55

[3] ibid, p.55

[4] C. Brontë, Charlotte, Shirley (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993), p.58

[5] ibid, p.58

[6] Patrick Brontë to the Rev. John Buckworth, Near K., Yorkshire, November 27th., 1821, from M. Spark, The Brontë Letters (London: Macmillan, 1966), p.34

[7] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.84

[8] ibid, p.370

[9] L. Gordon, Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life (London: Vintage, 1995), p.186

[10] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.91

[11] ibid, p.98

[12] Jane Eyre (London: The Penguin Group, 1996), p.190

[13] ibid, p.190

[14] ibid, p.190

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

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

[17] Villette (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), p.185

[18] Plato, Phaedo, in Five Dialogues, trans. by G.M.A. Grube, 2nd edn (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 2002), p.101

[19] ibid, p.102

[20] ibid, p.101

[21] Brontë, Shirley, p.172

[22] ibid, p.172

[23] C. Brontë, The Professor (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994), p.180

[24] Plato, Phaedo, p.103

[25] Plato, Phaedo, p.104

[26] ibid, p.103

[27] Jane Eyre, p.69

[28] ibid, p.69

[29] Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.18

[30] Jane Eyre, p.78

[31] In Villette Lucy describes Catholicism which hindered spiritual growth owing to the obtainability of confession and indulgences. The Catholic ‘CHURCH strove to bring up her children, robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. “Eat, drink, and live!” she says. “Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.”’

[32] Jane Eyre, p.75

[33] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.103

[34] Jane Eyre, p.76

[35] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.88

[36] Jane Eyre, p.74

[37] Brontë, Shirley, pp.100-1

[38] A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.82

[39] Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, p.210

[40] Lyndall, Charlotte Brontë, p.219

[41] To Mrs Bray (15th Feb., 5th and 12th Mar. 1853), in Haight, ed., The George Eliot Letters, ii, 87, 91, 92, from Gordon, Charlotte Brontë, p.255