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Women’s Suffrage: The Shut Mouth and Forced Ingestion

26 Aug

On the 5th of July 1909, female self-starvation became politicised as WSPU member Marion Wallace Dunlop initiated a hunger strike within Holloway Goal. Suffragettes famously embarked upon this strike in order to protest their confinement and punishment for public acts of physical insubordination that included breaking windows and chaining themselves to railings. Their rejection of food was a reaction to the government’s refusal to grant them the status of political prisoners. Rather than taking notice of and meeting the hunger strikers’ demands, however, the authorities responded with forcible-feeding.

The late Victorian contest for control of the female body reaches its apogee in the battle for woman’s suffrage. The female mouth, in this instance, which has been open in protest and then closed in resistance, becomes a site that embodies the sexual and political violence always present but often hidden in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century discourse on women’s ‘aberrant’ eating behaviours.

The hunger strikes that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century were not isolated incidents but were a product of the Victorian debate surrounding female eating habits. Women’s dietary requirements were monitored throughout the 1800s when there was much discussion upon the subject of what was appropriate for a woman to participate in or consume. According to newspaper articles and etiquette guides, women ought to eat less than men, while certain foods were considered altogether unsuitable. These restrictions that were placed upon the female body possessed a moral dimension since appetite was connected with sexuality. Woman’s hunger and consumption were therefore subject to constant regulation.

When the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded in 1903, its members endeavoured to gain recognition as subjective individuals, rather than submit to being defined in terms of their physiological form. One of the aims of the WSPU was to alter the perception that women were closely connected with their bodies. Ironically, this was achieved by starving the very object by which they were defined. Since it was problematic to classify women using bodies that were severely diminished by hunger strike, self-starvation contested the relationship between women and their physical form. The suffragettes used this bodily presence / absence to obtain a political and public existence.

Suffragettes campaigned for sexual equality and to alter patriarchal perceptions of women. Bodies were central to this agenda, Lucy Bland arguing that the suffrage movement aimed to achieve ‘the eradication of women’s experience of sexual objectification, sexual violence, and lack of bodily autonomy’. Medico-legal structures justified denying women admission to ‘masculine’ social and political spheres by pointing to the female body’s natural physical weakness in comparison to its masculine counterpart and arguing that a woman’s energy should be preserved for conceiving and bearing children.

The nineteenth century woman was defined in terms of her use as a reproductive entity. The productive capabilities of the female body and its social and political application are articulated by Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, within which he argues that the ‘political investment of the body is bound up, in with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is invested with relations of power and domination’. Perceived as objects that produce, rather than subjects who consume, a power dynamic was established in which women were reduced to their physical form and thus denied a political and legal existence. Foucault asserts, however, that this subjection was necessary in order to maintain women’s situation as productive beings: its constitution as labour power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection…the body becomes a useful force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body.

Prior to the suffrage movement, women who were restricted by their role as producers protested this situation by engaging in self-starvation which suspended the body’s ability for production. The refusal to eat functioned as a female protest tactic throughout the nineteenth century and reached its climax in the hunger strikes of 1909. Women’s bodies that had been exploited for their reproductive capacities were reclaimed by the suffragettes, who, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, aimed to achieve emancipation from domestic life, taking their campaign to extreme measures using militant protest.

Jane Marcus develops the concept of rejecting these traditional female roles that were connected with the body, arguing that ‘[w]hen woman, quintessential nurturer, refuses to eat, she cannot nurture the nation.’ In a ‘symbolic refusal of motherhood’, the suffragettes refused to be defined in terms of the body and its capacity for bearing and nurturing children. In doing so, they challenged woman’s social responsibility of caring for the family, which in turn served as a microcosm of the state. Rejecting their maternal position within the familial sphere through self-starvation was therefore also a threat to the future of society as a whole.

Prior to the nineteenth century, bodies were publicly exploited to exemplify unlawful behaviour. Punishment was a universal spectacle that focussed upon the body with frequent executions and branding of criminals. However, during the 1800s, ‘the great spectacle of physical punishment disappeared; the tortured body was avoided; the theatrical representation of pain was excluded from punishment.’ The suffragettes revived the spectacular element of punishment by bringing the suffering body back into the public view through inflicting the self-punishment of hunger strike. This in turn initiated further physical ‘punishment’ through force-feeding which, owing to its widespread report in contemporary literature and illustrations, enabled the suffering body to once more assume centre stage. The suffragette in her solitary cell thus became the protagonist of her own theatrical production that was viewed by thousands.

Foucault, on the other hand, argues that following the close of the eighteenth century, bodies became unimportant in terms of punishment and were only touched in order ‘to reach something other than the body itself.’ The body was thought of as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. The suffragettes, however, demonstrated that the imprisoned body did not merely serve as an intermediary, but was itself a symbol of woman’s experience, damaged and starved by political inequalities. Assuming the role of their own torturers, these women inflicted punishment upon themselves in order to illustrate the injurious potential of being denied access to the public sphere. The suffragettes were thereby able to expose the extent of their political and social reduction through the spectacle of their bruised and emaciated bodies.

While Foucault writes that as an instrument, the body ‘is caught up in a system of constraints and privations, obligations and prohibitions’, the suffragettes revealed the extent to which their bodies were already constrained. The nineteenth-century woman was bound by patriarchal society, defined in terms of her body and imprisoned within the domestic sphere. Incarceration only served to exaggerate women’s social and political position, while the hunger strike called attention to female minds that were starved of education and employment.

The nineteenth-century female body is inextricably linked to punishment, politics and power. According to Foucault, the body and the ‘power relations’ with which it is invested are always central to punishment since: in our societies, the systems of punishment are to be situated in a certain “political economy” of the body…it is always the body that is at issue – the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.

These power relations are clearly played out in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes and government force-feeding, wherein the struggle to assume control of the female body accords with Foucault’s notion of power. Rather than being distributed throughout society via a ‘top-down’ system originating from a single patriarchal source, ‘power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate’. The suffragettes’ power lay in their decision to embark upon a hunger strike, which in turn provoked medical response to force-feed the starving women. In the power struggle between the prison doctor and the suffragette, the hunger strike left women weak and seemingly more malleable to masculine authority. Yet, the prisoners were able to use this weakness as a form of power. Roberts write that ‘[t]he hunger strike was a species of passive resistance’, a phrase which critic Jane Marcus also uses to describe hunger striking, adding that it was a ‘weapon…used by the obviously weak against the powerful’. The suffragettes were far from weak, however, their very imprisonment suggests that they were in fact regarded as a powerful group since otherwise they would pose no threat and would not require incarceration.

It is particularly significant that the body was used as a tool to gain political status at the end of the nineteenth century, coming shortly after the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873 and in a century obsessed with the regulation of female bodies and women’s relation to food. W. Vandereycken and Ron Van Deth question whether ‘the self-starvation of anorexic patients perhaps served as an example? Or had anorexia itself been an expression of silent protest within the walls of the Victorian bourgeois home?’ Female self-starvation, both in the form of anorexia nervosa and the suffragette hunger strike, have the same origin. They arise as part of the battle for control of the female body within Victorian society. Suffragette prisoners and women diagnosed as anorexic both used food refusal as a weapon against patriarchal authority. Both wanted to be perceived as volitional beings, rather than the ‘weaker’ sex, defined in terms of the body and governed by its reproductive organs.

Despite the connection between anorexia nervosa and hunger strikes, however, the motives behind anorexic and hysterical self-starvation were regarded as distinct from that of suffragette prisoners. While Gull identified his patients as suffering from ‘mental perversity’ and Lasègue theorised that anorexia was hysterical in origin, suffragettes starved themselves in protest against the government’s refusal to grant them first division status. According to a report published in The British Medical Journal in 1912, this meant that they were ‘in a normal mental condition, which cannot be said of the patients who refuse food in the asylums’ since ‘there is certainly no evidence of “hysteria”’. Whereas suffragettes ceased self-starvation once they reached their political goal, the goal of the anorexic could only be achieved once patriarchy ceased its attempt to control female bodies and women’s lives in general.

Tamar Heller and Patricia Moran maintain that ‘the anorexic—like her discursive and etiological sister, the hysteric—is apparently on a hunger strike against domesticity and the lack of nourishment it provides for women, the kind of hunger for a sphere outside the domestic’. The suffragette hunger strikers campaigned for emancipation from the private sphere for all women, whereas the anorexic’s food refusal was part of an individual battle to gain control of her own body. By refusing to eat, the suffragettes transformed self-starvation from the personal to the political.

Foucault states that ‘in punishment-as-spectacle…it was always ready to invert the shame inflicted on the victim into pity or glory’. This was revived by the hunger strikers since their capacity to maintain their fasting, despite the violent force-feeding, glorified them as strong, determined individuals. Government authorities attempted to prevent this when on the 18th March, 1912 in response to a declaration that forcible-feeding should be stopped, the Home Secretary ‘firmly disagree[d], foreseeing mass suffrage martyrdom.’

With the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, self-starvation was viewed as a shameful illness that must be treated privately in the home or hospital before the patient was able to return to society. From a personal affair acted out within the privacy of the middle-class bourgeois home between the anorexic girl, her family and the attending physician, with the arrival of suffragette hunger strikers self-starvation became a public spectacle.

Unlike in the cases of anorexia nervosa, suffragette hunger striking was not the behaviour of individual women, but a political act in which many came together and starved themselves en masse. While medical practitioners and government officials considered hunger striking to be rebellious or suicidal, in reality its aim was to call attention to the political motive for what were judged as criminal offences.

The government and the medical establishment also held the belief that the hunger strikes were an attempt to reduce prison sentences. One physician, Dr Nesbit, writes that the hunger strikes were carried out as a method of avoiding punishment, describing the behaviour as ‘“a very cheap way of escaping the penalty of the law”’. A report published three years later, however, disagrees, stating that ‘[t]he suffrage prisoners…have never hunger struck to shorten their sentences, but only to obtain equality of prison treatment for prisoners convicted of like offences’.

Since their campaign was political, rather than personal, the imprisoned women only refused food until their demands were met. The true motives for the hunger strike are recounted by suffragettes themselves in fictional and autobiographical writings, such as K. Roberts’ ‘Some Pioneers and a Prison’, published in 1913. In her work, Roberts reveals that since petitions proved useless in gaining first division status, ‘it was determined to make a protest by politely and quietly declining to wear the prison clothes and eat the prison food’. Members of the WSPU protested ‘against second division treatment, among ordinary criminals, being given to a woman who had committed political offences.’ The narrator does not consider her actions to be ‘an offence at all’, but merely a demonstration against the inequality of government law.

Self-starvation was a protest against injustice, not only of women’s treatment in general, but of the way in which the campaign against this injustice was perceived by authority figures. In a report published in 1909, C. Mansell Moullin writes that: they are fighting for a political idea. Even the Government, though it will not treat them as political prisoners, does not venture to deny that. For this they are being treated as common criminals, in a way that men never are, and forcible feeding is resorted to because that is the only way in which the Government can make the continuance of their punishment as common criminals possible. By diagnosing suffragette behaviour as criminal, the government was able to discount women’s appeal for political power.

Similarly, a few decades earlier, physicians had diagnosed women who took control of their own bodies through self-starvation as being of unsound mind and suffering from the ‘disease’ anorexia nervosa. Nineteenth-century patriarchal structures defined what they considered to be undesirable behaviour as criminal, insane or the result of physical illness in order to justify ignoring female subjectivity. Women’s efforts to challenge the status quo through political protest or by attempting to gain ownership of their bodies were discounted by the government, which defined their actions as abnormal or dangerous and requiring imprisonment and medical treatment.

Even though the days of the body as spectacle were over, authority figures continued in their attempt to regulate and normalise the rebellious female body. In the nineteenth century, ‘a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists, educationalists’. Foucault’s argument that the executioner was replaced by the physician suggests that medical examination and treatment of the body is as violating as the pain and suffering caused by a public death.

J.S. Edkins, however, disagrees with this association, instead aiming to elevate the physician. Edkins’ remarks are one example of the opposition raised in the case of treating healthy women, writing that the use of force-feeding is ‘derogatory to the dignity of the medical profession that its members should be called in to treat with force healthy but recalcitrant prisoners.’ There is a suggestion in this of the status of the profession being removed only in degree from that of common executioner or flogging warder. According to this report, the suffragettes ought not be made to suffer the physical ‘punishment’ of force-feeding since this is beneath the dignity of the medical practioner whose job it should be to treat ill patients, rather than to administer violent procedures upon a healthy subject.

Despite this account, however, prison medical authorities did force-feed women, treating them as mere objects to be kept alive, while ignoring their mental state and subjectivity. This is exemplified in C. Lytton’s ‘Prisons and Prisoners’, the narrator of which relates that following her sixth force-feeding: ‘I complained to the doctor that the processes of digestion were absolutely stagnant. I suggested to him that he should leave out one meal, with a view to allowing the natural forces of the body to readjust themselves. The physician’s response symbolises masculine reactions to the suffragette campaign as a whole: ‘[h]e did not answer me, but turned to the head assistant…“Do you understand her? I don’t”’. Rather than treating the narrator as a reasonable being, the doctor finds her words nonsensical and he chooses to ignore her plea.

The suffragette’s perceivably incomprehensible words match her ‘irrational’ actions. The female language of self-starvation is dismissed by patriarchal authority as the ramblings of a lunatic. Some physicians diagnosed self-starvation itself as the symptom of an unbalanced mind, Dr Nesbit stating that: [i]f an otherwise healthy individual refuses food to the injury of her health and danger to her life, she is without doubt to my mind temporarily insane, just as much as a person taking a dose of poison in similar circumstances. Let the idea be what it may—political or otherwise—the mind is unhinged, and the individual must be guarded against herself. Forcible-feeding was thus justified by diagnosing hunger striking as the result of insanity, the subject’s lack of rational thought suggesting that she is incapable of decision making and does not really intend self-harm.

Richard Smith points to the ethical implications involved in allowing the hunger strike to continue: ‘even though he might start his strike in his right mind, sometime before he dies (and usually only very shortly before) he loses his faculties. How then for the next few days can the doctor continue to be sure that the prisoner knows what he is doing and wants to continue? He cannot.’ It may be questioned why women chose a form of protest that deliberately reduced and weakened their bodies, thus confirming patriarchal views that women were too frail to be granted political power. According to Adrienne Munich: they may have been responding, in part, to seductions of a dominant middle-class culture that claimed that women’s bodies, as well as political aspirations, should be small and subject to regulatory control. I add that the suffragettes challenged this masculine version of the ideal woman by using their physical fragility as a power mechanism to make a political statement. By purposefully weakening their bodies, the hunger strikers demonstrated, in an extreme form, the state in which they were kept by those who demanded their restriction to the private sphere. The vote would therefore enable women to exercise their full potential and develop as subjective individuals, rather than being reduced and inhibited by government law.

This was symbolised in suffrage propaganda, which Linda Schlossberg notes, ‘frequently imagines the vote itself to be a kind of sustenance’. Denied a voice, the suffragettes called attention to the fact that their political exclusion was a form of intellectual starvation. Their political non-existence thus became physically expressed through their wasting bodies. Self-starvation was not only a political statement; it was also a method of self-control achieved through refusing physical penetration. The politics of desire are made apparent in the practices of self-starvation and force-feeding. The closed mouth frustrates the opponent’s desire by refusing entry, while simultaneously preventing the subject from satisfying their own hunger or sexual desire. The subject and the object cannot access or satisfy their desire if one of the bodies is impenetrable.

The nineteenth-century woman was able to use refusal in order to gain power by maintaining ownership of her body, rather than surrendering it to her husband, doctor or prison authority. By closing the body and denying entry to external ideas, hunger-striking also served as a symbol of resistance to notions of women as weak, passive and inferior to men.

Conversely, feeding was a metaphor for the forced ingestion of patriarchal concepts of womanhood. The pain caused by forcible-feeding is symbolic of the damage inflicted upon women by these ‘ideals’ of Victorian femininity. Frustrating desire and causing immense suffering, the masochism of hunger-striking is referred to by Lady Constance Lytton as ‘“the weapon of self-hurt”’. Sylvia Pankhurst describes the discomforting experience of hunger strike, speaking of pains in the back, chest and stomach, lack of circulation and palpitations as ‘gradually the feeling of weakness and illness grows.’ Every day, she is able to perceive ‘that one has grown thinner, that the bones are showing out more and more clearly, and that the eyes are grown more hollow.’ Following release from prison, many suffragettes continued to experience problems with digestive functions and suffered from headaches and nervous symptoms.

The sacrifice involved in the suffrage campaign did not only include self-starvation, but even extended to suicide. In June 1912 during a mass force-feeding in Holloway Goal, Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself down a staircase, while the following year she cast herself under the King’s horse and was crushed to death.

These efforts were undermined, however, by the introduction of forcible-feeding. Patriarchal authorities attempted to neutralise the physical effects of the hunger strike, and the protest that it represented, by robbing suffragettes of a weapon that did not conform to masculine discourses of power. In 1909, 36 of the 110 hunger-striking suffragettes were force-fed. Like the diagnosis of anorexia nervosa in 1873, forcible-feeding of hunger striking prisoners was a method of controlling women’s bodies. In the British Medical Journal (1912), the Home Secretary stated that ‘force feeding was instituted by him to keep the suffrage prisoners in health’. He also assured that ‘the practice of forcible feeding is unattended by danger or pain,’ yet both were found to be untrue.

Forcible-feeding was put into practice in order to avoid death, while the process of feeding itself was painful and injurious. Prior to 1974 when the Home Secretary declared that ‘a prison medical officer would not be neglecting his duty if he did not feed a prisoner against his will’, there was considerable debate as to whether forcible-feeding should be carried out.

Some were concerned that allowing a prisoner to starve themselves to death meant that the supervising authority would be held responsible. One physician questioned: whether if a prison doctor provided substantial meals for a prisoner, but never bothered himself whether they were eaten or not, and the prisoner eventually died of starvation, the doctor could be held to be an accessory before the fact to suicide. In response, Mr Burrows stated that: it was a well-known principle of the Common Law that, where one person was in charge of another, who could not help himself or herself, there was an obligation on the person in charge to see that that person was properly fed and had proper attention. It became a concern that if women were left to starve, this would ‘bring the officials into conflict with a large number of prison rules’. The motivation for feeding the women was thus self-interest on the part of the attending physician who did not wish to be charged with manslaughter.

Others believed that it was their medical duty to sustain the prisoners’ lives, Dr Collingwood stating that ‘he feels that the only function of a medical officer as such is to prevent loss of life’. Unlike modern law which acknowledges ‘that a competent prisoner may choose to commit suicide by starvation’, suffragettes were not permitted to starve themselves to death. While in today’s society intervention only occurs when a prisoner is unable to make an informed decision, force-feeding took place on a regular basis in the case of the suffragette hunger strikes. During one case, Leigh v Gladstone, a woman who was forcibly-fed ‘later attempted to sue for trespass’ and was unsuccessful since it was perceived by the court as the doctor’s duty to prevent her death: Lord Alvestone, Lord Chief Justice, directed the jury, saying: “…as a matter of law it was the duty of the prison officials to preserve the health of the prisoners, and a fortiori to preserve their lives…”

Prior to the suffrage campaign, self-starvation was often used as a method of suicide in the Victorian prison. In his account, Philip Priestly records that ‘“[o]bstinate refusal of food, and an attempt to die by starvation were of common occurrence…always to be overcome by forcible feeding.”’ Force-feeding in this case was justified by claiming that it prevented the ‘crime’ of constant food refusal, since to starve oneself to death was regarded as a form of suicide. In one report written a few months following the onset of the hunger strikes, it is stated that self-starvation must be prevented since it is a form of suicide and therefore a criminal action: [i]f prisoners are kept in prison, it is clearly the duty of the authorities to prevent them committing other felonies, and it must not be forgotten that suicide is a felony. Thus, force-feeding was justified in these cases as being carried out in the name of duty and preventing crime.

Some medical authorities, however, were of the opinion that no intervention should be given in the case of hunger strike. Edward Thompson, Surgeon at Tyrone County Hospital, wrote in 1909 that ‘the duties of medical officers of prisons are, or should be, confined entirely to the treatment of sick prisoners’. According to this report, self-starving women should not be treated since their behaviour was not the result of illness. It was argued that the suffragettes should instead be permitted to assert control over their own bodies given that they are ‘political prisoners, and therefore should be allowed to do much as they please.’

In addition to these arguments, Bea Brockman writes that the forcible-feeding of suffragettes was ‘justified on paternalistic grounds…As in all paternalistic judgements, it was felt that the doctor “knows best”. The physicians who carried out the feeding did not ‘know best’ however. According to The British Medical Journal they ‘were acting practically as prison warders, and were putting their medical skill to an improper use by carrying out forcible feeding against the wishes of the patients.’ During the hunger strikes, doctors behaved unprofessionally as controlling authorities. Instead of acting in the best interests of the patient, they removed their autonomy in what equated to physical abuse. The British Medical Journal records that ‘[t]he public trusts in the profession, and has great faith in “medical treatment”’: by force-feeding suffragette prisoners, however, this trust was abused.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault states that ‘there may be a “knowledge” of the body that is not exactly the science of its functioning, and a mastery of its forces that is more than the ability to conquer them’. The medical and legal establishments claimed to possess knowledge of the female body, which in turn was used in the subjection of women. Since, according to Foucault, ‘power and knowledge directly imply one another’, this ‘knowledge’ of women placed men in a position of power over their female patients. Law, medicine and the regulation of women’s bodies are combined in the case of forcible-feeding, J. Price Williams writing that ‘[t]he fact that prison doctors are constables explains how this abuse has arisen, but does not justify it.’

The suffragettes were imprisoned by legal and medical authorities who exploited their power in order to dominate others: [t]he Constable-doctor comes to the aid of the Government with his skill as a doctor, his power as a constable, and, using the term “medical treatment” as a cloak, commits an act which would be an assault if done by any ordinary doctor. Using this ‘cloak’ of authority, the physician was able to control women by diagnosing their bodies as sick and in need of treatment, thereby forcing their submission to patriarchal authority.

Prior to the forcible-feeding of suffragette prisoners, anorexia nervosa and hysteria were treated in a similar fashion. In the nineteenth century treatment of anorexia, the patient was often removed from her family, superintended by nurses and provided with food at regular intervals. In the case of ‘Miss K. R—, aged fourteen’, reported by William Gull in 1888, ‘[a] nurse was obtained from Guy’s, and light food ordered every few hours’. Although Gull himself did not admit to using force-feeding, ‘[p]ublished clinical reports from doctors of lesser status…reveal that force-feeding was not uncommon in cases of anorexia nervosa’. An issue of the Lancet in 1888 states that one patient who ‘went to live in a farmer’s house some miles away, was forced to take “plenty of milk and fresh eggs,” and came home very much improved.’ In the same year, the journal published notes on the case of a nine year old girl who was also forcibly-fed: [s]mall quantities of liquid food were ordered to be given to her frequently; for a few times she voluntarily swallowed it, but on the 7th she became stupid, and everything had to be administered to her forcibly.

Force-feeding anorexic patients was not always successful, however. A report in an 1895 issue of the Lancet described a fatal case of anorexia. The patient refused food so ‘was fed an enemata of peptonised milk, beef tea, and brandy.’ This was carried out for two to three days and ‘[i]n ten days she could take a moderate diet by the mouth, but suffered from diarrhoea. On the thirteenth day after admission she rapidly became worse, the temperature rose to 102°F, and on the fifteenth day she died.’

Forcible-feeding was also performed in lunatic asylums upon women who refused to eat. In the case of hysterical patients, however, feeding was sometimes employed by the physician for their own financial gain and to secure a successful reputation. Joan Jacobs Brumberg states that ‘the medical entrepreneurs who ran the private asylums turned to the same procedures when they faced an intractable patient whose parents were paying handsomely to see her weight increase.’

In some cases, the threat of force-feeding was sufficient to encourage a hysterical woman to cease her starvation. J.A. Campbell, Superintendent of the Garlands Asylum in Carlisle, writes in The British Medical Journal (1878): [c]onsiderable numbers of girls in the hysteric state, who had refused food at home, when they were brought here, and the means and manner of giving it were explained to them, have at once given in and taken their food. I always make a point of taking such patients to see another fed with the pump. In order to discourage them from taking up the practice of self-starvation, asylum doctors ensured that new patients observed other women being forcibly-fed.

While this was often a successful method of prevention in the case of hysterical women, the threat of punishment failed to deter the suffragettes from their political hunger strike. The self-punishment of starvation and subsequent physically punishing practice of force-feeding was welcomed by the suffragettes because it drew attention to their campaign. Unlike hysterical and anorexic patients, members of the WSPU did not give in when faced with force-feeding but instead suffered for their cause. By utilising forcible-feeding, patriarchal authorities refused to acknowledge the political dimension of the suffragette starvation.

As in the case of anorexia nervosa, the prison doctor judged that treatment had been successful and the patient ‘normalised’ when her body no longer displayed signs of emaciation. Only the symptoms of the hunger strikes were treated, revealing that patriarchal perspectives upon women and their bodies underwent little alteration during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In the struggle against political exclusion, the suffragettes’ bodies were bruised and battered in their arrest, and subsequently imprisoned, starved and force-fed. Yet, the authorities only saw emaciated bodies that could die under their supervision.

The process of force-feeding is graphically described in contemporary journals and works of fiction. In ‘Forcible Feeding of Suffrage Prisoners’ published in 1912, the authors disclose that ‘[t]he feeding cup method is frequently forcibly administered solely by the wardresses, without the supervision of a qualified medical practioner.’ The procedure was often carried out by women in which the wardresses became the agents of the patriarchs, carrying out their work. Women’s bodies were held down and restrained by other women’s bodies, the very bodies that the suffragettes fought to liberate. The force-feeding was violent and brutal, a power struggle of physical strength that symbolised the suffragettes’ political and social battle: [d]uring the struggle before the feeding, prisoners were held down by force, flung on the floor, tied to chairs and iron bedsteads. As might be expected, severe bruises were thus inflicted. The prisoner’s arms that were ‘held firmly, so that she could not move’ represent the restraints placed upon women by early twentieth-century society, while the bruises are visible marks of their suffering, both mental and physical.

It was not only the act of force-feeding itself that was injurious, there were many side effects. A report in the British Medical Journal states that ‘[i]n most cases local frontal headache, earache, and trigeminal neuralgia supervened, besides severe gastric pain, which lasted throughout the forcible feeding, preventing sleep.’ Choking, vomiting, palpitation, faintness, and cold temperature were common, while in one case, food was accidentally injected into the lung.

In accounts of forcible-feeding, the mouth is often the focal point of the procedure, Agnes Savill and Victor Horsley recording that ‘[w]hen the oesophageal tube was employed the mouth was wrenched open by pulling the head back by the hair over the edge of a chair, forcing down the chin, and inserting the gag between the teeth.’ During the feeding ‘the lips, inside of the cheeks, and gums were frequently bruised, sometimes bleeding and sore to touch for days after.’ The mouth becomes stopped up with food in order to prevent speech, its bleeding a symbol of how the female voice was damaged by those who did not heed its words and instead demanded its silence. The injured mouth not only represents the wounded voice, its closure also suggests a refusal to be penetrated. If this is the case, as critics such as Jane Marcus have noted, ‘[t]he depictions of forcible feeding on several suffragette representations may be clearly read as rape scenes.’ The brutality of rape is depicted during the feeding, as the mouth was forced open ‘by sawing the edge of the cup along the gums’, while ‘[t]he nasal mucus membrane was frequently lacerated’ and the process left the ‘throat…swollen and sore’. The throat became the vaginal passageway which was torn and injured during the force-feeding, pointing to the sexual abuse that women’s bodies suffered at the hands of men.

The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century female body was used for sexual purposes and to bear children, both of which caused internal physical harm. Despite the critics who define this procedure as rape, however, I would argue that to do so marginalises self-starvation as an act of political agency. The suffragettes could choose whether or not to eat and were aware of the consequences of not doing so. Suffragettes permitted themselves to be violated as since they could have discontinued the hunger-strike at any point, force-feeding could have been prevented.

The fact that the self-starvation was sustained is an indication of women’s power in which they compelled prison doctors to create suffragette martyrdom through repeated force-feeding. To simply view the procedure as rape fails to account for this element of choice and instead subscribes to the conventional power dynamic which the suffragettes intended to resist.

Often, however, forcible-feeding failed to increase the prisoner’s weight and health. A report in The British Medical Journal states that: ‘[h]owever successful it may have proved in patients suffering from other diseases, the experience of the last year or two seems to prove pretty conclusively that it fails very frequently, if not always, in the case of the suffragist hunger strikers’. The phrase ‘other diseases’ suggests that the suffragettes’ self-starvation was regarded as an illness that ought to be pathologised, treated and thereby controlled. This echoes the diagnosis of self-starvation as anorexia nervosa in 1873.

Stating that self-starvation is a physical condition, a ‘disease’, the report later claims that it is a mental decision capable of affecting physicality: ‘[i]t seems quite possible that digestion, absorption, and assimilation may all be more or less inhibited by an effort of the will’. According to this, suffragettes were able to volitionally hinder digestive processes, suggesting that self-starvation was controlled by the subject. This contradicts the article’s earlier classification of self-starvation as a disease.

Despite these assertions, the hunger-striking could not be ‘cured’ since it was not an illness, nor did women have control over their digestive functions. Suffragette food refusal was politically motivated and this behaviour was repeated until their demands were met. This article reduces the political to the physical in stating that it is otherwise.

The female body as an object to be fought over is symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Introduced on March 25th 1913, the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill was ‘[a]imed specifically at the suffragettes, the law enabled the government to release a hunger-striking prisoner and reincarcerate her after she recovered’. Suffragettes were released from prison, to return when their health was restored. Once back in prison, however, the hunger strike would resume, this cycle of imprisonment and release driven solely by the body. In 1912, it was stated in the House of Commons that: of 102 cases of prisoners who joined in the hunger strike we have investigated, forty-six were released long before the termination of their sentences, because their health had been so rapidly reduced as to alarm the medical officers. The language of the act posits women as mice, victims pursued by the government. Women become prey, consumable objects to be caught, toyed with and finally gobbled up by patriarchal authorities, a process which Sylvia Pankhurst found to grow ‘[i]ncreasingly wearying and painful’.

On October 21st 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst delivered a speech in New York entitled ‘Why We Are Militant’, during which she referred to the suffrage campaign and subsequent imprisonment as a ‘battle’. The battle for control of the female body at the outset of the twentieth century came to involve the diametrically opposed behaviours of female hunger striking and masculine forcible-feeding. Speaking of the ‘joy of battle and the exultation of victory, Emmeline Pankhurst expressed the enjoyment of fighting to reclaim women’s minds and bodies. Suffragettes used their bodies to fight for their minds, they were ‘women fighting for a great idea’. Their cause was social, aiming ‘for betterment of the human race’, even though the methods that they chose to achieve it were considered anti-social and rebellious. The betterment of the human race was achieved ‘through the emancipation and uplifting of women.’ The battle for control of the female body was injurious to the bodies of those who fought, yet it was in order to secure a better life, for the minds and bodies of the women who were to follow: [t]he battle cost the lives of a few, and the health of most of those who went through it: but it has secured slightly better conditions and a different status for political prisoners in the future. It is a thing that we can always be proud that even—even after forcible feeding was permitted, or, rather, ordered by the Home Secretary—not one of our women gave in. The suffragettes who engaged in the hunger strikes of 1909 did not act in vain because in 1928, women over twenty one were granted the vote.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

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 <http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R01522668:0> [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

The Binging Purging Alice in Wonderland

15 Aug

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland portrays a girl whose over indulgent eating and subsequent purging causes her body to dramatically fluctuate in size.  Alice initially encounters food upon falling down a rabbit hole, a symbolic vaginal passageway that conveys her deep into the realm of fantasy and represents a growing awareness of her sexuality. Alice passes bookshelves that, instead of tedious books contain desirable food: ‘[s]he took down a jar…as she passed: it was labelled “ORANGE MARMALADE”, but to her great disappointment it was empty’.[6] Alice longs for the marmalade because it is sweet and indulgent.

Alice’s voracious appetite has the potential to destabilise social relationships when she frightens others by expressing a desire to consume them:

once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse! Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone!”[14]

When Alicegrows taller a pigeon refuses to believe her protestations that she is ‘“a little girl”’[15] and will not predate upon her unhatched eggs:

“I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you have never tasted an egg!” “I have tasted eggs, certainly,” said Alice, who was a very truthful child; “but little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do, you know.”[16]

In Wonderland however, Alice also becomes a potential consumable, worrying that she will become a bone to ‘[a]n enormous puppy’[17] and ‘was terribly frightened all the time at the thought that it might be hungry, in which case it would be very likely to eat her up’.[18]Alice relishes being a predator, but not the prey.

Upon consuming food or drink, Alicealters in size, often excessively and not always to her advantage. Contrary to normal experience wherein growth is the consequence of dining, Aliceoften shrinks when she eats. After swallowing the contents of a bottle ‘with the words “DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters’[19] she becomes ‘only ten inches high’.[20] Transforming in size from small to large and back again represents Alice’s sexual initiation and subsequent withdrawal. Alice’s changes in size are motivated by her desire to escape from places such as the White Rabbit’s house wherein she no longer fits, or to enter smaller places, such as ‘“that lovely garden”’.[21] SinceAlice must ‘“grow to [her] right size again”’ and traverse a locked door in order to gain access to the garden, her entrance therein symbolises sexual maturity.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are located within the protagonist’s imagination, therefore her dramatic physical alterations are psychological possibilities of bodily distortion. In one instance Alice discovers a cake and

ate a little bit, and said anxiously to herself, “Which way? Which way?” holding her hand on the top of her head to feel which way it was growing, and she was quite surprised to find that she remained the same size.[22]

Carroll argues that physical size is usually maintained ‘when one eats cake’,[23] yet conversely, those experiencing anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa would state that the body becomes significantly larger and distorted following consumption, especially of fattening delicacies such as cake. Unlike the anorexic or bulimic, Alice is unafraid of drinking or eating, even if she is not sure of the potential consequences. In the White Rabbit’s house she notices a second bottle:

[t]here was no label this time with the words “DRINK ME”, but nevertheless she uncorked it and put it to her lips. “I know something interesting is sure to happen,” she said to herself, “whenever I eat or drink anything; so I’ll just see what this bottle does.”[24]

Alice’s wish to grow larger by drinking its contents is the opposite of anorexic thinking, in which the aim is to become as small as possible. Having not considered the consequences prior to swallowing the liquid, Alicesubsequently regrets her excessive drinking when it has too much of the desired effect: ‘I do wish I hadn’t drunk quite so much!” Alas! it was too late to wish that!’[25] Shortly afterwards, the White Rabbit throws pebbles in order to drive the giantAlice out of his house, yet ‘the pebbles were all turning into little cakes’.[26]Alice hopes that food will be the means of cure and restore her to her usual size:

“If I eat one of these cakes,” she thought, “it’s sure to make some change in my size; and, as it can’t possibly make me larger, it must make me smaller, I suppose.”[27]

Like the bulimic, Alice binges upon drink, then regrets and repeats the eating cycle by consuming cakes directly afterwards. In Alice’s case, however, the second bout of consumption cancels out the first, thus Alice purges by eating more. She does not purge in the usual sense of ridding herself of food, but rather counters her eating with more eating. In addition, Alice exhibits symptoms of compulsive food consumption as, unable to solve a problem or being in a difficult situation, she turns to food to help her: ‘“I suppose I ought to eat or drink something or other; but the great question is, what?”’[28] In order to fill the void wherein she should act or speak, Alice consumes food and drink: upon being unable to converse with the nonsensical March Hare, Alice ‘helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter’.[29]

When the Caterpillar asks ‘“[a]re you content now?”’[30] Alice replies ‘“[w]ell, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind…three inches is such a wretched height to be.”’[31] Despite Alice’s constant dissatisfaction regarding her body size, her frustration is of a practical nature. Since Alice is dreaming, a process that involves her mind rather than her physical form, it is ironic that her body becomes a hindrance. In Wonderland, Alice’s body assumes the form of her mental perception and is therefore able to transgress natural law and alter in size. Changing size through eating has a confusing effect upon Alice to the extent that she loses sense of her identity and states ‘“I’m not myself”,[32] ‘“being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”’[33] Alice lacks a constant to which can be measured since she is beyond the patriarchal world of rules and structure, a world which is liberating, yet also frightening: ‘“[h]ow puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another!”’[34]

Nevertheless, Alice is able to control her body size by eating two sides of a mushroom that produce opposite effects:

she set to work very carefully, nibbling first at one and then at the other, and growing sometimes taller and sometimes shorter, until she had succeeded in bringing herself down to her usual height.[35]

This self-control is comforting, yet even though Alice has the ability to change her own physical dimensions, she cannot alter her environment or the other Wonderland characters. After struggling to regain her usual stature, Alice’s surroundings become smaller, compelling her to once again reduce in size. There was

a little house…about four feet high…she began nibbling at the right-hand bit again, and did not venture to go near the house till she had brought herself down to nine inches high.[36]

Even though it appears as though Alice possesses self-control, it is her environment that regulates her behaviour and physical form.

Alice’s bodily alterations prefigure her transformation to a woman as the sexual female body is naturally in a state of flux, changing considerably during pregnancy and menstruation. While Humpty Dumpty’s ‘“name means that shape”’ he is, Alice ‘“might be any shape, almost.”’[37] It is impossible to ascertain Alice’s form from her name alone, reflecting its indefiniteness. As a female, Alice is constantly changing and fluid. By depicting Alice’s body as susceptible to transformation, Carroll demonstrates that women cannot be positioned or contained. During change, the female body produces substances; menstrual blood, milk, amniotic fluid. Alice’s ‘pool of tears’[38] that are secreted when she is nine feet high becomes dangerous when, upon shrinking, she fears she will be ‘“drowned”’.[39] The female body constantly produces fluids, processes that are perceived as threatening to masculine society because they cannot be contained. While seminal fluid is directed towards the woman’s body, female fluids are not focussed upon an Other. Even though women are uncontainable by masculine society, they are self-contained and auto-erotic: this type of woman does not give, she only consumes.

In Carroll’s novels not only does Alice devour various forms of food and drink, she frequently threatens to consume things that never pass her lips, most notably, eggs. The bird that fears Alice may be a serpent who will eat her eggs places Alice in the masculine position of the serpent Satan. Rather than producing eggs and nurturing young, Alice constantly threatens to consume them, thereby rejecting her role as the mother and grown woman that she has not yet become. Yet Alice maintains that she will not eat the pigeon’s eggs because she doesn’t ‘“like them raw”’[40] and is reluctant to buy an egg from a shop as ‘“[t]hey mightn’t be at all nice, you know.”’[41] When Alice does eventually purchase an egg she is prevented from physically claiming it as ‘“[t]he egg seems to get further away the more [she] walk[s] towards it.”’[42]

Following these numerous unusual and confusing experiences, Alice ‘found herself safe in a thick wood.’[43] Despite her impression of safety, however, the thick wood suggests danger, complexity and adulthood. The forest is recurrently threatening in tales by the Brothers Grimm: Hänsel and Gretel lose themselves in a thick wood wherein they are almost eaten by a witch. Their mother states that she ‘“will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest”’,[44] to which her husband replies ‘“how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”’[45] The children are not threatened by animals, however, but by

a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it.[46]

The witch predatorily gazes upon the sleeping and vulnerable children, observing that their ‘plump and rosy cheeks’[47] will ‘“be a dainty mouthful!”’[48] Designating the domestic role to Gretel, the witch tells her to ‘“cook something good for [her] brother”’ as he is ‘“to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.”’[49] In this tale, putting on weight is associated with death and being devoured. The witch keeps Gretel alive to cook the food that will feed her brother until he is a favourable size to be eaten: in this case, the girl is saved by the traditional female, domestic role.

In contrast, Alice is not accomplished as a Wonderland domestic. When serving cake Alice is frustrated that while she has ‘“cut off several slices already…they will always join on again”’[50] and when carving a leg of mutton she ‘looked at it rather anxiously, as she had never had to carve one before.’[51]  Lacking the security of conventional, female accomplishments, Alice finally loses control and her surroundings descend into ever deeper confusion. Alice experiences extraordinary visions of food and dismembered body parts as the two are associated in a whirling, fragmented scene of distortion and grotesque subversion. The White Queen’s ‘broad good-natured face’ appears in the soup-tureen, cheerfully presenting itself as a consumable ‘before she disappeared into the soup.’[52] Having experienced anarchic excess in the realm of food and the body,Alice loses mental and physical control and upsets the whole dining table:

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried, as she seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests, and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.[53]

At the height of food consumption and the chaos of her own imagination, Alice reawakens into the conventional, stable patriarchal world.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.37

[2] F. Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, in Self and Society in the Victorian Novel (St. Andrews:University ofSt. Andrews Press, 2004), p.13

[3] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.62

[4] Nightingale, ‘Cassandra’, p.9

[5] ibid, p.18

[6] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.38

[7] Brontë, Villette, p.27

[8] Rossetti, Goblin Market, l.115

[9] ibid, l.235

[10] Rossetti, Goblin Market, ll.108-9

[11] J. Grimm and W. Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, in Complete Fairy Tales (London: Routledge, 2002), p.69

[12] ibid, p.69

[13] ibid, p.69

[14] L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2001), p.159

[15] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[16] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.77

[17] ibid, p.66

[18] ibid, p.66

[19] ibid, pp.41-2

[20] ibid, p.42

[21] ibid, p.66

[22] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.43

[23] ibid, p.43

[24] ibid, p.60

[25] ibid, p.60

[26] ibid, p.65

[27] ibid, p.65

[28] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.68

[29] ibid, p.96

[30] ibid, p.75

[31] ibid, p.75

[32] ibid, p.70

[33] ibid, p.70

[34] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.78

[35] ibid, p.90

[36] ibid, p.78

[37] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.219

[38] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pp.48-9

[39] ibid, p.49

[40] ibid, p.78

[41] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, pp.216-17

[42] ibid, p.217

[43] Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.66

[44] Grimm, Hänsel and Gretel, p.66

[45] ibid, p.66

[46] ibid, p.70

[47] ibid, p.71

[48] ibid, p.71

[49] ibid, p.71

[50] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.239

[51] ibid, p.268

[52] Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, p.271

[53] ibid, p.272

A Brief History of Self-Starvation

15 Aug

During the Middle Ages, self-starving practices were commonly undertaken by both sexes as a form of religious observance, particularly during Lent where the control and reduction of food intake was culturally institutionalised. This provided women with the means of experiencing bodily suffering through spiritual fasting. Both Caroline Walker Bynum and Rudolph Bell have explored the role which women assumed in divine practices that involved abstinence from bodily desire. Bynum relates that nourishment was derived by means of prayer and the Eucharist rather than from earthly sustenance as women ‘fasted in order to prepare themselves for Christ’s body and blood.’[1] However, this religious potential for volitional female suffering became largely unobtainable in Britain with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. Worship of the saints was abolished and extreme, publicly demonstrative forms of female adoration such as ‘[t]he renunciation of food, once experienced and explained as a form of female holiness, was increasingly cast as demonical, heretical, and even insane.’[2]

This repression of what were deemed to be irrational forms of mortification attained a new dimension with increasing medicalisation of the female body. The first medical account of self-starvation is credited to the seventeenth century physician Richard Morton who distinguished rejection of food from the loss of appetite that was symptomatic of other illnesses such as tuberculosis and chlorosis, the latter of which Morton commonly terms as ‘Green-Sickness’.[3] In his Phthsiologica – or a Treatise on Consumption (1694), Morton described the case of an eighteen year old girl, resembling ‘“a skeleton only clad with skin”’[4] who

fell into a total Suppression of her Monthly causes from a multitude of Cares and Passions of her Mind, but without any Symptom of the Green-Sickness following upon it. From which time her Appetite began to abate, and her Digestion to be bad; her flesh also began to be flaccid and loose, and her looks pale.[5]

Even though Morton established a specific pathology of self-starvation, the condition would not be formally named for almost two hundred years.

By the nineteenth century, the social status and power of the physician increased as medical authorities had grown secure in the scientific validity of their own assumptions. Unchallenged, physicians increasingly began to compel the subjective experience of their patients to accord with their own doctrine. This was particularly noticeable with female patients and it was at this point in 1873 that an official medicalisation of appetite was elicited when anorexia nervosa was simultaneously diagnosed in England and France by Sir William Withey Gull and Ernest Charles Lasèque. While Lasèque named the condition anorexie hystérique, the term anorexia nervosa was coined by Gull whose description of the malady first appeared in Transactions of the Clinical Society of London (1874).[6] In an 1888 issue of the Lancet, Gull attributed ‘perversion of the “ego” being the cause and determining the course of the malady’,[7] crediting his patients’ refusal to eat to a psychological, rather than a physical affliction as he stated

[t]hat mental states may destroy appetite is notorious, and it will be admitted that young women at the ages named [sixteen to twenty-three] are specially obnoxious to mental perversity.[8]

Yet, in the processes of coercing patients’ subjective experience, while Gull noted the psychological cause and imension of anorexia, he chose not to engage with his patients’ subjective nuances. By concentrating upon the organic effects, rather than psychological causes, Gull failed to acknowledge the existence of the emotional states of his female patients, treating them as ephemera unworthy of the masculine empiricism upon which the evolving medical discourse was founded.

Even when Huchard and Deniau divided anorexia into the two sub-conditions of anorexie gastrique and anorexie mentale in 1883 – describing patients with the former as ‘those with many digestive complaints, in whom hysteria was believed to cause a physiological disturbance leading to impaired gastrointestinal absorption and function,’ and the latter as those with ‘“pure” psychiatric conditions and involved mental rather than digestive problems’[9] – this did not significantly alter treatment, or the way in which female mental phenomena were regarded. Patients diagnosed with anorexie mentale were still treated by controlled or forced feeding in order to overcome the physiological effects, rather than by engaging with the underlying causes that instigated the behaviour.

Yet, while the authority of medical discourse was used to justify the coercion and restriction of female experience, self-starving behaviours continued to create uncertainty within this form of patriarchal control. Gull’s diagnostic security was undermined by the fact that a number of nineteenth century ‘conditions’ shared similar symptoms with anorexia nervosa including bulimia, pica, chlorosis, hysteria and neurasthenia:

“[b]ulimia, pica, and strange longings are morbid modifications of the appetite,” Thomas Laycock wrote in 1840, “and belong to the same class of phenomena as …anorexia…and, like it, are characteristic of the pregnant, chlorotic, and hysterical female.”[10]

Far from being derivations of anorexia, a number of these conditions were theorised and diagnosed prior to the work of William Gull. In 1838, thirty five years before the formal characterisation of self-starvation, the medical adviser in The Penny Satirist described a common disease ‘to which the tender sex is subjected, particularly in the large towns of over-refined countries’, which was identified as ‘chlorosis or green sickness.’[11] The masculine medical establishment responded by perceiving this susceptibility as a female trait and as further evidence that women were the ‘tender sex’. As the advisor continued to observe:

[y]ou can scarcely take a walk in the streets of large towns without meeting young ladies with a pale yellow complexion, mixed with a peculiar greenish tinge, a bluish circle around the eyes, an air of languor and debility.[12]

The cause of such symptoms was thought by Clark to result from the ‘capricious’[13] appetite of the patient, who often exhibited symptoms of pica during which they ‘craved strange substances such as chalk, dirt, ashes, or vinegar’,[14] yet at other times they lost their ‘appetite altogether, sometimes refusing to eat.’[15] As with anorexia, while the psychosomatic nature of chlorosis was noted, arising from ‘one principal source, namely, bad physical and moral education’,[16] the result of ‘[w]ant of proper exercise, improper dress, tight lacing, too much sitting, improper development of the imagination at the expense of the reasoning faculties, boarding-school education, play-going, and novel-reading’,[17] such observation disparaged female subjective experience and trivialised female activities. A further undermining of diagnostic certainty was caused by chlorosis and anorexia occurring within girls of a similar age, with Clark writing that there is ‘frequent occurrence of anaemia or chlorosis in girls between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four’,[18] compared to Gull’s theory of anorexia arising between sixteen and twenty-three. In addition, in cases of chlorosis the Lancet (1887) reported that ‘sometimes there is amenorrhoea’,[19] a symptom also associated with anorexia.

Confronted with such etiological confusion, physicians attributed this uncertainty to a consequence of dealing with the unpredictable, irrational and hysterical female, thereby evading questions regarding the clarity and consistency of the empirical science that formed the foundation of medicine.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough


[1] C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley, 1986), p.117, James of Vitry, Life of Mary of Oignies, AASS, June, vol.5, p.517

[2] J.J. Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.49

[3] R. Morton Phthisiologica: Or a Treatise of Consumptions 2nd edition (London, 1720), pp.8-9, in R. M. Bell, Holy Anorexia (London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp.3-4

[4] ibid, pp.3-4

[5] ibid, pp.3-4

[6] E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960), p.13

[7] W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes’, The Lancet, March 17 (1888), p.517

[8] W. Gull, ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ (apepsia hysterica, anorexia hysterica), Transactions of the Clinical Society of the London 7 (1874), p.25, in J.J. Brumberg, Fasting Girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.118. Gull identified anorexia nervosa as a disease in its own right, rather than a symptom of another disease since upon examination one patient ‘was found to be extremely emaciated, but there were no signs of organic disease.’ W. Gull, ‘Clinical Notes: A Fatal Case of Anorexia Nervosa’, in Lancet, Jan 19 (1895), p.149

[9] E.L. Bliss and C.H. Hardin Branch, Anorexia Nervosa: Its History, Psychology, and Biology (New York: Paul B. Hoeber, 1960), p.18

[10] T. Laycock, A Treatise on the Nervous Diseases of Women (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green and Longmans 1840), p.73, in A. Krugovoy Silver, Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.2.

[11] Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)

[12] ibid

[13] A. Clark, ‘Observations on the Anaemia or Chlorosis of Girls, Occurring More Commonly Between the Advent of Menstruation and the Consummation of Womanhood’, Lancet, vol.130, issue 3351, 19 November (1887), 1003-1005, p.1003

[14] Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body, p.2, Noted by Samuel Ashwell, in A Practical Treatise on the Diseases Peculiar to Women (Philadelphia, PA: Lea and Blanchard, 1845)

[15] ibid

[16] Anon., ‘The Medical Adviser’, The Penny Satirist, iss.43 (London, 1838)

[17] ibid

[18] A. Clark, ‘Observations on the Anaemia or Chlorosis of Girls, Occurring More Commonly Between the Advent of Menstruation and the Consummation of Womanhood’, Lancet, vol.130, issue 3351, 19 November (1887), 1003-1005, p.1003

[19] ibid