Tag Archives: Charlotte Bronte

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)’.

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