Tag Archives: class

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


Anorexia and the Middle-Class Family

14 Aug

The classification of anorexia in 1873 served to highlight the wider issues of female control within Victorian society from which the diagnosis arose. In France, Lasègue linked anorexia with the middle-class family, treating members of the Paris bourgeoisie, among whom ‘[t]he prolongation of dependency seemed to add to the intensity of parental love and set the stage for anorexia nervosa’.[1] Adolescent girls who refused to eat had the power to disrupt the familial structure, often becoming the centre of attention. The battleground for control of the female body was thus played out in the bourgeois family and involved displacing the power of the paterfamilias.

During his study, Lasègue discovered that the family often attempted to ‘cure’ the patient, having ‘“two methods at its service”’,[2] one being persuasion as ‘“[t]he delicacies of the table are multiplied in the hope of stimulating the appetite”’.[3] Yet, by attempting to entice their daughter with food, like the physician the family are merely treating the symptoms of anorexia, rather than addressing the cause of self-starvation. Yet, the family’s efforts proved ineffectual since ‘“the more the solicitude increases, the more the appetite diminishes.”’[4] Placing pressure upon the patient only results in increased resistance as she battles to assume control of her own body. The second weapon in the family’s armoury is emotional blackmail. By declaring that their daughter’s love for them can be demonstrated by eating, the patient’s parents attempt to transform her behaviour: ‘“[s]he is besought, as a favor, and as a sovereign proof of affection, to consent to add even an additional mouthful to what she has taken”’.[5] The more parents compel their daughter to eat, however, the more she refuses as ‘“this excess of insistence begets the excess of resistance.”’[6] Meal times become a struggle to take control of the starving girl’s body.

This conflict mirrors greater implications of women’s bodies within Victorian society, wherein the patriarchal Establishment prescribes certain female physical forms and behaviour. The family’s role to socialise the young girl into the values of society is challenged by a daughter who refuses to adhere to these norms, represented by the family meal. The daughter rebels through the medium of her body, asserting the right to control her own physicality, rather than submitting to a socially constructed gender role. For both Gull and Lasègue, it was the responsibility of medical authority to act in loco parentis in order to re-establish masculine control over the female body and therefore transform the dysfunctional family. In order to achieve this, they advised that the patient should be isolated from her family and friends and placed in care of the nurses, who were in turn controlled by the physician. Gull believed that the medical practitioner alone was able to control his patient since ‘“[o]nly medical concerns should govern her regimen, not the girl’s fretfulness over being forced to eat or her parents’ desire to avoid a scene.”’[7] Once treatment was successful, the patient could be returned to her family and society preserved.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.126

[2] Lasègue, ‘On Hysterical Anorexia,’ Medical Times and Gazette (September 6, 1873), pp.265-266, Original French report in Archives Générales de Médicine (April 1873), in Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.129

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Brumberg, Fasting Girls, p.121

The Cult of Invalidism

14 Aug

During the Victorian era there arose a fashion for invalidism. This ‘cult’ challenged the male desire for fertile, hourglass figures since the invalid woman was thin, frail and rendered so ‘ill’ as to jeopardise her reproductive potential. Invalidism was a continuum stretching from the woman who had occasional fainting fits in ‘extreme’ situations (such as walking in the garden), to women who limited their own movement and refused food. However, since the invalid mimicked masculine values of femininity, it was difficult to ascertain at what point the female quest for a thin waist and a passive demeanour became a form of transgression. While the extreme self-starver could be classified as anorexic, infantilised and returned to the masculine notion of the ideal female, most invalids were not so easily diagnose and accordingly found a form of resistance which was able to challenge masculine norms. In The Heavenly Twins, Colonel Colquhoun sums this up during Evadne’s illness which causes him to lament ‘[w]hat a damned nuisance these women are…There’s always something the matter with them!’[1]

Like hysteria and anorexia, invalidism was based upon social status, as well as gender. In Wives and Daughters, Lady Cumnor ‘having married her two eldest daughters…had leisure to be an invalid’. This ‘leisure’ reveals that invalidism was an occupation with which women chose to engage. Able to select the times for a bout of ill health, Lady Cumnor was ‘too energetic to allow herself this indulgence constantly.’ When she wished to be active, her health miraculously returned, and conversely, when she desired rest, such as following ‘a long course of dinners, late hours, and London atmosphere’, she ‘permitted herself to break down.’[2] Thus, invalidism provides Lady Cumnor with options – to be an active participant in public and private affairs, and to shirk all responsibility when it suits her mood. Invalidism was used as a form of power or social leverage since the woman who restricted herself to the sofa became centre of attention and was granted an excuse to avoid undesirable situations. Invalid women thus stepped simultaneously into the socially acceptable by becoming weak and passive, and the social nuisance who commanded the household from her place on the settee.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] S. Grand, The Heavenly Twins (Charleston: BiblioLife, 2009), p.578

[2] E. Gaskell, Wives and Daughters, p.91


Class and the Corset

14 Aug

One factor that initially encouraged tight-lacing was that dress denoted the social class and moral worth of the wearer. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen writes that female dress demonstrates ‘the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment.’[1] The extreme bodily modification and the application of force necessary for achieving a tightly-laced corset had debilitating effects upon the wearer, and consequently, a small waist came to be synonymous with the leisured classes. Veblen explains that ‘[t]he corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.’[2] Only a woman who had no need to be economically or domestically productive could afford such a restriction upon her movement and be reduced to a quasi-invalid, suffering from ‘headaches, and other lady-like maladies, that appear the almost exclusive privilege of women in the higher classes’.[3] Yet, when the fashion was adopted by the middle classes, the aristocracy discontinued their tight-lacing in order to distinguish themselves from those of a lower social class. This proved to be an inconvenience, however, one correspondent of Punch (1869) complaining that:

my maid has the impertinence to follow the new fashion, and is getting quite unfit for work through her tight-lacing. When I tell her to run up-stairs to fetch a pocket-hand-kerchief, she moves as slow and stiffly as I do myself, and comes down panting so that she can hardly gasp an answer to my questions. Then she constantly is getting nasty stitches in her side, and while she stands to do my hair she often feels so faint that I have to give her sal volatile.[4]

However, these norms changed throughout the century as a small waist – once the indicator of strict morals and high class – became associated with lower class imitation and was subsequently perceived as a sign of vulgarity.

Copyright © 2011 Victoria Fairclough

[1] Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Classes (New York: Dover, 1994), p.105

[2] Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Classes, p.106

[3] C.E. Tonna, Personal Recollections (London: R.B. Seeley and W. Burnside, 1841), in V. Sanders, Records of Girlhood (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2000), p.71

[4] ‘The Torments of Tight-Lacing’, Punch (1869)