Tag Archives: Phaedo

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