Power and Hunger: Self-will and self-starvation in the novels and lives of Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
In the fictional worlds of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, one of the few ways that women who otherwise have very little say in their lives are able to express dissatisfaction is through self-starvation and illness. It is noteworthy that in their own lives the Bronte sisters exhibited many eccentric habits in regards to eating, and both Charlotte and (especially) Emily engaged in self-starvation similar to the strategies used by the characters in their novels.
Anorexia is a general term that describes the decline of appetite or aversion to food, though it is most commonly used to refer to self-starvation. Anorexia was not new during the time of the Brontës. Although eating disorders are often thought of as being a modern day phenomenon, it is in fact only widespread diagnosis that is a recent occurrence. Those who had no other means to wield power, other than in terms of individual self-control, have long used starvation and fasting as a means of exerting control over an environment in which they felt powerless.
In his book, Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell sites a case of anorexia in a 20 year old girl from as early as 1686 (3). In fact, eating disorders were fairly common in the time leading up to the Brontë's era, although the motivations behind them were often quite dissimilar. Today, young women are often driven to starve themselves because, "they must conform to an impossible, media-driven standard of beauty which holds that 'you can never be too thin.'" (Orenstein 94) In the 18th and 19th century, however, thinness was not an ideal to strive towards, and the psychology behind fasting and starvation was oftentimes more complicated.
During the Brontë's era, it was considered uncouth for women to allow themselves to be seen eating, but the ideal body type for a woman was plump. Therefore, fasting had little to do with cultural expectations for physical appearance. Instead, fasting was a means towards spiritual or religious enlightenment. Between 1206 and 1934 there were 261 documented cases of women starving themselves for religious reasons. Along with starvation, it was common to inflict severe punishment upon their bodies, and refuse all offers of marriage. It was not rare for women who died of anorexia to be canonized as saints (Bemporad 2).
Purely religious reasons were not always behind a woman's fasting--it was often used as a means to exert control by women who were essentially powerless in their societies. Bemporad sites one of these cases which took place in the Dark Ages; a young woman who was betrothed by her father against her wishes, starves herself until she becomes so unattractive that her suitor refuses to marry her (3). This theme occurs in literature about the 19th century as well; in a popular young adult novel set in 1899, the heroine starves herself to the brink of death after being forced into an engagement that she finds unbearable (Terris).
Within the novels of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, one can find many themes of starvation, power and control, and similar themes in their lives-especially that of Emily. The entire Brontë family seemed to have peculiar habits in regards to food, all of the children were "picky" eaters; Aunt Branwell and their father, Patrick Brontë, would not eat with the children, they dined alone in their separate, respective rooms (Frank 42). According to her friend Ellen Nussey, while at Roe Head, Charlotte refused to eat meat and had special meals prepared for her (Frank 77). At the same time, Emily was becoming more and more withdrawn, and speaking and eating less and less. Within three months she had starved herself to such a point that Charlotte feared she would die, and Emily was quickly sent home (Gordan 50).
After Emily was allowed to leave Roe Head, her health quickly improved,
and she seemed to imbibe a powerful lesson that her sisters did not ignore.
It seemed that Emily had finally discovered a means of power, one that
she could use to manipulate the world with, and wield to get her way.
Only two months later, when Charlotte was home for the Christmas holidays,
the sisters had a chance to test this power further. The Brontë household
servant Tabby had broken her leg and was to be sent away to recover at
her sister's cottage. Emily, Charlotte and Anne protested, but were ignored.
They initiated a hunger strike that only lasted 24 hours before their
Aunt and father gave in, and allowed Tabby to be nursed at Haworth. In
A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë Frank wrote:
Approximately a year later, Anne withdrew at Charlotte's insistence from Roe Head due to illness (Gordon 50). Charlotte herself, although a teacher in the school, did not last much longer. Before the winter break in 1837, Charlotte decided to leave Roe Head, but then allowed herself to be talked into continuing her teaching position there by the headmistress, Miss Wooler. Although she had been unable to protest further in the face of Miss Wooler's insistence, Charlotte allowed her body to do the talking for her. She sunk into a deep depression and ceased eating. In May she collapsed and was sent home (Gordon 68). It seemed that the Brontë sisters had developed a pattern-when they felt powerless to extract themselves from a situation that they found intolerable, they allowed illness and starvation to force their removal.
Emily continued the trend she had started among the her sisters-while a teacher at Law Hill she starved herself for months until (it was assumed) she was asked to leave (Gordon 67). Although she wanted nothing more than to remain at home in Haworth, Emily was once again dispatched, in 1842, to Brussels with Charlotte. There she engaged in another bout of protracted starvation, which ended once she was called home in November (Frank 172). Charlotte returned to Brussels alone for the next term. There she experienced a near-breakdown that she related in a number of autobiographical passages of Villette. Alone, unable to sleep, she lost "all power and inclination to swallow a meal (C. Brontë 229)." In writing home to Emily she fantasized of being in the kitchen with her sister, helping her prepare the meals (Frank 192). In January of 1844 Charlotte returned home, and soon after the three sisters began working on their novels.
It seems that Emily and Charlotte, and to a lesser extent, Anne, had found a way to exercise a power that as middle-class women in the 19th century they would have otherwise not have had. Rather than quitting a situation that she found unendurable (as Emily seemed to find all employment) she would starve herself until near death-until she was physically unable to remain at the employ that she so hated. Charlotte must have taken the cues from Emily, for she too felt powerless over her employment situations, and appeared to choose illness as a way to escape.
As in their lives, eating and starvation was a theme in many of the books by Charlotte and Emily Brontë. One of the themes of Jane Eyre is passionate hunger, though Jane's hunger was not self-imposed, it was always forced on her. One of the most powerful scenes of hunger in any novel of the period can be found when Jane flees Rochester and wanders destitute, begging farmers for their pig's slop (C. Brontë 369)
A more familiar illustration of hunger-one that was self-imposed-is found in Shirley. The morning after finding out (incorrectly) that her best friend is to wed the man that she, Caroline, loves, she catches a mysterious fever, which robs her of appetite. Having found no other way of gaining Robert Moore's affection, Caroline starves herself in what can be seen as a last desperate grasp for Moore's attention, and if not that, then death. On her deathbed Caroline finds out that Mrs. Pryor is her mother, and this gives her incentive to live. Within minutes of this discovery, Caroline regains her appetite and requests that supper be brought to her (C. Brontë 417). The circumstances of Caroline's illness indicate that there was possibly no fever at all. It seems that as with Charlotte and Emily themselves, Caroline's ailment was self-induced and consisted primarily of fasting.
Just as Emily's starvation was more pronounced and apparent in her own life-so was it in her novel. Wuthering Heights seems to revolve around food. Much of the plot, especially at Wuthering Heights takes place in the kitchen. When Catherine is challenged by her husband to choose between him and Heathcliff, she refuses, and ceases eating for days. Deliriously, Catherine, who was dying of starvation herself, remembers finding in childhood a nest filled with the skeletons of baby birds who had died of starvation. Although she consents to have dinner a few days later, she is already so ill that she never fully recovers, and months later dies within hours of giving birth to her daughter. As time passes, Heathcliff eventually starts restricting his diet more and more until he is eating only one meal a day. Soon he limits himself to no food whatsoever. While starving and talking to Catherine's ghost, one cannot help but think of the saints of the Dark Ages who starved themselves with the aspiration of communicating with God. Heathcliff soon dies of starvation, in the hopes of joining Catherine in eternity.
Charlotte and Emily Brontë used fasting as a way to express their independence at a time when few other avenues were available, but in a way that still fell within the bounds of the acceptable. When they were unable to speak out against an employment situation, they allowed their wasting bodies to do the talking for them, and their heroines were permitted to sink into starvation-induced illness. Not long after finishing Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë died of consumption, which was surely exacerbated by her many bouts of anorexia. Her coffin-maker had to construct the narrowest coffin he had ever made for an adult; it measured only sixteen inches across (Vine).
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 1996.
---. Shirley. London: Penguin, 1974.
---. Villette. London: Penguin, 1985.
Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Bemporad, Jules R. The Psychoanalytic Approach to Psychosomatics and Eating Disorders: The Prehistory of Anorexia Nervosa. New York: The Newsletter of the Psychosomatic Discussion Group of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Sept., 1997.
Bell, Rudolph M., and William N. Davis. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Frank, Katherine. A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontë. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1990.
Gordan, Lyndall. Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1994.
Orenstein, Peggy. Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. New York: Anchor Books, 1995.
Terris, Susan. Nell's Quilt. New York: Sunburst, 1996.
Vine, Steven. Bronte, Emily Jane. Date unknown. University of Swansea. 30 March 2002. http://www.litencyc.com/