Charlotte Brontë was born on the 21st of April 1816 at the heart of the small village of Thornton in West Yorkshire.
Despite her position as a woman in Victorian England, Brontë propelled herself into the literary mainstream when she published Jane Eyre in 1847. Originally published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Brontë wrote in literary defence of her sex with her scowling commentary on gender roles in the not-so-enlightened 19th Century Britain… All the more amazingly, she achieved this without triggering men--writing within the constraints of a sexist society a romantic social-commentary that was too good for the Meninists of the 19th Century to deny.
However, I am not going to dwell on the proto-feminist aspect of Brontë’s works when a thousand others have already gone on about it. I am going to concentrate on something I understand much better: food.
Food is one of my favourite things in life and in literature. When the writer takes time to describe in excessive detail (see George R. R. Martin) the meal at a table—that’s my jam. Deliriously salivating all over the paperback, I find myself picturing and reading into the meaning of the food items.
Bare this in mind: in Victorian Britain, appearance was everything. To be too gaunt was to expose your poverty and too curvy to render you a glutton in the eyes of society. It is no surprise, then, that food should be a recurring theme in Brontë’s novels.
Brontë frequently used food as a bleak mood setter and symbol of desperation. Take for example Eyre’s meals of burnt porridge at the oppressive Lowood school or morsel of bread scrounged after leaving Mr. Rochester,“I had one morsel of bread yet: the remnant of a roll I had bought in a town we passed through at noon with a stray penny”.
Mirfield Roe Head--the school Brontë joined at 14 and the inspiration for the oppressive Lowood school in Jane Eyre
At other times Brontë unapologetically and pretty explicitly uses food as erotic discourse. Take for instance Villette’s Ginevra Fanshawe who at the pensionnat refuses“Friday's salt fish and hard eggs”...
All in all, little of the food in Villette or Jane Eyre is likely to get your tummy rumbling. Perhaps one exception is Bessie’s cakes: a nourishing light in the darkness during Eyre’s agonising period living with the Reeds.
Indeed all this is not to say that the Victorian Briton couldn’t cook. As husband and wife endowed with a considerable fortune, Jane and Edward Rochester would have feasted on fancier foods than breads and porridge. Fairly relatable to today’s, Victorian luxury foods included oysters, sorbets, meringues, soufflés and all sorts of fancy cakes.
Trawl through some vintage cookbooks and you’ll find plenty of delicious and unique recipes such as Mrs. Rundell's Cookery: Sweets 1886
As to whether Brontë or the figure of Jane Eyre was a feminist icon or self-deprecating crypto-chauvinist, we still have no consensus and I’m not about to throw in my two cents. All I know is I understand food because it tastes good and doesn’t require theory.
That’s why cuisine features as a universal, accessible metaphor for spiritual desperation or uncouth excess across literature. Whether Gollum’s refusal to eat the pure, elven ‘lembas’ bread in the face of starvation in Lord of the Rings or Oblonsky’s extravagant dinner with the neurotic Levin in Ana Karenina, food communicates complex thoughts, feelings and personalities of characters in a very clear way.
If you want a deeper insight into the mind of Charlotte Brontë then check out the essay‘Charlotte Brontë on Hegel’ by Michael Griffin. It has Hegel in the title so it’s probably pretty deep.
On the other hand, if you’d rather just experience the literary genius of Charlotte Brontë in a gorgeous vintage edition of her works, then follow the link below:
he’s still too old for her...
[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.
In conclusion, Charlotte Brontë was not only one of the most significant, influential writers of Victorian England but a crypto radical feminist who revolutionised the way people view the role of men and women in society. Her genius lay in communicating this oppressive antagonism in a way that didn’t upset oversensitive men but appealed to them as a kernel within a wider enjoyable and accessible story.
I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will
In “The Phenomenology of Mind” (1807), Hegel proposes that absolute knowledge, and hence maturity, cannot come about until one’s consciousness becomes self-conscious and recognizes the self-consciousness of another. To illustrate this proposition, he tells the story of a master–servant dialectic, which can be about an individual’s struggle for freedom as she tries to realize herself, or a society’s struggle for freedom as it tries to realize itself. If Brontë was not conscious of Hegel, he was still fundamental to her zeitgeist and it is difficult if not impossible to discuss “Jane Eyre” as bildungsroman and ignore how the heroine’s maturity depends on the way she internalizes Hegel’s enormously influential dialectic. Near the end of her time at Lowood School, Jane becomes a young teacher who prays to God for liberty, change, and stimulus, but when her prayers are not answered she cries out desperately: “Then, grant me at least a new servitude!” This appeal to the master-servant dialectic frames the rest of the novel, as Jane explores the consequences of needing a master while having fixed ideas about the master she needs
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