I would like to say a huge thank you to Annabelle for this fascinating guest blog on the Brontes and the kitchen. Please check out Annabelles awesome blog at https://cicily17.wordpress.com.
Though anorexia is considered to be a modern condition, the first medical cases of it were actually reported as early as 1689. It has much more to do with control and power than with trying to be model-thin, as the Bronte sisters knew. The two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died when they were only eleven and ten respectively, of bad coughs and malnutrition; they perished at Cowan Bridge School, for the daughters of the clergy, the infamous inspiration for Jane Eyre’s Lowood. School reports indicate that, though very intelligent, both of them “worked badly” and would often refuse to eat.
Throughout their lives Anne, Charlotte and Emily would also willfully stop eating, thereby precipitating health crisis that would allow them to withdraw from school and work. It was a vicious cycle–their jobs as governesses and teachers were generally horrible, and of course their father Patrick sent them all to Cowan Bridge, having learnt nothing from the deaths of Maria and Elizabeth. School fare was nothing to whet their appetites, being mainly comprised of dry bread, hard cheese and lumpy gruel. But at home eating was also problematic–there was no “family dining”, as Patrick and the aunt who acted as their guardian both ate meals alone in their rooms. Interestingly, when Jane becomes engaged to Rochester, she refuses to eat with him; though there would be nothing improper in it, the enforced intimacy seems too much for her to take. Emily was sixteen inches across when she was measured for her coffin, indicating the tiny body within. Her most famous creation, Heathcliffe, goes on a hunger strike when his beloved Cathy dies–and Cathy dies because she will not eat, from rebellion and despair.
The hope in all this is Miss Temple, perhaps the great unsung heroine of Jane Eyre. She is the only sympathetic adult at Lowood School. She defies the wicked headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst, by bringing in food the girls can enjoy, after their main meal of the day has been burnt, an act of nurturing feminism against cruel patriarchy. In general, she is bright, sharp and optimistic, in a world that is smothering and dull.
“Sundays were dreary days in that wintry season. We had to walk two miles to Brocklebridge Church, where our patron officiated. We set out cold, we arrived at church colder: during the morning service we became almost paralysed. It was too far to return to dinner, and an allowance of cold meat and bread, in the same penurious proportion observed in our ordinary meals, was served round between the services.
At the close of the afternoon service we returned by an exposed and hilly road, where the bitter winter wind, blowing over a range of snowy summits to the north, almost flayed the skin from our faces.
I can remember Miss Temple walking lightly and rapidly along our drooping line, her plaid cloak, which the frosty wind fluttered, gathered close about her, and encouraging us, by precept and example, to keep up our spirits, and march forward, as she said, “like stalwart soldiers.” The other teachers, poor things, were generally themselves too much dejected to attempt the task of cheering others.
How we longed for the light and heat of a blazing fire when we got back!”
Miss Temple, her acts of kindness and any food that can be digested, is the blaze that keeps Jane alive. If later on Rochester will supply passionate love, this simpler love is equally important. On that note, we should all eat a roast beef sandwich or go and bake some Brie!