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In a negative 1848 review of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Rigby notes, “No woman trusses game and garnishes dessert-dishes with the same hand, or talks of so doing in the same breath.” Rigby obviously knows that the upper class Victorian kitchen would not permit meat and dessert to be prepared at the same table or in the same space simultaneously. The large kitchen space of an upper class household, removed from the main house, would be divided for various activities. As a governess, a status above the kitchen staff, Jane would not be in the habit of trussing game and baking for her master; her help in the Thornfield kitchen is limited to one event, and Bronte indicates that Jane was probably both “helping [and] hindering” Mrs. Fairfax and the cook in their preparations (143). Yet, Rigby unwittingly observes a central motif in Bronte’s novel: distinctions in food habits. Pierre Bourdieu explains that distinctions in food habits vary in meaning and purpose depending on social class. Mapping class and gender distinctions through food ways reveals the dialectic between the physical and emotional desires that motivate Jane Eyre.
points out that class structures eating habits
according to the protocol of social status.
As Jane Eyre’s social status shifts from orphan to State ward to
governess to woman of independent means, her eating habits change.
Where she eats her meals distinguishes her social place.
In the Reed house, she never eats with the family, and during
Reed family feasts and festivities, she watches from the staircase.
Jane is relegated to the nursery or the kitchen; both spaces are
removed from the family activities.
The Reed family proclivities manifest themselves in food, but
Jane remains removed from their social milieu.
In Lowood, the young girls eat together in the refectory, a
basement space permeated with unsavory smells.
The subterranean refectory makes food and feasting a lower order
concern at the school, but this status creates fierce competition among
the girls. Only at tea in
Deportment around food and the niceties of feasting define social class and create tensions in Jane’s emotional states. As a governess at Thornfield, Jane does not work in the kitchen, but at Moor House, Jane engages in culinary activities. As mentioned earlier, Jane’s work in the kitchen at Thornfield occurs once when Mr. Rochester invites guests to his home. During that time, even Mrs. Fairfax, who usually only orders the dinners but does not prepare them, involves herself in kitchen work. Though both Jane and Mrs. Fairfax prepare food for the feasting, neither of them partakes of the food at the dining table. Indeed, because the servants have forgotten to feed them, Jane sneaks into the larder to nab “a cold chicken, a roll of bread, some tarts, a plate or two, and a knife and fork” for Adele, Sophie and herself (146). They are not part of the highly structured dinner party, though Jane may sit with the women after dinner. Unlike in Thornfield, at Moor House, the family often works together with Hannah, the servant, to prepare their meals, even Jane helps Hannah with the baking. Jane notes too that Mary and Diana prepare tea for the family when household culinary tasks busy their one servant. In Moor House, the repasts feel more communal, and the smells of baking pervade the house, making it more inviting to the lonely, emaciated Jane. After Jane discovers her blood connections to the Rivers, she joyfully prepares the holiday food for her family. She spends her Christmas “beating…eggs, sorting…currants, grating…spices, compounding…Christmas cakes, chopping up…materials for mince-pies, and solemnizing…other culinary rites” (343-344). Warming the hearth for her family and creating a feast nourish Jane’s spirit.
Lowood introduces to young Jane the spiritual and physical distinctions in feasting. At Lowood, Brocklehurst’s mission “is to mortify in [the] girls the lusts of the flesh…” (56). Given the 19th Century beliefs about female sexuality, Mr. Brocklehurst’s restrictions would appear reasonable to the many subscribers of an orphan school for girls. Mr. Brocklehurst carefully regulates the food; gruel (often burnt), small rations of bread, coffee, and occasional cheese compromise the common fare, and their smells do not whet the girls’ appetites. With the school’s meager and bland food, Brocklehurst claims to tame the vanity and passions of the weaker sex, making them more receptive to spiritual pursuits and learning. In being well-dressed and well-fed, however, the Brocklehurst women create a tension between his theory of spiritual and intellectual growth in girls, and his personal practices. The tension suggests that social class and money mitigate a young girl’s “lust of the flesh.” Bourdieu points out that our needs are conditioned by our culture. Want does not condition us for education or spiritual development; on the contrary, want pre-disposes us to seek life’s necessities---food, drink, and warmth. Mr. Brocklehurst’s theory causes dissension at the school because the girls’ physical hunger makes them more aggressive and greedy. The bigger girls snatch bits of bread from the younger or weaker girls, and they also jostle the little ones for space in front of the warm hearth. The lack of food and warmth in the school causes tensions in the basic habits of every day living, as the girls struggle to satisfy basic needs. Their behavior appears bestial to the well-fed mistresses who need not fight for their share of food. The daily habits of Lowood School do not nurture an aesthetic pleasure in food, but young Jane learns to nourish herself there.
The young Jane begins to decode the significance of food when
Throughout the novel, Bronte engages gender codes about food consumption as a way of identifying character. Such a coding would adhere to 19th Century attitudes that in addition to nourishing the body and curbing appetite, food also defined character in the physical body (Brumberg 178). A well-fed body represented a far more sexual woman than a slender figure. The Brocklehurst girls are well-fed, but presumably also regulated by their father’s examples of the Lowood girls. The plump and pretty Georgiana Reed, however, grows up into an overly self-indulgent, sexual, and indolent young woman. In interesting contrast, her overly thin sister, Eliza, enters a convent only for the purpose of a regulated, self-disciplined life, not for spiritual growth; she is pinched and sexually unproductive. Overly robust female bodies also were viewed as vulgar or lower class. The mysterious Grace Poole of Thornfield Hall, with her tippling, trays of food, and smoking, appears animal-like in her nature. Jane even refers to Grace as retreating to her lair when she goes up to the attic. And, of course, the most infamous animally sexual female body is Bertha Mason Rochester’s. Hidden in the attic lair, her robust physical body, bloated from food and drink, makes her the archetype of the overly sexual woman of 19th Century fiction. She raves and hulks like an animal. Bertha Mason Rochester is the antithesis of the spritely small Jane Eyre (Gilbert and Gubar).
Bronte’s gendered references to food also code Jane’s emotional and physical states. Jane’s slight figure wants flesh when she first arrives at Thornfield, where she is greeted with a repast of hot negus and sandwiches. Though the non-descript sandwiches represent basic nourishment, the negus, a beverage mixed with wine, hot water, lemon juice, sugar and nutmeg, contains exotic ingredients that mark a shift in Jane’s emotional life. The drink warms Jane and foreshadows the richness of her emotional life at Thornfield, a richness that she fears has intoxicated her when she watches Mr. Rochester and Blanche Ingram flirt. Seeing the buxom and beautiful but haughty and mentally infertile Miss Ingram charm Mr. Rochester, Jane admonishes herself for having “surfeited herself on sweet lies, swallowed poison as if it were nectar” (140). Though Thornfield Hall is a respected British estate, its wealth and intrigue come from another country, an exotic tropical country of sugar, coffee, and rum. Jane has indulged her feelings for Mr. Rochester beyond the proper boundaries of her social position and her physical beauty, and this indulgence has increased her appetite and filled out her small figure. During the Ingram’s visit, however, Mrs. Fairfax notes that Jane “eat[s] nothing; [she has] scarcely tasted…tea” (140), and she further says that Jane looks pale and sickly. Jane’s emotional withdrawal manifests itself in her failure to eat. After her broken nuptial, Jane refuses all food and flees
Bronte also signifies social and gender codes in food habits among men in order to distinguish character. John Reed’s overfed face and body make his unjust and imperial behavior toward Jane representative of bloated social power. No surprise that he dissipates his family’s fortune in food, drink, sexual licentiousness, and gaming. Mr. Brockelhurst’s tall, lean figure portends self-denial and structured discipline. Conversely, Mr. Rochester, possessing a stocky, sturdy, masculine body, shows a swarthy passion for indulgence that his stories of Celine Varens and his days in
connects and defines physical appetite and social behavior.
Jane’s blood lines cross religious and social propriety
with the colonial spirit of adventure and power.
Her father, a minister, left her orphaned and poor, and her
uncle, a merchant from Madeira, disrupts her marriage, but leaves her
From the outset, Jane shows her need for physical as well as spiritual
nourishment. At the same
time, she wants desperately to adhere to proper social codes.
Do you think that I can stay to become nothing to you?...and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup. Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!...I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh---it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,---as we are not. (222)
Jane’s spirit and
passions are equal to
Bourdieu explains that class and gender manifest themselves in our
culinary habits and reveal themselves in the structured behaviors that
repeat and reify social status.
Food and taste preferences encode themselves on our physical bodies and
may create dialectic in social and emotional status.
Bronte engages food habits and food tropes to reveal the
dialectic between Jane Eyre’s physical and emotional desires.
Jane’s blood may be as passionate as
Berriedale-Johnson, Michelle. The Victorian Cookbook NY: Interlink Publishing
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans.
Richard Nice. Cambridge MA: Harvard UP, 1984.
Brumberg, Joan J. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa (Vintage) Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.
Gilbert, Susan and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Second Edition (Yale Nota Bene). New Haven: Yale UP, 1978.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1999.
Malson, Helen. The Thin Woman: Discourses of Anorexia and Gender (Women & Psychology). New York: Routledge, 1998.
Michie, Helena. The Flesh Made Word: Female Figures and Women's Bodies. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.
Kirsten Komara, Ph.D.
 Bourdieu points out that rules regarding food consumption and dining are more structured in the upper class. Conversely, among the lower classes, dining as well as all leisurely activities are free from form and protocol, showing a release from social control.