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The Dialects of Food:  Negotiating Social Bodies and Sexual Desire in JANE EYRE/NOVELS/ LITERATURE MAIN/ MAIN
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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.  

Bourdieu 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 Miss Temple’s upper room is Jane nourished physically and emotionally. At Thornfield, Jane eats neither with Rochester or the servants, reifying the socially indistinct existence of a governess.  She eats with Adele, her charge, in the nursery or with Mrs. Fairfax, Rochester’s relation, in a parlor.  Jane occasionally visits Rochester while he has his tea, but she doesn’t partake of his repast and only attends upon his request.  Even after their engagement, Jane refuses to dine with Mr. Rochester on the principle that she will continue in her place as a governess in order to earn her “board and lodging” (236).  In choosing not to dine with Rochester, Jane maintains the rules of social class.  Her eating habits create dialectic: though she’s free to loosen the protocols of class and slacken self-discipline, Jane re-enforces them to assert herself, redefining her freedom and independence to include social forms, an upper class formality.[1]  At Moor House, the Rivers initially nurse Jane to health on gruel in a bedroom, but then they insist that she sit in the parlor for tea and at the table for dinner, in recognition of her social class.  Jane feels comfortable with them and recognizes their equality; she wishes to help in the kitchen because the kitchen acts as a locus of family activity.  Jane’s behavior reifies the food habits of her culture, allowing food to be a marker of her social position.

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.  St John disdains Jane’s “housemaid work” in preparing for Christmas, noting that Jane was made for higher callings---specifically the self-sacrifice of missionary work.  Bronte, however, refers to Jane’s domestic work in spiritual terms:  “solemnizing culinary…rites.”  Bronte distinguishes the spiritual element of Jane’s work because the food preparations physically express her love for her family.  The proximity of the kitchen hearth, the dining room, and the parlor at Moor House indicates that food, its preparations, and its smells are part of family life.  Jane does not have to sneak food up darkened back stairways because she has been forgotten, nor does she lurk in kitchen corners with her food.  Jane’s domestic work at Moor House shows that she distinguishes between “housemaid’s work” in employment and domestic activities for her family; one is for pay and lodging, and the other physically connects her to a spiritual, familial love.  Culinary habits create an aesthetic for eating.  Manners, preparation and consumption define individuals within a social sphere.    

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 Miss Temple invites her and Helen into her rooms for tea.  Miss Temple seeks the truth about Mr. Brocklehurst’s public accusations against Jane’s character.  After her classroom trauma, Jane feels soothed when she’s permitted to explain herself.  Miss Temple’s attentiveness to Jane’s tale feeds her soul and restores her appetite.  Miss Temple’s little round table, set with china teacups and bright teapot on a tray by her fire, creates a warm, intimate hospital environment:  “How fragrant was the steam of the beverage, and the scent of the toast” (62).  In the Reed kitchen, Bessy had tried to coax the little Jane into eating after her trauma in the red room by giving her “a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in [her] a most enthusiastic sense of admiration” (17).  The sweet treat on the fine plate had not moved Jane’s spirit or appetite.  In Miss Temple’s room, Jane senses the communal significance of sharing bread with friends.  Though the portions of bread are small, Jane feasts.  The older Jane reflects:  “We feasted that evening as on nectar and ambrosia; and not the least delight of the entertainment was the smile of gratification with which our hostess regarded us, as we satisfied our famished appetites on the delicate fare she liberally supplied” (63).  Miss Temple’s sharing tea and seedcake with Jane and Helen physically symbolizes the spiritual and emotional nourishment that Jane hungers for in life.  Seedcake, a breadlike cake spiced with caraway, symbolizes the richness of their communion.  That seedcake plants in Jane the belief in human goodness and generosity:  she feels love and trust in Miss Temple’s midst.  At that point, Jane Eyre realizes that sometimes, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith” (65).  Food gratifies the body and the soul. 

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 Rochester without adequate sustenance.  Her physical body becomes wasted from lack of food as she wanders the marshes until she collapses.  Having to beg for food becomes emblematic, in her eyes, of “moral degradation” (289).  Jane connects begging for food with her own irresponsibility to adequately keep herself.  She does not blame or condemn those who scorn her and reject her requests for food.  She acknowledges that a “well-dressed beggar” should arouse suspicion.  She views her success in getting a slice of bread from an old farmer to his supposing her to be an eccentric.  Jane never connects her starvation to Rochester’s lack of discretion; she struggles to live, to eat because of him.  Unlike Rochester, Jane conflates her moral status with her physical situation, but blames only herself.  Even in the comfort of Moor House, though Jane tells Hannah it was unchristian to judge her because of her poverty and starvation, Jane had already judged herself.  Food and its consumption distinguish character and social class.

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 Paris and Jamaica reinforce.  He eats good food, smokes cigars, and drinks port after dinner, and even refers to his emotional and spiritual “hunger and thirst” in seeking Jane as his wife.  Rochester seeks physical control and consumption, whereas St John seeks spiritual control and physical denial.  St John Rivers, a clergyman from an old but poor family, has a tall, thin, drawn form; he refuses to acknowledge his love and passions for Rosamond Oliver because he recognizes that she would make an unfit missionary’s wife.  He denies the physical in preference to the spiritual and intellectual.  Not seeing a connection between the physical and spiritual, St John proposes to Jane because Jane’s strong character makes her an ideal missionary helpmate, and social form requires marriage, not companionship, in such an endeavor.  St John fails to see Jane physically or sexually.  He embraces the Western philosophical beliefs that the body often gets in the way of the higher, more meaningful spiritual states.  St John and Rochester present the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual in their social and food behaviors.  With intense self-control, St John denies himself food and creature comforts in order to transcend bodily needs, whereas in seeking physical and emotional comfort, Rochester acts upon his desires for Jane despite his marital status. 

Blood 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 financially independence.  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.  Rochester’s love and passions nourish her in a way that St John Rivers’ missionary zeal, divine calling, and willful discipline cannot.  At the moment when Jane is ready to lose herself and her will in St John’s calling, she physically responds to Mr. Rochester’s voice calling her through the night, over the marsh glen.  This preternatural spiritual call leads Jane to Ferndean in search of her master.  Even as a governess, Jane declared her spiritual equality to Rochester, saying

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 Rochester’s in a way that they could never equal St. John’s divine zeal and self-denial.  In the food imagery, Jane sees herself as only having a morsel to live on, not much, but it keeps her alive.  The imagery also suggests that she has taken in Rochester’s love and made it part of her very being:  it sustains her, becoming her lifeblood.  Bread and water are simple fare, but they are the staff of life, and are represented as such in Christian iconography.  The metaphor of bread and water allows Jane to call on the equality of their souls.  At Ferndean, Jane finds a home for body and soul.  As an independent woman with family relations, she chooses to be with Rochester.  When she approaches the blind Rochester, she brings him a glass of water.  He drinks the water from her hand, and in so doing, they start their life together.  She invites him to eat with her, even though he claims not to take an evening supper.  Eating together, without concern for class or sexual propriety, presents a communion of body, mind, and soul.  The habits of their daily life become as fecund as the greenery surrounding their home.

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 Madeira wine, but she restricts her freedoms to indulge on the basis of structured social habits.  She starves her desires and even when she finally indulges in them, she does so with water, not wine, moderating her indulgence.  The water and bread will become the wine and staff of her earthly life.


Berriedale-Johnson, Michelle.  The Victorian Cookbook   NY:  Interlink Publishing

Group, 1989.

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.

Schreiner University

[1] 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.