Guy J. Heremesh
Many people believe that eating disorders are a product of the twentieth century, brought on by teenage girls aspiring to be supermodels like Cindy Crawford. Although such pressures are precipitating factors to many eating disorders, doctors diagnosed patients with anorexia as early as 1689 (Spignesi 7). One early example of anorexia is present in the novel Jane Eyre. Written in the mid-nineteenth century by Charlotte Brontë, this book describes a young girl whose personality bears striking similarities with that of a diagnosed anorexic. The life of the main character, Jane, has also been shown to share innumerable similarities with Brontë's own life. Biographical information from researchers and autobiographical information from Jane Eyre (whether intentional or not) verify that Brontë had an eating disorder.
Brontë was raised in the nineteenth century, a time in which many psychologists believe that eating disorders may have been more common than originally thought. With science and psychology still in their infancy, the victims of these disorders were said to suffer from either insanity, hysteria, or narcissism. Changes in the twentieth century society have led to a greater likelihood of an eating disorder being discovered, diagnosed, and reported. In the nineteenth century, however, girls
were not subjected to regular health checks at school and took little physical exercise. Girls' bodies were hardly ever seen undressed, except perhaps by their mothers, sisters, or maid servants. In the higher socio-economic classes, women generally dressed elaborately, wearing corsets and other apparel which concealed and transformed their figures. (van't Hof 28)Young women of the nineteenth century were also kept under strict control, most often leading lives organized around the preparation for marriage. Patrick Brontë, Charlotte's father, kept the Brontë household in strict order and was known to fly into a rage when things did not turn out the way he thought they should. According to Fraser, a biographer of Charlotte Brontë, on one occasion Patrick sawed up all the chairs in his wife's bedroom simply "because one of her confinements went wrong" (22). Other times, he was said to have burnt the hearth rug, cut up his wife's favorite dress, and to have burnt the children's colored boots because he thought they would promote vanity. At the time, children were taught to be subservient and had few ways to cope. The Brontës might have dealt with it the way many nineteenth-century children learned to, resorting "to a nonverbal expression of their psychic distress. Food was an obvious instrument for this purpose" (van't Hof 51). Patrick Brontë's effect on his children at first does not seem too influential until one considers that he was their only parent (as their mother died when Charlotte was five) and one of the only adults they socialized with.
The effects of Patrick Brontë's strictness started to surface when Maria and Elizabeth, Charlotte's older sisters, both died of consumption in 1825. This disease is marked by the progressive wasting away of the body. It is believed that the girls' consumption was the result of tuberculosis, however, because of Patrick Brontë's frugality and the relative seclusion of the Brontë home, so that they were not seen by good doctors. Today's medical professionals may have diagnosed this wasting away of the body as a psychological disorder. If indeed an eating disorder was the case, then it is not surprising that Charlotte's other siblings succumbed to "tuberculosis" as well. Her brother Branwell, who tried to escape from his life through alcohol, died in 1848, while Charlotte's other sisters Emily and Anne died in 1849.
Death from consumption also occurs in Jane Eyre, with Helen Burns being the victim. Burns, who was supposed to be patterned after Brontë's sister Maria, also exhibits some of the classic signs of an eating disorder. These typical psychological characteristics are noted in Whitney and Rolfes' Understanding Nutrition: "From early childhood she (the anorexic) has been a high achiever . . . anxious at social events and unable to easily establish close relationships" (288). Other characteristics that Burns shares with anorexics include her attempts to please and rebelling through non-vocal measures. Burns' possession of these tell-tale signs strongly suggests that she might have an eating disorder.
Of all the characters in Jane Eyre, the one whose personality most resembles that of someone with an eating disorder is Jane herself. Jane's symptoms start in her early childhood. According to Angelyn Spignesi, author of Starving Women: Psychology of Anorexia Nervosa, "Traditionally, the mother of the anorexic has seemed to be a bitch. . . . One thing researchers consistently document: the anorexic's mother is domineering, demanding, frustrated, and ambitious" (39). Although Jane's mother has died, the dominant female figure in her life, Mrs. Reed, strongly mirrors these characteristics. As Jane's aunt and guardian, Mrs. Reed tries to control the main aspects of her life. Control issues, such as the "red room" incident (45), are a common scenario in the lives of most anorexics. Jane is forced into a life of near solitude, completely separated from the Reed family, and as Jane herself says, condemned "to take my meals alone" (59).
Like Helen Burns, Jane exhibits classic symptoms of a person with an eating disorder: she is meticulous, scholarly, compulsive, and a perfectionist. She also shares all of the predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors common to individuals with anorexia nervosa. She is Caucasian, female, middle-class, from an industrialized nation, and reaching sexual maturity; she has family conflicts, she has pressures to achieve, she is isolated, she fears loss of control, and she experiences several stressful situations (van't Hof 17). As these situations appear throughout the novel, it can be presumed that they are an integral part of Jane's character. Jane also exhibits the social development lag that is present in many anorexics. Because the anorexic is over-involved with her family, she does not develop the skills necessary for dealing with people her own age and "becomes overly skilled in observing and transacting with adults" (Minuchin 60). This might partially explain why Jane falls in love with Rochester, a man old enough to be her father.
The most obvious similarity between Jane and people with eating disorders is that they are both obsessed with food. Throughout the novel, Jane continually talks about food, mainly starting when she enter school at Lowood. The reader rarely learns about what the girls study or what activities they do, but information regarding what food is eaten at every meal is explained again and again (75, 76, 77, 78, etc.). Even when Jane and Helen go to meet the greatly esteemed Miss Temple (the headmistress at Lowood), food is the central theme in the description of the event (104).
Jane seems to become less obsessed with food after she moves to Thornfield, where she experiences love for the first time. Rochester's attentiveness and happiness with Jane's personality help control the problem, but it still exhibits itself. A primary example of this is when Jane refuses to eat her meals with Rochester even though they are planning to be married (298).
When Jane leaves Thornfield, her eating problems reemerge. The reader is constantly aware of how hungry Jane is, and what berries she finds to eat. Then Jane starts begging for food and eating from pig troughs, only to end up delirious on the Rivers' front porch seven days after leaving Thornfield (352, 362). As a week is not that long a period of time to survive on little or no food, Jane must have been suffering from poor nutrition before leaving Thornfield. Jane is so ill after this fast that it takes her days to be nursed back to health. During this time she is described as emaciated by both Diana and Mary Rivers (365). For a person to become emaciated (a condition often described as when someone stands with her knees together and her thighs do not touch), it would take much longer than seven days. Even considering that Jane had a smaller than average body frame, and probably hiked twenty to thirty miles, it is highly unlikely that seven days of fasting would have left her in such a poor condition.
Aside from what can be discovered in Jane Eyre and the rest of Brontë's life, the way she died is enough to suggest that Brontë had an eating disorder. In 1855, she fell ill to indigestion and had continual fainting sickness. "But instead of getting better in a few weeks, Charlotte got steadily worse. She became very emaciated, her illness punctuated by continual vomiting" (Fraser 481). She died later that year.
Much of Jane Eyre was autobiographical, which suggests that the emergence of Jane's symptoms also serves to show that Charlotte Brontë herself had an eating disorder. Both Jane and Charlotte fit the classic psychological profile of a person suffering from anorexia nervosa. Both were perfectionists, obsessed with food, and searching for control.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1847. NY: Penguin,
Fraser, Rebecca. The Brontës: Charlotte and Her Family.
NY: Ballantine Books, 1988.
Minuchin, Salvador, et al. Psychosomatic Families: Anorexia
Nervosa in Context. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
Spignesi, Angelyn. Starving Women: A Psychology of Anorexia
Nervosa. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc., 1983.
Vandereycken, Walter, and Ron Van Deth. From Fasting Saints
to Anorexic Girls. NY: New York University Press, 1994.
van't Hof, Sonja. Anorexia Nervosa: The Historical and Cultural
Specificity. Berwyn: Offsetdrukkerij Kanters B.V., 1994.
Whitney, Elanor Noss, and Sharon Rady Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition. Minneapolis: West Publishing Co., 1993.