Saturday, 20 June 2015

The Denial of Food

When food is referred to in literature, it is usually - not surprisingly - because characters are eating it.  And when characters don't eat, it is usually because they have been deprived of food or the food is inedible, as is the case with Jane Eyre at boarding school - see

However, there are also literary characters who refuse to eat the food that is set before them, deliberately starving themselves and making themselves ill.  In Jane Austen's Emma, Jane Fairfax, orphaned niece of the impoverished Miss Bates, has a poor appetite which Miss Bates comments on at any opportunity:  ‘they had to listen to the description of exactly how little bread and butter [Jane] ate for breakfast, and how small a slice of mutton for dinner’ (ch. 20).

Jane Fairfax at the picnic at Box Hill (from the 2009 BBC dramatization)

In the course of the novel Jane's appetite diminishes further, and as she prepares to leave and take up the post of a governess she becomes quite seriously ill: in addition to having ‘severe headachs [sic], and a nervous fever’, her appetite is ‘quite gone’.  When Emma sends her ‘arrow-root’, an expensive food starch that was used to make a jelly for invalids, Jane rebuffs her act of generosity, sending back the arrow root with a ‘thousand thanks’ but saying ‘it was a thing she could not take - and, moreover, ...she was not at all in want of any thing’ (ch. 45).  Shortly after this it is revealed that Jane has been secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, and it seems likely that the pressures of keeping this secret, coupled with Frank's often cruel and thoughtless treatment of her, have led to her illness and her refusal to eat.

The denial of food owing to emotional distress also features in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847.  In this novel which charts the stormy relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, both characters refuse food when they are upset.  Early on in the novel, when Catherine comes home after spending time with a neighbouring family (the genteel Lintons of Thrushcross Grange, who provide a dramatic contrast to the unruly Earnshaws of Wuthering Heights, and into which family Catherine will subsequently marry), Heathcliff sulks and goes to bed without eating his ‘cake and cheese’ which the narrator notes ‘remained on the table all night, for the fairies’ (vol. 1, ch. 7).  At the end of the novel, Nelly Dean, the narrator and housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, reports how as Heathcliff approaches death he takes so little interest in daily life he barely remembers ‘to eat and drink’ (vol. 2, ch. 19).

But more marked than Heathcliff’s refusal to eat is Catherine’s.  When Heathcliff returns to Wuthering Heights, following an absence of three years, Catherine, who is now married to Edgar Linton and living at Thrushcross Grange ‘could neither eat nor drink’ (vol. 1, ch. 10), so excited as she is to see him again.  A short while later, following a violent argument between Edgar and Heathcliff, at the end of which Edgar tries to make Catherine choose between himself and Heathcliff, Catherine works herself into a frenzy and begins refusing food, as Nelly reports:
As she never offered to descend to breakfast next morning, I went to ask whether she would have some carried up.
‘No!’ she replied, peremptorily.
The same question was repeated at dinner, and tea; and again on the morrow after, and received the same answer.  (vol. 1, ch. 11)

Catherine watches as Edgar and Heathcliff fight it out (from the 2009 ITV dramatization)

Nelly is convinced that Catherine starves herself to punish her husband: '...she fasted pertinaciously, under the idea, probably, that at every meal, Edgar was ready to choke for her absence, and pride alone held him from running to cast himself at her feet; (vol. 1, ch. 12).

There may well be some truth in Nelly’s rather dismissive comments, but as Nelly herself acknowledges she would not have been so dismissive had ‘she known [Catherine’s] true condition’ (vol. 1, ch. 12).  For Catherine is subsequently diagnosed with a ‘brain fever’ (vol. 1, ch. 13) and whilst she does recover, her recovery is only partial: she is permanently weakened and dies a few months later in childbirth.

It might seem rather paradoxical to come up with a recipe at the end of a post about characters refusing to eat, but I was intrigued by the ‘cake and cheese’ that Heathcliff shuns.  Assuming it could not be what we call cake nowadays, I did some research and think it is possibly a reference to havercake, the Yorkshire term for a thick oatcake. One website I consulted - - notes that children were brought up on havercake and cheese, which they ate for supper.  Heathcliff’s ‘cake and cheese’ is an evening snack and, at this stage in the book, he is still a child, so it seems to fit.  So, here it is – Heathcliff’s havercakes – too good to be left for the fairies.


Ingredients (makes approximately 12): 
150g fine or medium oatmeal
One pinch salt
One pinch bicarbonate of soda
50g plain flour
Boiling water
Knob of butter
(optional: Sesame seeds)

Mix together the dry ingredients and then add the butter with enough boiling water to make a pliable dough.  Knead briefly and roll out thinly.  Cut into rounds or triangles and place on a greased baking sheet.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.  Bake for about 25 minutes at 180C (fan 170C) or gas mark 4 until brown and crisp. Serve buttered with cheese.  


1 comment:

  1. I don't think I would be able to resist eating these at night - even if I was sulking.