Thursday, 21 April 2016

Charlotte Bronte and food

Today marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte, the eldest of the three novelist sisters.  Having previously blogged about food in Jane Eyre (published 1847), I thought that today would be a good opportunity to revisit these posts and what we learn about food in Bronte's best-known novel.

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte at the Bronte Parsonage Museum
As I reread these posts I noticed the way Jane's relationship with food in the novel mirrors her journey to self-realization as a woman able to lead her life as she chooses.

In the novel's early chapters describing her childhood, Jane is the recipient of food, the quality of which reflects her relationship with the giver.  At her harsh boarding school, Lowood, presided over by the cruel Mr Brocklehurst the food is dreadful and in limited supply .  The breakfast porridge is frequently burnt,  in the winter months the children grow faint through lack of food and bullying - over food - prevails:

Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at teatime, and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.
                                                                                                                  (Chapter 7)

But hope comes in the figure of Miss Temple, the school superintendent.  As well as providing Jane with warmth and guidance - she is the nearest to a mother figure Jane will have - she also provides her with better food.  When the porridge is burnt, Miss Temple sees to it that the pupils receive bread and cheese for lunch as compensation.  And when Jane is upset after a public reprimand by Mr Brocklehurst, Miss Temple comforts her and her friend Helen Burns giving them tea and slices of seed cake cut 'with a generous hand': see this post.

When Jane leaves Lowood School following Miss Temple's marriage, she takes up the position of governess to Mr Rochester's ward at Thornfield Hall.  Whilst she has some independence in that she is working and earning her own living, she is still dependent on an employer to pay her salary.  And whilst a governess was socially superior to other household occupations such as cook and housekeeper, since it demanded education and a certain level of gentility, it was nonetheless a paid position rendering the occupant inferior to other women who did not need to earn a living.  Jane's awkward, and difficult to categorise, position in society is then reflected in her relationship with food.  Whilst for the most part she eats food cooked for her by the kitchen staff at Thornfield Hall, she is called on to help with the cooking when Mr Rochester brings a party of "fine people" to stay.   Jane notes:

Mrs Fairfax (the housekeeper) had pressed me into her service, and I was all day in 
the storeroom, helping (or hindering) her and the cook; learning to make custards 
and cheese-cakes and French pastry, to truss game and garnish dessert-dishes. 
                                                                                                      (Chapter 17)

Whilst Jane's higher social status means she is not used to cooking, and certainly does not know how to cook the more complicated dishes required,  her position as governess means she is expected to 'muck in' when the situation requires it: see this post.

After her departure from Thornfield Hall - in the wake of her discovery (on the day of her marriage) of Mr Rochester's living wife  - Jane seeks refuge with the Rivers family who turn out to be her relations.  When she comes into an unexpected fortune, following the death of an uncle in Madeira, the newly independent Jane thanks her new-found family by spending some of her fortune on them and on the Christmas arrangements, including the making of the Christmas cake, promising that she and Hannah (the housekeeper) will devote two days to "such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince pies, and solemnizing of other culinary rites..." (Chapter 34) .  Free at last to live her life as she wishes, Jane can now choose to cook what she wants for the people she loves: see this post.

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