Power and Starvation in the Novels and Lives of Emily and Charlotte Bronte
In the fictional worlds of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, one of the few ways that women who otherwise have very little say in their lives are able to express dissatisfaction is through self-starvation and illness. It is noteworthy that in their own lives the Bronte sisters exhibited many eccentric habits in regards to eating, and both Charlotte and (especially) Emily engaged in self-starvation similar to the strategies used by the characters in their novels.
Anorexia is a general term that describes the decline of appetite or aversion to food, though it is most commonly used to refer to self-starvation. Anorexia was not new during the time of the Brontës. Although eating disorders are often thought of as being a modern day phenomenon, it is in fact only widespread diagnosis that is a recent occurrence. Those who had no other means to wield power, other than in terms of individual self-control, have long used starvation and fasting as a means of exerting control over an environment in which they felt powerless.
In his book, Holy Anorexia, Rudolph Bell sites a case of anorexia in a 20 year old girl from as early as 1686 (3). In fact, eating disorders were fairly common in the time leading up to the Brontë's era, although the motivations behind them were often quite dissimilar. Today, young women are often driven to starve themselves because, "they must conform to an impossible, media-driven standard of beauty which holds that 'you can never be too thin.'" (Orenstein 94) In the 18th and 19th century, however, thinness was not an ideal to strive towards, and the psychology behind fasting and starvation was oftentimes more complicated.
During the Brontë's era, it was considered uncouth for women to allow themselves to be seen eating, but the ideal body type for a woman was plump. Therefore, fasting had little to do with cultural expectations for physical appearance. Instead, fasting was a means towards spiritual or religious enlightenment. Between 1206 and 1934 there were 261 documented cases of women starving themselves for religious reasons. Along with starvation, it was common to inflict severe punishment upon their bodies, and refuse all offers of marriage. It was not rare for women who died of anorexia to be canonized as saints (Bemporad 2).
Purely religious reasons were not always behind a woman's fasting--it was often used as a means to exert control by women who were essentially powerless in their societies. Bemporad sites one of these cases which took place in the Dark Ages; a young woman who was betrothed by her father against her wishes, starves herself until she becomes so unattractive that her suitor refuses to marry her (3). This theme occurs in literature about the 19th century as well; in a popular young adult novel set in 1899, the heroine starves herself to the brink of death after being forced into an...