Disordered Eating in the Victorian Novel

“Indeed, long pain had made patience a habit.”

Villette (1853), Charlotte Brontë’s last novel (you probably know her earlier hit Jane Eyre), follows the orphaned and friendless Lucy Snowe on her journey from a village in England to the town of Villette (based on Brussels). She becomes an English teacher at a boarding school, where she withers in self-imposed isolation and submits to the relentless surveillance of the headmistress. The plot develops from Lucy’s potential friendships – with her student Ginevra, the doctor John, a childhood acquaintance Paulina, and another professor M. Paul Emanuel – yet each of these relationships shrivels and disappears. Narrated by the gifted but dismally unlucky Lucy herself, the tale is one of consistently thwarted dreams.

Victorian reviewers described the novel as “almost intolerably painful” and male writers in particular criticized Lucy’s “savage delight in refusing to be comforted, in a position of isolation and hardship.”

Villette

I too found the novel “intolerably painful,” but for a different reason, which the 19th Century reading public certainly would not have picked up on. I bet a 21st Century female athlete will understand it immediately: Lucy responds to her loneliness, bad luck, anxiety, fear, and anguish by restricting food and valuing her slender body above those of the “plump” women in Villette.

My goal is to draw out lessons from Lucy’s harmful self-restriction and help modern day women deal with the same issues (unfortunately, this problem has remained troublingly persistent over the past two centuries). To do this, I will first give some examples of how the novel sets up standards for female beauty based on body size. Then I’ll explain how Lucy fits into this scheme. Finally, I’ll show how Lucy restricts food groups and calories in a way similar to present-day women following ketogenic or strict Paleo diets. We can then discuss how Lucy’s disordered eating patterns are insufficient coping mechanisms for her problems, and propose some alternative behaviors that can benefit the modern woman.

The model of female beauty in Villette is Lucy’s English companion Paulina Mary, whose “seventeen years had brought her a refined and tender charm” (306). Lucy consistently emphasizes Paulina’s tininess with descriptions of her “pale, small features” and “fairy symmetry” (306). Fairies, traditionally, are teeny little creatures, very dainty and beautiful. Paulina’s physical petiteness goes hand-in-hand with her appropriate level of emotional self-control, her “refinement, delicacy, and perfect personal cultivation” (293). Ah, yes, that cherished word: “perfect.” Something for which all of us high-charging, Type A, female athletes strive.

This ideal of petite, self-controlled English female beauty is set in contrast to the standards of beauty for women on the Continent. Little Polly is the foil to her cousin Ginevra, who, after traveling around Europe, attending countless parties, and flirting with every man in sight, “had become quite plump, her cheeks looked as round as apples” (260).

Ginevra, who originally hails from England, becomes “quite plump” because of her worldly experience on the Continent. Indeed, it is fatness that Lucy describes disdainfully as the primary feature of the girls of Villette’s aristocracy: “several of these [girls] who had not numbered more than sixteen or seventeen years, boasted contours as robust and solid as those of a stout Englishwoman of five-and-twenty” (239). Oh no! These teenagers have the hips and boobs of full-grown women! Lucy goes on to mock “the quantity of household bread, butter, and stewed fruits” one of these girls “would habitually consume at [second dinner]” in addition to “actually pocketing slices she could not eat” (240).

Why does Lucy spend so much time snarkily thinking about the women’s indulgent eating habits? I argue that it is because she feels painfully out of place at the aristocratic concert. After all, Lucy is just a shy, depressed, and plain looking schoolteacher in the company of wealthy, happy, and healthy people. To detract from these feelings of inferiority, Lucy focuses on the bodies of the high-class, extroverted party-goers. Their plumpness is an indicator of poor self-control, and willpower is the trait that Lucy esteems above all others. Indeed, it is the only trait she knows she has, which they do not.

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Before talking about Lucy’s disordered self-control, I want to give just one more example of her disgust for corpulence. While in an art museum, she spies a painting of Cleopatra reclined on a couch [based on the painting above, Une Almée (A Dancing Girl) by a Belgian painter named Edouard de Biefve]: “She was, indeed, extremely well fed: very much butcher’s meat – to say nothing of bread, vegetables, and liquids – must she have consumed to attain that breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh” (223). Not only does Lucy declare, “It is a very ugly picture” (225), but she harshly condemns the woman’s display of her body: “She ought likewise to have worn decent garments; a gown covering her properly, which was not the case.” It is not simply fatness but the intentional display of the robust body that repulses Lucy here. In her estimation, fatness – signifying indulgence of desire – is something to shamefully hide with clothing.

For this reason, Lucy thoroughly hides her passionate and complex emotions from appearing on her face: “Allowing myself no time to think or feel – swallowing tears as if they had been wine…” (254). Her biggest fear is that her colleagues will look at her and discern “my whole inner life,” which she obsessively guards as “mine only” (495).

Although Lucy is critical of the abundant fatness around her, she does not have a positive image of her own body. In fact, once when she unexpectedly looks in the mirror she experiences, “a jar of discord, a pang of regret; it was not flattering” (234).

But still… Lucy has something on these other women. That is, emotional self-control, which manifests as physical slenderness. Lucy attains this physique by restricting food; indeed, giving her food to Ginevra. In one scene, Lucy explains how she and Ginevra make a trade every morning. Lucy doesn’t eat most of her morning roll, even though they “were new-baked and very good,” while Ginevra doesn’t drink her coffee (260). Ginevra, however, has “an excellent appetite, like any other healthy schoolgirl,” so Lucy “never varying in my preference” gives Ginevra her roll in exchange for more coffee (260). Lucy insists, “hunger I had none, and with thirst I was parched” (260). Hm, sound familiar? Lucy’s drinking BulletProof coffee before coconut oil even hit the market. Oh wait. Lucy’s coffee doesn’t even have the fat calories of our favorite BulletProof elixir! Our miserable little heroine is jacking up her cortisol with caffeine then whisking through the day “like an inoffensive shadow.” But maybe she’s just intermittent fasting. That might be ok, since she’s only teaching and not training for a marathon. Alas, Lucy’s calorie-restriction continues through lunch when she lets Ginevra “take the lion’s share” of whatever refreshment is available, whether “white beer, the sweet wine, or the new milk” (261). Indeed, it seems like Lucy is deep in ketosis following the strictest of Paleo diets.

As Lucy sinks deeper into isolation and depression, the word “shadow” becomes prominently attached to descriptions of her: “I went up-stairs to my own quarter of the long dormitory, opened my own casement… and leaning out, looked forth upon the city beyond the garden, and listened to bandmusic from the park or the palace-square, thinking meantime my own thoughts, living my own life, in my own still, shadow-world” (XIII). Upon being asked to attend an event outside the school, Lucy feels herself “to be a mere shadowy spot on a field of light” and insists, “ something thin I must wear… in this same gown of shadow, I felt at home and at ease; an advantage I should not have enjoyed in anything more brilliant or striking.”

Lucy’s shadowiness is both metaphoric and literal. Metaphorically, Lucy is a shadow because she shrinks into the background and lets others around her dominate the action. Indeed, while at an event with her godmother Lucy relates, “as I walked in her shadow, how I envied her those folds of grave, dark majesty.” She literally walks behind Mrs. Bretton in such a way as to avoid the light, all the while envying her godmother’s dress and elegant bearing.

But literally, too, Lucy is becoming a shadow – that is, incredibly thin – by not eating. Another professor (the later love interest M. Paul Emanuel) comments that, “Other people in this house see you pass, and think that a colourless shadow has gone by.” At this point in the novel, Lucy is pining for the good-natured and handsome Dr. John, who has written her several letters. She routinely sneaks up to the dormitory “and feasted on my crust from the Barmecide’s loaf. It did not nourish me: I pined on it, and got as thin as a shadow: otherwise I was not ill.” Just to be clear here, Barmecide isn’t a fancy type of bread that Lucy is actually eating. Nope, this is a reference to the Arabian Nights (the Victorians loved that book). In one of the tales, the Barmecide feast is an abundant and delectable meal that doesn’t actually satisfy hunger. So, back to Villette, Lucy is treating these letters as if they were food, but she’s not actually eating real food. Meanwhile, the letters are not satisfying her emotionally, and she is not eating enough to nourish herself physically. She literally becomes “as thin as a shadow.”

In fact, at her worst, Lucy faints in the street during a storm – I’d reckon from lack of food, though the novel treats her disorder ambiguously. Fortunately, Dr. John finds her unconscious and he and his mother nurse her at their home. She awakens and the first detail she notices about herself is her “skeleton-like” fingers. In trying to make sense of what happened while she was unconscious, Lucy remembers her spirit leaving “that poor frame, cold and wasted…” Yeah, “that poor frame, cold and wasted” is her emaciated body! Lucy KNOWS she is starving physically, yet she is impelled to maintain this restrictive eating behavior because she is starved emotionally for love: both romantic love and self-love.

It’s important to point out a few examples of Lucy’s self-denial, which I understand to be a form of self-hatred. First, when something good seems like it’s about to happen to her, Lucy actually says aloud to herself, “Hope no delight of heart – no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling – give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial communication…” (255). This poor, miserable, lonely woman explicitly tells herself to have no hope, no delight, no feeling, no relaxation, no friendship. Why? Because she anticipates these positive things being taken away. Lucy has experienced so many misfortunes beyond her control that she uses excessive control over her self – her emotions and body – to gain a feeling of control over her life.

Lucy’s self-hatred goes so far that she even makes self-deprecating remarks to the reader. When one of the other teachers, an arrogant Parisienne woman, unfairly insults Lucy in public, Lucy narrates, “The reader not having hitherto had any cause to ascribe to Miss Snowe’s character the most distant pretensions to perfection, will be scarcely surprised to learn that she felt too perverse to defend herself from any imputation the Parisienne might choose to insinuate…” (377). Huh? Translation: Lucy says, “Hey reader, I’ve never pretended to be perfect. In fact, I’m kind of a mopey wet blanket. So I was totally okay with this chick from Paris implying nasty things about me to the other women.” Wow, “perverse” indeed is Lucy Snowe. But we’ve all been there. Whether it was accepting an insult from another woman or partner, or making fun of ourselves to make others laugh (better for them to laugh with you than at you, right?) I think most of us have been Lucy Snowes before.

After all, it’s easier to control yourself than to control others or life’s circumstances. And self-control can be empowering. As Lucy says, “I was not accustomed to find in women or girls any power of self-control, or strength of self-denial” (321). Self-control is difficult, and thus, it is rare to find. It feels really good to be one of the elite few who have the immense willpower to resist indulgence.

Moderate self-control is a good thing (as seen with Paulina, who, though in love, respectfully waits for her father to permit the marriage, rather than eloping like her flirtatious cousin… ok, this is a Victorian novel so just deal with the patriarchal, heteronormative, marriage plot for a second). However, excessive self-control, as practiced by Lucy Snowe, is extremely harmful. Both Lucy’s body and mind suffer. In trying to control her mind by restricting food, Lucy’s mental state deteriorates, resulting in bleak depression and a month-long illness.

It is only in the end of the novel that we see Lucy enjoy a meal. M. Paul Emanuel has rented her a house so she can start her own day-school and the two eat in the new dining room: “Our meal was simple: the chocolate, the rolls, the plate of fresh summer fruit, cherries and strawberries bedded in green leaves formed the whole: but it was what we both liked better than a feast, and I took a delight inexpressible in tending M. Paul.” Interestingly, meat and alcohol, two foods from which Lucy consistently abstains and associates with European fatness, are absent from the “simple” meal. However, we see a commendable variety of macro-nutrients plus some indulgences, like chocolate.

There’s still a major problem though. Lucy only seems to be eating because M. Paul enjoys these foods, and she strives to foster his love of her by demonstrating her love for his inclinations, and by “tending” to his needs. Consequently, this remains a scene of self-effacement, though far less harmful than previous restrictions.

The root of Lucy’s problems is a lack of love. And while Victorian readers might say it’s a lack of a man’s love, I say it’s a lack of Lucy’s love for herself. Her pride in her self-control masks her thorough self-loathing. She does not esteem her intellect, even though she teaches well, writes brilliant essays, and masters multiple languages during the novel. She does not esteem her appearance. At one point, Lucy even says to M. Paul, “Ah! I am not pleasant to look at – ?” (533). She does not open herself to intimate friendship with either Ginevra or Paulina, who both express their feelings and secrets to her. Lucy Snowe, as her name implies, is frigidly devoid of love.

If anything is to be learned from this classic case of restrictive eating and self-repression, it is the necessity of facing emotional issues rather than obsessing over food and physique. While it may seem like controlling food is the way to gain control over your life, as this novel so clearly shows, that is not the case. “Shadows” and “skeletons” will never thrive.

The only solution is self-love. But how do we get there? It is impossible to love yourself until you know yourself, thoroughly and truly. To begin, you must release your emotions. They will be complex. They will be passionate. They will be overwhelming. But you must do this. And I think Villette actually gives us a model for how to release emotions: writing them down. After receiving a letter from her love interest, Lucy sits down and writes two letters in response: one letter that includes her uninhibited emotional response, and another letter that is pleasant but cold. Of course, she sends the second letter. But the point is that in the first letter she actually gives vent to her emotions for a change! I think everyone can benefit from this. Write a letter… to a family member, friend, partner, colleague, whatever and explain how you’re feeling. How are you feeling about yourself? A certain situation? An interaction you had with them, maybe? It doesn’t matter. Just write. Set a timer for 30 minutes and type or scrawl away. Do not stop writing, even if it doesn’t make sense or you don’t think you have anything to say. Just write bla bla bla until an idea strikes. Do not censor. Do not edit. Just write. And feel. Then read what you wrote. I guarantee you’ll be astonished. Possibly ashamed. Certainly relieved. Because those feelings will be out there and then you can face them.

You alone can bring love into your life. Because, guess what? SPOILER ALERT: M. Emanuel Paul dies in the last page of the novel! His love doesn’t bring Lucy a “happily-ever-after.” Neither romantic love nor the love of family and friends can free you from the prison of self-restriction. You must love yourself.

Refuse to be a shadow. Refuse to be snow. Be plump. Be beautiful. Be loved.

Further Reading…

Academic

Freeman, Meghan. “Cordons of Protection: The Stage of Spectatorship in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 41, no. 4, 2013, pp. 643–675., doi:10.1017/S1060150313000156.

Silver, Anna K. Victorian Literature and the Anorexic Body. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Health and Fitness

For body-positive women’s health talk: http://coconutsandkettlebells.com/

Check out Sarah’s incredible blog post about how her quest for fitness perfection made her unhealthy (and what she did about it): https://tiffanyblueyes.wordpress.com/

Also check out Tawnee Prazak Gibson’s blog posts about recovering from anorexia nervosa, and balancing a healthy approach to food and exercise with beneficial indulgences: http://www.tritawn.com/2015/11/anorexia-nervosa.html and http://www.tritawn.com/2015/11/healthy-eating-vs-eating-disorders.html

 

 

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PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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