Michele Roberts on Charlotte Bronte, the gourmet

How eating becomes a metaphor in the novels of Charlotte Bronte

One would not normally accuse Charlotte Bronte of being a gourmet. Yet food plays a significant part in her writing. She uses it to comment powerfully on women's longings, women's hungers. She learnt from Shakespeare's plays how to use imagery to construct the subtext of her stories; so food metaphors twine through her novels to emphasise the importance of loving nurture, or its absence, in childhood, and to suggest the complexities and subtleties of social, political and personal relationships.

Not much subtlety is needed to decode the significance of the wretched fare served up to the starving orphans in Jane Eyre. Breakfast at the orphanage, Lowood School, consists of porridge, often burnt, the rancid-smelling dinner is usually "indifferent potatoes and strange shreds of rusty meat", tea is half a slice of brown bread and a cup of coffee, and supper a fragment of oatcake washed down with water. The bigger girls bully the little ones into giving up their share. The cruelly Calvinist superintendent of Lowood, the patriarchal Reverend Brocklehurst, considers that bad food provides an opportunity for his skinny charges to mortify their sinful flesh. When the kindly headmistress, observing that no one could eat the burnt porridge, orders a lunch of bread and cheese to be served in its place, Brocklehurst reproaches her for putting the appeasement of the pupils' hunger above the salvation of their immortal souls. Once Jane is working as a governess at Thornfield Hall, she is, not surprisingly, fascinated by the rich fare on offer: custards, cheesecakes, French pastry, roast chicken, tarts and trussed game. Dangerous, exotic food, which points to other appetites and possible immorality: the master of Thornfield wants to treat her, Jane considers, not only like a petted mistress but like a sexual slave. The shadow side of hunger, destructive greed, is evinced by the madwoman in the attic, a vampiric monster, who, in a moment of wild gothic abandon, bites her own brother in the neck and sucks his blood. Fleeing Rochester's dominating, possessive love and his fantasies of feeding her on manna, Jane almost dies of starvation on the moors. She is rescued by a kindly Christian family who nurse her back to health on good, simple food such as bread and milk, gruel, and griddle cakes. When she is finally reunited with Rochester, he hails her arrival as the end of a long famine.

In Shirley, her novel of agrarian and industrial unrest set in the early 19th century, Bronte deploys food as a synonym for politics and morals. The noisy, greedy curates in the opening scene, wolfishly devouring their roast mutton, Yorkshire pudding, toast, tea and wine, are satirised in their own right, but their bad table manners, their grabbing more than their fair share of what's on offer, connect them to the exploitation Bronte depicts as general in society at that time.

Bronte, a Tory, preached tolerance and compassion rather than revolution. The good vicar gives food money to an unemployed parishioner's family; Shirley, the rich heiress, sends wine and victuals to both the soldiers and the wounded workers, after the strikes at the mill have led to riots and violence; Shirley, charmingly democratic, eats her toasted muffins while seated on the floor by the nursery fire, sharing her meal with the lowly tutor.

Villette provides some of the most touching food images in all of Bronte's writing. Lucy Snowe, arriving in Belgium to work as a teacher in a girls' boarding school, is thawed from her loneliness and homesickness by the attentions of the fiery literature teacher, M Paul Emanuel. He locks her in the garret to learn her part in the school play, but brings her a petit pate a la creme. He scolds her for vanity but takes her out, with the others, for a delicious country breakfast of rolls, jam, coffee and cream. He searches her desk for seditious texts, but leaves her little bags of confits. At the end of the novel he provides her with a doll-sized house of her own, and they sit on the miniature balcony together feasting on hot chocolate, brioches and strawberries. M Paul acts as mother: a potent image. Men feeding women: very sexy.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The defeat of the left