Charlotte Brontë and Defensive Conduct: The Author and the Body at Risk

By Janet Gezari | Go to book overview

4. The "Mental Stomach" in Shirley: Digesting History

Digest, v. fig. and transf. (from the digestion of food).

To bear without resistance; to brook, endure, put up with; to "swallow, stomach."

To comprehend and assimilate mentally; to obtain mental nourishment from.

The first words spoken in Shirley are a demand for food: "More bread!" They do not come from the starving workers in Robert Moore's woollen mill but from a hulking Irish curate, who addresses them to a fellow curate's landlady.

"Cut it, woman," said her guest; and the "woman" cut it accordingly. Had she followed her inclinations, she would have cut the parson also; her Yorkshire soul revolted absolutely from his manner of command. (I, 1, 11)

These impositions by an overbearing foreign gentleman on a Yorkshire working-class woman who suppresses her ready response to them sound the main themes that Shirley's readers have consistently charged the novel with failing to connect.1 In Mrs. Gale, gender, class, and regional motives coincide, and her conflict with the curate reveals the deep relation between oppressive social distinctions and physical violence. "She would have cut the parson also." Her impulse is to make this young blade feel the edge of her knife and to affect not to see or know him, as if she were socially what she is morally, his superior.

Most readers will not need to be persuaded that food in Shirley's opening scene has political and psychological as well as social valency. "Both perspectives," Stanley Cavell writes, are "interested in who produces food and in how food is distributed and paid for."2 All three perspectives are interested in how much food is available, and in who provides and serves it. Six-year-old Abraham Gale's complaint when his mother's spice-cake disappears into the curates' bellies registers the throbbing pro-

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