Revelation in the Body: Eating, Ethics, and Revising the Platonic soul in the Eighteenth-Century Feminine

Deane Curtin effectively summarizes the dominant contention with regard to edibles when he writes:

Substances have relations to food as objectified; food is understood as ‘other’… because of the dual nature of substances as mind and body, food is understood merely as fuel that recharges the body while leaving the mind untouched. Substances have relations to food, but such relations are indirect, external. Therefore they are not understood as defining what it means to be a person. Therefore, they are not understood as defining what it means to be a person. By the term ‘objectified relation,’ then, I intend to characterize the substance project’s implied understanding of the relation of mental substance to food: while a relation exists between a substance and food, this relationship is not considered to be defining. A mental substance can enter into such external relation without losing its independence.[1]

Yet, while Curtin articulates that the external relations “are not understood as defining what it means to be a person” various representations in eighteenth century art reveal another truth.  

 I would like to momentarily reflect on a rather massive tome, Clarissa, in order to demonstrate one instance in which the feminine utilizes the body in order to preserve and protect the integrity of her soul. Eating becomes a practice of applied ethics – the systematic execution of what is right and moral practice. Initially in Richardson’s novel, eating appears as an extension of feminine affect.  As such, as Clarissa’s displeasure with her proposed suitor, Mr. Solmes, increases, her desire to eat decreases.  Yet, this is not attention seeking behavior as Clarissa goes to lengths to be sure that her parents do not realize that she is abstaining from meals, and she convinces her maid to eat her meals so as not to appear obstinate. 

I view this silent abstention as vital to understanding Clarissa’s moral motivations. In 1685, Thomas Tryon, English merchant turned author of instructional manuals (and, fittingly enough, and early proponent of ethical vegetarianism), composed A new method of educating children, or, Rules and directions for the well ordering and governing them during their younger years.  While his techniques include instruction on a variety of practices, it is his insistence on the proper diet for women and children that I am interested in examining in conjunction with Clarissa. In order to justify the importance of a proper feminine diet, Tryon writes:

All Seed partakes of the Nature and Quality of the Ground wherein to it is sown: If the Ground be good, and the Seed good, you may reasonably expect sound and firm Fruit, without blemish or distemper. Proper Method… must be observed, or all will be spoil’d. What Crop can the Husband-man hope for, if he neglects to Till and Manure his Land, or sows it with improper and unsuitable Seed?[2]

Culturally, Tyron’s sentiments on diet serve to inscribe the body of the feminine fully into the maternal discourse of domesticity. Yet, the importance placed on food and eating habits is resonant with the Clarissa’s actions as, ultimately, her self-starvation coincides with a feminine distress that Tryon aims to avoid. In the face of the less than moral Lovelace, Clarissa turns to her body to access and preserve agency over her moral objections to an ignoble suitor.  In many ways the option of starvation presents itself as an act of rebellion – a noble practice of ethics that preserves her honor through text, extra-bodily, all the while being pursued through the very corporeal vessel that defies the platonic divide.

It is in the moments that Clarissa abstains from food during her time with Lovelace that make Tryon’s association of nutrition and companionship most compelling for my argument.  According to Tryon’s model of proper feminine digestive intake, diligent adherence to a suitable diet is a necessary responsibility of women.  Proper food, Tryon establishes, promotes a proper disposition, and thus requires “that particular care be taken about the Education of Women themselves, since they sow the first Seeds in the Humane Ground.”[3]  Inherent in taking “particular care” in the education of women is a warning to monitor the successful acquisition of this nutrition and diet so as to have good ground for sowing seed.  Clarissa’s early demands for her maid to help obscure her emphasize a panoptic awareness that her diet is being monitored.  This moment is echoed when Mrs. Harlowe agrees to “excuse [her] attendance at afternoon tea”[4]  and when she declares Clarissa unfit to attend breakfast later in the novel.[5] In both of these instances, abstaining from meals is an acceptable course of action for Clarissa to take as they have been concealed by a sympathetic feminine companion, her mother. Once out of her parents’ house, Lovelace seems discontented with Clarissa’s management of her food consumption.In a letter addressed to Miss Howe, Clarissa relates an exchange with Lovelace regarding food:

While we were talking at the door, my new servant came up with an invitation to us both to tea.  I said he might accept of it, if he pleased; but I must pursue my writing; and not choosing either tea or supper, I desired him to make my excuses below…He objected particularity in the eye of strangers as to avoiding supper.[6]

Interestingly, in this exchange Clarissa is no longer afforded excuse for avoiding food as she was earlier from her mother.  Mrs. Harlowe’s exemption made Clarissa’s abstinence acceptable and not troubling.  Yet, in this instance Clarissa seeks the excuse of her own accord, offering this to Lovelace’s objection: “You know…and can tell them that I seldom eat suppers.  My spirits are low.  You must never urge me against a declared choice.”[7]   Clarissa’s insistence that she be allowed to skip dinner provides her with an opportunity to issue her agency in her relationship with Lovelace.  She will not be convinced to budge on her position, yet her position is concerning to Lovelace and, for different reasons, to the reader. 

            Lovelace notes that her denial of supper will look strange to the other women in the Sinclair house.  Lovelace hopes that Clarissa will become friendly with the women in the house over their teas and meals, but her denial of supping in company thwarts his hopes in another way as well.  Frustrated with Clarissa’s stubborn refusal to eat Lovelace writes to Belford:

Now let me tell thee that I have known a bird actually to starve itself, and die with grief, at its being caught and caged – But never did I meet with a lady who was so silly.  Yet have I heard the dear souls most vehemently threaten their own lives on such an occasion.  But it is saying nothing in a woman’s favour, if we do not allow her to have more sense than a bird.  And yet we must all own that it is more difficult to catch a bird than a lady.[8]

Clearly, Lovelace’s association of Clarissa and a caged bird is a disturbing metaphor for her precarious position as subject to Lovelace’s intentions, but Lovelace’s notion that Clarissa’s actions reflect negatively on femininity is interesting for different reasons.  Lovelace does not interpret Clarissa’s denial of food as reasonable response to low spirits.  Rather, it is a “silly” recourse that potentially demeans Clarissa’s character.

The fact that Clarissa chooses a course distinct from Tryon’s prescriptive end demonstrates that she is attempting to navigate the thorny realm of permissible feminine action – she is using her body as a tool to align her physical position with her moral disposition.  Abstaining from meals grants Clarissa some much valued privacy and time for contemplation that she might not be guaranteed otherwise.  The association of privacy and self-starvation is certainly a troubled one, but one that Richardson explores repeatedly.  In a letter to Miss Howe, Clarissa relates that as an explanation of her absence from dinner, the women in the house are informed of her “love of retirement.”  To this the women amicably respond assuring that Clarissa “should not be broken in upon.”[9]  In other moments in the novel, Clarissa is able to compose letters during her respite from the others at meal-time. 

Ultimately, however, Clarissa’s denial of food will have complicated results.  She insists that she is not willfully trying to kill herself, but she cannot deny that body, along with her spirits, is weakening.  She writes:

As I am of opinion, that it would have manifested more of revenge and despair, than of principle, had I committed a violence upon myself when the when the villainy was perpetrated; so I should think it equally criminal, were I now willfully to neglect myself; were I purposely to run into the arms of death…when I might avoid it.  Nor…must you impute to gloom …a spirit of faulty pride, or still more faulty revenge, the resolution I have taken never to marry this; and if not this, any man.[10]   

Clarissa continues to assert that she will eat “when appetite serves” and “will eat and drink what is sufficient to support nature” (1118).  While she may continue to eat enough to sustain what she considers adequate nutrition, her tragic fate seems to complicate this matter.  Equally complicating is Clarissa’s notion that it would be criminal to “willfully neglect” herself but that she would from henceforth be staunchly opposed to marriage of any variety.  The narrative conclusion of Richardson’s novel seems to indicate that without the option of becoming a wife, Clarissa’s options are sorely limited.  Ultimately, readers are left to celebrate Richardson’s virtuous heroine though she ultimately has no recourse of spirit except through the control of the body.  While Tryon’s tract regards feminine nourishment as a lifelong responsibility, Richardson explores the suffering Clarissa endures as a form of protest that sees death as “the refreshing inn after a fatiguing journey: the end of a life of cares and troubles; and, if happy, the beginning of a life of immortal happiness”.[11]



[1] Footnote

[2] Tryon footnote

[3] footnote

[4] Clarissa 97

[5] Ibid 103

[6] Ibid 525

[7] ibid

[8] Ibid 557

[9] Ibid 529

[10] Ibid 1117

[11] Ibid


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