Friday 8 April 2016

Charlotte Brontë and the BMI

There is a very funny scene in Charlotte Brontë's novel Villette where Lucy Snowe visits the art museum and confronts a painting titled ``Cleopatra.'' Before she is shuffled off by M. Paul Emanuel to ``a particularly dull corner'' to view a dreary series called ``La vie d'une femme'', Lucy has a good look at the Rubenesque Cleopatra.

This is possibly the painting that Lucy Snow saw!
She does not look that big though!
The lounging woman in the painting looks ``considerably larger ... than the life,'' thinks Lucy, who wonders at her ``breadth and height, that wealth of muscle, that affluence of flesh.'' Lucy calculates that Cleopatra ``would infallibly turn from fourteen to sixteen stone.'' That's about 90-100 kilograms or around 200 pounds!

Charlotte based the description on a real painting (by a now forgotten artist) that she had seen in 1842 in Brussels. Did she realize that she could have used a fairly recent Belgian innovation to help her calculate the Cleopatra's ``affluence of flesh''? Ghent-born Adolphe Quetelet in the 1830s developed an index to classify a person's weight relative to an ideal scale. Called the Quetelet Index, his method is still used today, though it was renamed the Body Mass Index (BMI) in the 1970s.

Adolphe Quetelet
Quetelet was a mathematician, astronomer, statistician and sociologist known for using statistics in the study of social phenomena. He founded the Royal Observatory in Brussels in 1828, served as secretary of the Belgian Royal Academy (1834–74), and organized the first International Statistical Congress, in 1853. His statue stands in the grounds of the Palais des Académies, near the Royal Palace and the Parc de Bruxelles, the park where Lucy Snowe finds herself a couple of times in the course of Villette.

Charlotte could have seen Quetelet during her time in Brussels. She might have passed him on the street or in the park. She could have read about him in the newspaper, or heard about one of his periodic lectures. While she may not have thought about the Quetelet Index while in Belgium, Charlotte did show an interest in astronomy during her stay -- an interest that may have developed in discussions with Professor Heger at the Pensionnat.

In one of her homework assignments for M. Heger -- a devoir titled ``The Immensity of God'' written in 1842 -- Charlotte starts out with a focus on the Deity but shifts to a scientific perspective. She name-drops seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens (though not Quetelet), and refers to the telescope and the science of optics.

I wonder what Quetelet made of the Cleopatra? She probably would have surpassed 30 on his index, in the obese range -- the opposite end from petite Charlotte. As Lucy Snowe says: ``She was, indeed, extremely well fed …''

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Sources: Charlotte Brontë: The Evolution of Genius by Winifried Gerin; The Belgian Essays edited by Sue Lonoff; Encyclopaedia Britannica; Brussels for Pleasure by Derek Blyth.

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