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Gaslight Stories: The Madwoman in the Attic

Why did Mr Rochester keep his 'filthy burden' confined upstairs?

Charlotte Bronte was sincerely horrified when it was pointed out to her that her depiction of an insane person in Jane Eyre (1847) had been devoid of sympathy for this most terrible of human conditions. 'It is true that profound pity ought to be the only sentiment elicited by the view of such degradation,’ Bronte wrote in her mea culpa: ‘and equally true is it that I have not sufficiently dwelt on that feeling; I have erred in making horror too predominant.’

Bertha Rochester, the original madwoman in the attic, remains the most potent image we have of nineteenth-century insanity. From the moment Jane first hears the ‘goblin ha-ha’ from above, to her fiery and bloody death leaping from Thornfield Hall’s battlements, Bertha terrifies: ‘The clothed hyena rose up, and stood tall on its hind feet. . . it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal’ (Chapter 26).

But Bertha troubles us in another and more subtle way, too: we feel in some strange way that the romantic hero, Edward Rochester, has somehow done something very wrong in confining his maniacal wife in the upper story of the marital home. Jane Eyre is about a young woman's struggle to emancipate herself in a social environment that is hostile to such an endeavor because of Jane's class and gender; the language of freedom and constriction runs through the entire book. And the idea of a married woman locked in an attic reverberates at a very deep level with the all-too-real legal and financial restrictions placed on married women in the nineteenth century. In spite of the special pleading that is made to the reader of Jane Eyre on Mr Rochester's behalf by Bronte, we feel deep unease at this ethical decision he has chosen to make. The madwoman in the attic remains a troubling figure, no matter how hard we try to explain her.

However, I’m pretty certain that the first readers of Jane Eyre will have found the hero’s dilemma less problematical than later readers. In the late 1840s Bronte’s readership would have understood that Mr Rochester’s refusal to place Bertha in an institution was a mark of his nobility, not of perversity, or brutality. Because even in the most exclusive of England's private asylums, catering for the aristocracy, a violent patient may have been subjected to such barbarities as the strait-waistcoat, manacling, the darkened room, and the cold-water-shock treatment. All these measures were against the spirit of the 1828 and 1845 Lunacy Acts, and any asylum in which they could be proven to have been in use would face censure from the governmental body, the Commissioners in Lunacy. However, discovery and clear proof of such abuse of patients was difficult for the inspectorate to achieve, and punishments against asylum superintendents laughably small, in any case. The majority of the population either knew this, or believed it to be a fact, and so home-based care would therefore have been seen as the option of a hero, not of a scoundrel. Bertha was Mr Rochester’s ‘filthy burden’ (as he put it) and was not to be palmed off on to strangers.

There was no legal obligation for a spouse or a close blood relative even to have a mad family member certified as a lunatic. Families were deemed to be able to diagnose insanity, and then to confine and care for their insane members without state interference. However, the confined person did indeed have to be insane; otherwise a charge of false imprisonment could be brought. And, no matter how violently maniacal the confined person was, only ‘reasonable force’ could ever be used to restrain; neglect and cruelty of an insane family member were punishable at law, and many such cases did go to court.

Immense sympathy was often shown to those who struggled to care for their insane at home. A landmark governmental report (or 'blue book') was published in 1844 and it is plausible that Bronte may have read it; from the age of five she had been reading the newspapers, political journals and blue books (which were on sale to the general public) that her father regularly bought. The 1844 Supplemental Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, Relative to the General Condition of the Insane in Wales (to give it its full and inelegant name) revealed shocking cases of the rural poor attempting to keep violent lunatics at home. It made for pitiful reading, as attics, barns, and shuttered wings of farmhouses disclosed their shaggy-haired maniacs. Fear of the new and burgeoning state-run asylum system, together with the deep shame that many felt at having an insane spouse or family member, caused a great number of people to try to care for the patient secretly, at home.

And let’s face it, the Bronte family itself had tried to mask and deal discreetly with their own ‘difficult’ member, Branwell. The only son of the household had, in the autumn of 1845, suffered psychological problems, which – even though he was at home in the bosom of his family, who loved him very much – he exacerbated by the use of alcohol and opiates. His behaviour deteriorated, and he became unmanageable. Mr Bronte Snr eventually sent Branwell away to the seaside with a friend, in the hope that that would calm him. ‘So long as he remains at home, I scarce dare hope for peace in the house,' Charlotte wrote to her closest friend (quoted in Winifred Gérin's biography of Branwell, p143).

Regarding Bertha, Mr Rochester had sought to ‘bury her in seclusion’, in Thornfield’s Hall’s third-story ‘secret inner cabinet’. So that she would have round-the-clock personal attendance, he had hired Grace Poole – one of the most enigmatic characters in Jane Eyre. What is our proper response to Grace? Jane herself never overcomes her ambivalence towards her. Tellingly (though the detail is lost on later readers), Grace has been hired from the Grimsby Retreat – the asylum where her son is the superintendent. The name ‘Retreat’ indicates an advanced, humanitarian, Quaker-inspired institution, where physical restraint can be expected to have been minimal, and kindness the preferred option. So Mr Rochester has made the best choice possible in terms of staffing. Grace does have to tie Bertha to a chair once in a while, but for the most part, Bertha is free to scuttle around in her ‘goblin cell’. Grace’s understandable solace-seeking in gin-and-water brings about Bertha’s terrifying incursions into the main body of the house, and to the eventual catastrophe.

So Bertha at Thornfield was being as well looked after as was possible in the third decade of the nineteenth century, though it isn’t easy for modern eyes to spot this fact. No law had been broken by Mr Rochester, and he had not forsaken his wife in her sickness; but Bronte nevertheless plays on the idea that some transgression has taken place. Why did he not seek a divorce? Bertha’s adulteries alone gave him the right to this if it could have been proved that she had been unfaithful before she went mad; if she had committed adultery after going insane, however, she could not have been held accountable for her actions, and the divorce suit would have failed.

Lunacy itself, it must be pointed out, was not grounds for divorce, so long as the spouse had been sane at the time of the wedding; and Bronte cleverly suggests that Bertha probably was incipiently mad at the point of the marriage, but that Mr Rochester would have had no chance of proving this. More importantly, the first readers of Jane Eyre will have understood that to force a raving wife through the process of a divorce on the grounds of adultery would have been cruel and ‘unmanly’; less honourably, it would have made public the very shame that Rochester was seeking to conceal.

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their famous theory – that Bertha is Jane’s alter ego (a personification of the rage engendered by pent-up female energy, especially sexual energy) – in 1979, in their co-authored book, The Madwoman in the Attic. But despite Gilbert and Gubar’s sophisticated comparisons of the patterns of metaphor and imagery common to Jane’s experiences and Bertha’s back-story, Bertha actually appears to be – among many other things – a figure who shows the potential fate of a woman who in her early life failed to assert herself (as Jane asserts herself) and who took refuge in commonplace thoughts and activities. Bertha sought freedom in promiscuity and drink, but Jane knows, as Mr Rochester has learnt, that that kind of behaviour is an illusion of freedom – for man as much as for woman. If Bertha is an echo of anyone in the novel, it is surely Blanche Ingram – the vacuous, conventional drawing-room beauty that Bertha herself once was, in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Bertha is what happens when you have no true sense of a self, and the language used to describe Blanche and Bertha (in her youth) also bears comparison – they are raven-ringleted, dark-eyed and arrogant; and Blanche’s own mother is already exhibiting Bertha-like physical attributes: her features are ‘inflated and darkened’ and her eye is ‘fierce’.

Three decades after publication, Jane Eyre was still the point of reference for those addressing the problem of family confinement and its potential for abuse. In 1879 the influential British Medical Journal worried that there was still ‘no law to prevent a Mr Rochester from locking up his mad wife in the attic of a mansion, with a keeper’. Government attempts to persuade people to offer up their lunatic spouses, children, parents and siblings for certification and inspection had been a failure. At the end of the nineteenth century, families still preferred secrecy.


Bronte, Charlotte (1847) Jane Eyre

Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (1844) Supplemental Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy, Relative to the General Condition of the Insane in Wales; available online

Gérin, Winifred (1972) Branwell Bronte: A Biography

Gilbert, S, and Gubar, S (1979) The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the 19th-Century Imagination. Yale

British Medical Journal, 15 February 1879

Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England

by Sarah Wise


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About the Author
Sarah Wise

Sarah Wise is a writer based in London.

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