Here follow final thoughts on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, certainly for 2019, and definitely for now on this blog. At this point I just want to say a few words for the woman with no real voice in the novel, Bertha Mason, the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’.
Of course, she doesn’t really reside in the attic; moreover, we’re not told the exact nature of her madness — neither do we hear her speak (she only laughs or snarls) nor is there someone to speak for her. Jean Rhys in 1966 famously attempted to do so, in Wide Sargasso Sea, though she changed the timeline somewhat to suit the purposes of her fiction. But it can’t really be argued that Rhys’ protagonist is the same as Charlotte’s Mrs Rochester, nor that this ‘prequel’ is fully compatible with the Victorian original.
Meanwhile, Brontë certainly knew the tale of Bluebeard, for she has Jane picture Rochester’s wife confined to Thornfield Hall’s third storey, along somewhere which is “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle,” and — recalling the young Jane’s terror at being locked in the Red Room of Gateshead as a punishment — we can imagine how such imprisonment might impact on a particularly volatile individual such as Bertha Mason.
But the simile in the phrase “like a corridor in some Bluebeard’s castle” quietly signposts the fact that this is not a simple retelling of the fairytale; and that, despite the literary echoes, this is a vastly more complex narrative that works on several level, perhaps like the different storeys of Thornfield Hall.
Can we find Bertha anywhere in this literary labyrinth?
It’s generally accepted that Charlotte’s Brussels employer Constantin Héger was a model for Edward Rochester, while Madame Zoë Héger — who was supicious of Charlotte’s apparent crush on her husband — may have partly inspired Bertha Mason. Charlotte might well have seen Mme Héger as an inconvenience and, while she wouldn’t have wanted harm to come to the Belgian materfamilias, in her fiction incarceration and then death could easily dispose of her rival’s presence.
As well as Mme Héger there were other examples on whom CB could base her composite portrait of the first Mrs Rochester. In the mid-1840s Charlotte spent a holiday in the Peak District with her friend Ellen Nussey; outside Hathersage they visited an Elizabethan building called North Lees Hall, owned by a Mary Eyre. Here a former resident was kept in a top floor padded room, later dying in a conflagration there, and in the nearby parish church the visitors were shown the tomb of Damer de Rochester. So not only did the names crop up in the novel but also the mysterious captive; oddly, though we also have a blaze ravaging a building, Charlotte’s obsession with fire had manifested earlier, symbolic of passion and of madness.
In the miniature booklet entitled The Young Men’s Magazine Number Two, written in August 1830 when CB was fourteen, appears “A Letter from Lord Charles Wellesley.” In it Lord Charles describes being captured after witnessing a murder, subsequently being imprisoned in an attic, from where he escapes. His former captor becomes delirious and rages about visions of Caroline Krista, the girl he’d murdered, all while Lord Charles
“danc[ed] before him. he said that every now & then they glided through his eyes to his brain where an immense fire was continually burning & that he felt them adding fuel to the flames that caused it to catch the curtains of the bed that would soon be reduced to ashes. at other times he said he felt them pulling his heart-strings till a sound like a death knell came from them.”
In the next hand-written issue of The Young Men’s Magazine— Number Three for October 1830 — CB included an item she called “A Day at Parry’s Palace, by Lord Charles Wellesley.” Following the appearance of his enemy Captain John Ross, and during a meal where all present disgust him with their greedy eating, Lord Charles confesses that
“I felt a strong inclination to set the house on fire & consume the senseless gluttons.”
These two incidents prefigure the two dramatic events in Jane Eyre, Bertha’s setting fire to Rochester’s bed and then later burning down Thornfield, during which she perishes.
In addition, Charlotte must have have been familiar with an infamous crime, the arson which had occurred the year before at York Minster and described in a contemporary publication thus:
A full and authentic report of the trial of Jonathan Martin at the Castle of York, on Tuesday, March 31, 1829, for setting fire to York Minister; with an account of the life of the lunatic. The destruction of the choir of York Cathedral, on the second of February, 1829; the flight and apprehension of the incendiary; his examination and commitment to York city gaol; the proceedings at public meetings held at York, in consequence of the fire; embellished with a striking likeness of Martin and a ground plan of the minister.
The arsonist Jonathan Martin, brother of an artist admired by the Brontë siblings, was later declared insane (he’d now be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder) and consigned to a lunatic asylum in London — Bethlem Royal Hospital, also known as Bedlam.
Then there is the case of Eliza Raine, also diagnosed as mad. Like the fictional Bertha Mason, Eliza was of mixed race, though instead of the Caribbean she was born in Madras to a Tamil mother and an English father. We’re told that she and her sister “spoke Tamil with their mother and the servants, English with their father and his friends.” At Manor School in York she shared an attic room with Anne Lister of Shibden Hall — ‘Gentleman Jack’ as Anne was later dubbed — and the two became lovers, the start of an affair lasting from 1805 to 1811.
However, after a while Eliza realised that, although they had promised to be true to each other, Anne had started having affairs with Mariana Belcombe and Isabella Norcliffe. These affairs, along with the death of Anne Lister’s brother (whom Eliza also held in affection) and financial disagreements with her guardian, apparently affected her mental state. In 1814 she was admitted to an asylum in York run by Mariana’s father, Dr Stephen Belcombe; here she was frequently straitjacketed, and here she died in 1860.
In 1843 she was to be joined for two years at the asylum by Ann Walker, Anne Lister’s ‘wife’, forcibly placed there by Ann’s greedy and manipulative brother-in-law. The latter had got Stephen Belcombe, plus a lawyer and a constable to break into Shibden Hall; here Ann tried to barricade herself into the top floor chamber known as the Red Room,* which was supposedly “in a most filthy condition” and with “a Brace of loaded Pistols” at the bedside. George Nussey, the brother of Charlotte’s friend Ellen, was also treated at Belcombe’s asylum from 1845, and like Eliza stayed there till his death. So Charlotte was not unfamiliar with who was at the asylum and how they were regarded, and apparently disapproved of Belcombe’s treatments (Steidele 334).
These multiple instances which I’ve cited, all well known to Brontë specialists, link together a number of motifs that go towards creating an impression of Bertha: the house — the much resented wife married to the desired male — the woman who is of mixed race and therefore of dubious social standing — her incarceration for libido, seen as a sign of lunacy — her madness leading to arson.
What to me comes across from all this background material is men’s inhumanity to womankind. The double standards when it comes to female sexuality — men like Rochester may have mistresses, but women like Bertha Mason with sexual cravings are to be regarded as depraved lunatics — the likelihood that wives could be declared insane if the husband so willed it, the sense that women were liable to lose financial independence at the whim of a male. No wonder it was important for Charlotte that Jane and Edward Rochester should only finally become a couple when they had arrived on a more equal footing.
‘Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad. I say, we will have no more marriages; those that are married already, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are.’ — Hamlet
* The Red Room is of course also the name of the former bedchamber of Jane’s deceased uncle, into which she is locked for being provoked into attacking her bullying cousin John
- The Brontës, Tales of Glass Town, Angrian, and Gondal: Selected Writings. Edited with Introduction and Notes by Christine Alexander. Oxford World’s Classics. 2010.
- Stephanie Cross, “Charlotte Brontë manuscript sells for £690,850 at Sotheby’s.” Telegraph 15.12.2011 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8959461/Charlotte-Bronte-manuscript-sells-for-690850-at-Sothebys.html
- Claire Harman, Charlotte Brontë: A Life. Penguin. 2016.
- Angela Steidele. Gentleman Jack. A Biography of Anne Lister: Regency Landowner, Seducer & Secret Diarist. Serpent’s Tail. 2018.
- A full and authentic report… 1829. https://archive.org/details/b20443894/page/n2