Jane Eyre: Understanding mental health

Independent will: Ruth Wilson plays Jane Eyre in the BBC’s 2006 adaptation.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has defined ‘the madwoman in the attic’ for over 150 years. Our treatment of mental health problems has changed, but why are figures rising?

‘What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.’

In Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Eyre describes Mr Rochester’s wife, who has been locked in his attic for 10 years, as being somewhere between human and animal. In fact, Bertha has an unnamed hereditary mental illness.

Locking away the ‘insane’ was not unheard of in Victorian England — some even saw it as kinder than sending patients to asylums. But Bertha’s ‘madness’ has become one of the novel’s most famous features, and its imagery helped to define society’s perceptions of mental illness for decades.

Now, many criticise the way that Bertha’s Creole heritage and ‘dark’ skin are used, along with her madness, as proof that she is somehow ‘savage’. At the same time, she is often seen as a doppelgänger for Jane.

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds; Jane too is tormented by the feeling of being trapped — both in the Red Room as a child, and by a more abstract sense of confinement as a woman of a low social class. Women ‘suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer,’ she insists. When she discovers Bertha’s existence, she describes her thoughts of marrying Rochester anyway as ‘quite insane’.

Society has changed drastically since the Victorian era. Thankfully, those with mental health problems are no longer locked away in attics, and women have more freedom to express themselves.

But despite the vast improvements in treatment, millions of people still suffer from mental health problems. Some figures suggest that mental health services in the UK have experienced funding cuts of 8% since 2010, while the number of people seeking help has risen. In February this year, the NHS warned that its psychiatric wards were ‘pushed to breaking point’.

‘No net ensnares me’

Jane sees insanity as something inhuman, but several characters attempt to restrict and control the ‘fire’ of her own passions. After her wedding to Rochester is interrupted, even she calls herself ‘mad’. Thank goodness, most will agree, that society has learnt more about mental health since 1847, and that society’s gender rules are far less restrictive.

But many also warn that the surge of technology and social change has created a lonely and anxious generation. Financial pressures, political instability and the distorted world of social media can all create dangerous feelings of entrapment and confusion. We have more in common with Jane that we might think.

You Decide

  1. What does Bertha’s madness tell the reader about Jane?
  2. Is modern society bad for mental health?

Activities

  1. Rewrite a scene from Jane Eyre as though it was set in the 21st century. What is different?
  2. Plan an essay on the significance of ‘confinement’ in Jane Eyre.

Some People Say...

“I would always rather be happy than dignified.”

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

What do you think?

Q & A

What makes this novel so important?
By focusing her story on a ‘plain’ orphaned governess, Brontë defied the conventions of Victorian literature. For Jane to be so outspoken about her feelings, and to insist that she is equal to Rochester, was almost revolutionary. But it is more than that — Jane’s passions are explored so thoroughly that many readers still strongly identify with her.
I’m worried about a mental health issue. What should I do?
You’re not alone — around one in ten young people experience mental health problems. The most important thing is to find someone you trust to whom you can talk about your problems, and to seek medical advice if you think you might need it. There are lots of resources online — we’ve included a link to the charity Young Minds in Become an Expert.

Word Watch

Mental illness
A broad term for many different types of illness, from depression to schizophrenia. When Jane Eyre was written, however, patients were simply diagnosed with ‘insanity’.
Asylums
The terrible conditions of insane asylums like London’s Bethlem (or ‘Bedlam’) have been well documented: patients were often abused and chained to walls. By Jane Eyre’s time there was a movement towards reform, but many still faced harsh conditions.
Creole
Those with a mixed heritage of a colonised people and their European colonisers, especially in the Caribbean. Bertha’s insanity is blamed on her Creole mother, and her dark features are often used as a way of emphasising her madness. Both her madness and her ‘exotic’ heritage are linked to her sexuality.
Doppelgänger
A person who is almost identical, yet unrelated, to another. Although they look very different, some have described Bertha as Jane’s ‘darker’ twin; she expresses all of the rage and emotion that society forces Jane to repress. When Jane is anxious about her wedding, for example, Bertha tears Jane’s veil in half during the night.

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