Sunday, 15 February 2009

Jane Eyre, Rochester and the treatment of Bertha, a considerate view

Hello, here I am again!

I thought I’d write something more because it is so long ago… I have been heavily discussing Jane Eyre on a literature forum lately. It is amazing what ideas people have about that book! Anti-religious, Rochester is a saint, feminist, …

Of course it stays a very very nice and pleasing story, but don’t be fooled by your first swooning impression of Rochester. It is puzzling how people can fall in love with him (including me!) because the man has had mistresses, is a liar, bigamist and locks up his wife in the attic in an attempt to forget her. This can all be excused, because the man was stuck in a marriage with a mad woman, and on top of that before she was mad she wasn’t compatible with him. Sad really, and probably the case in lots of marriages (Mr Hurst and Mrs Hurst of Pride and Prejudice, Mr and Mrs John Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility (although she is clever at manipulating him, as all women are, I expect :D) amongst others). Although he chose to marry her (with a little encouragement from his father), blinded by her beauty, he later hates her and wants to forget her, locking her up in the third story of his mansion in a room without a window.

Brontë wrote about the room that it had no windows, a lamp hanging from the ceiling by a chain and a fire place. Not much was said about it, because then the ‘lunatic’ is described in an animal way. It is shocking, and Brontë was criticised for the image she sketched of the ‘lunatic’ (believe it or not!), because pity was the main thing in those days one should have for lunatics because they were unfortunate people who were ill in the head. Believe it or not lunatics were pitied. It is a far cry from the prejudice of chaining them to the wall as a standard ‘treatment’. Brontë faced her critics and uttered that she also thought pity in order, but ‘wanted to make horror too predominant’. Very strange, wanting to make it horrifying yet pitiable. She attributed the madness of Bertha to ‘moral madness’, a type of madness occurring because of deploring moral conduct (very strange concept we now would not dare to think of, but nonetheless Bertha had it and we must face that truth). When she is compared to Messalina, it implies an unchaste way of living, committing adultery let’s say. (Rochester must have been ashamed). Still, Brontë found that she should be pitied, but did not put that in her scene, or did she anyway?

The debate about compassionate or evil Rochester (the evils which are in the minority) seems to revolve around one issue: the confinement of Bertha his wife. People seem to have the prejudice that mad people in the 19th century were badly treated, chained and left to rot in asylums untreated. Nothing is less true. At least, the Victorian tried to treat their lunatics although their knowledge was very limited. Nonetheless, they did have ‘therapies’. They believed in the wholesome nature of church service (a fact which we would not even think of, but which was serious to them), occupational therapy (men used to have to maintain the gardens, do the odd jobs, and women did women tasks: seaming, washing, making beds and that kind of thing), the wholesome effect of good food and hygiene was also very important. Admittedly, it seems not very effective, and it was probably not, but it resulted in asylums for the mad becoming much nicer with airy corridors, good food, good beds, nice gardens, recreation, large windows, clean and non-restraint. A far cry from Bedlam Hospital in London (or Bethlem as it was called normally) (which everyone seems to think was the standard care in those days) where lunatics were chained to the wall until the 1810s, sleeping on straw, where there was no cleanliness, no recreation, no gardens for wholesome walks and where at a certain moment a part of the building was in such a state it was not habitable. It even had a bad reputation in 1800 already (!) when there was a man who decided to open a private asylum and advertised for good food of the kind that was not allowed in Bedlam Hospital. Now of course, the government has to set the standard in care and whatever it offers in general, but back then government institutions were not at all preoccupied with ‘setting the standard’ and people had to fend for themselves. Just think about social security, medical care, etc. There was even one man who told Queen Victoria, ‘why don’t we leave the poor to themselves?’ they are happy like that. Yeah, right, but that was the idea at the time. Still, for the unfortunate lunatics, and certainly for the reasonably rich ones there was better available than what Rochester offered Bertha, although It was of course shameful to be in an asylum or to have a family member in it. Mary Lamb, a famous 18th century case, who murdered her mother in a fit of rage was acquitted in court because of insanity and treatment was tried. Of course that did not go very well and subsequent admissions in private asylums followed, but not in Bedlam. Her brother paid £50 in those days (1796), which would amount in 1836 (count back from when Jane Eyre is started by the author, based on the publication year 1847) to the equivalent of £57 if we take the average earnings index, or even £49 if we use the retail price index, £55 if the 50 is just indexed. Rochester wanted to pay £200 for Grace Poole, an amount that was 6 times what Jane earned as a governess and that, according to the average earnings of the time was an equivalent of £2000 per month… So £200, what would that be, about £12,000? Astronomical. Yet Mary Lamb, in reality and about 40 years prior to when Jane Eyre plays, had also a private nurse and room, but also gardens, occupational therapy and good food and hygiene for a quarter of that…

Now we consider the reality of Bertha’s confinement: a windowless room, one lamp hanging from the ceiling by a chain, a fireplace. One should picture it: always in the dark (no window = no daylight), and permanently the glow of a fire. Then we should consider the ‘lamp’ and it needs some consideration: in 1836 we are still In the times before the petroleum/kerosene lamp that was manufactured on a grand scale from 1853, hence no mention of anything but candles in the book. Admittedly, there were whale oil lamps available but they were expensive and I can imagine dangerous if Bertha deliberately wanted to tip it over and set fire to the place. Lamps like that also stank and smoked an awful lot, not ideal for a room, permanently shut. So we can presume that it was candles that were in the lamp, hence also the fact that Bertha can light Rochester’s bed with one… The light of one candle is nothing. It is not comparable to the 40Watt lamps we have now! With the light of one candle one can barely see his hand for his eyes, let alone do something like reading, sewing or anything similar (yet people did that in those days…). We can of course say that there were several candles in the lamp, but still it would not amount to a serious amount that would seriously light the room up like 10 or 20 (like Rochester must have had in his dining room for example), because Jane does not talk of a ‘chandelier’ but a ‘lamp’. On top of that candles were expensive, and big chandeliers were not so much lit, only on special occasions. So we can assume that the lamp was a kind of ‘lantern’ with one or maybe more candles in it, but certainly not a lot, as that would have been too expensive for at least 12 hours every day. It also needs to be said, concerning candles, that working hours of servants were sometimes regulated to the amount of daylight, and consequently the amount of candles they had to use during their working day. During winter it must certainly have been expensive and so working days became shorter to try to save on the candles (source ITV documentary). Given that suicide numbers in the northern parts of Scandinavia are substantial in winter because of the lack of daylight, it is very strange that people still think that Rochester is being kind by shutting his wife in permanent dusk in one room for 15 years without once having been out of it… I would almost say: she would have been better in Bedlam Hospital where she might have been shut in a room, but where she could at least have seen the daylight… But there was a lot better available, for the rich at least. In 1834, there was an author Martineau who wrote about Hanwel Lunatic Asylum: ‘Yet it is the ignorant, gin-drinking pauper whom we now see entertained with constant employment, and governed by a look or a sign, while the educated gentleman and accomplished lady are left helpless, to be preyed upon by diseased thoughts, and consigned to strait- waistcoats and bonds ! This is barbarity, this is iniquity, whatever may be done for them besides. Let their secret be ever so carefully kept, let their physicians have their forty or fifty guineas a week, every week of the year, let heaven be wearied with prayers and tears on their behalf, they are each still as oppressed and injured beings as any wretch for whose sake the responsible shall be brought into judgment. There is far more truth and reason in the perpetual complaints of such sufferers.’ It is amazing that ten years prior to the publication of Jane Eyre already there were better places than what Rochester considered as ok! There have been people who argued that he subjected his wife rather to the old-fashioned way of dealing with lunatics: incurable, lock up and left to rot. Yet the popular reader does not seem to take notice.

Essentially, the horror and pity Brontë wanted to express are there, but not where they are expected. The horror does not conceal itself in Bertha the lunatic, nor does the pity conceal itself in her state of insanity. The horror Brontë wanted she expressed in the fight Rochester has with his wife and in the state of her confinement, and the pity is induced by the state of her confinement. Not the other way round. Of course, after that Rochester makes himself the big victim, but is blaming everyone else but oneself not a want of education (Epictetus)? King Lear blamed everyone, but is he innocent? Yet, both are pitiable but in their own deluded way.

People come up with all kinds of arguments to allow for a benevolent Rochester, but the ironical thing is that even the literary allusions are bad for him: King Lear (Off ye lendings), Paradise Lost (the kingly crown in one of the water colours), Manfred/Cain (both Bryon’s and narcissistic to the very core) and not least Byron himself who happens to even have the same breed of dog as Rochester (Newfoundland) and the same kind of name (Boatswain and Pilot, both functions on a ship, the first one on deck, the second the person at the rudder (conveniently)), even (controversially) demonology (the name Edward Fairfax) and an allusion to Ivanhoe (the revenge on Brian de Bois-Guilbert that carries a lot of similarity with the fire that destroys Thornfield) . It seems that Brontë had fun in portraying Rochester in a logical and superficially good way and putting bad allusions in so that superficial readers would be seduced, much like Milton who planned to have his readers seduced by Satan, but planned to make them more faithful. Yet it seems that most popular readers would go with Satan and would think that King Lear is a poor old man, wronged by his daughters and only just to Cordelia…


Charlotte Brontë and her Circle, Clement K. Shorter, Hodder and Stoughton, 1896

Light Fittings in Georgian and Early Victorian Interiors, Jonathan Taylor,

The Hanwell Lunatic Asylum, Harriet Martineau, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, June 1834,

Jane Eyre and Insanity,

Milton’s God, Cordelia Zukerman and Thomas H Luxon,