The Madwoman in the Attic – Women & Madness in the Victorian Era
During the Victorian period not many people knew much about mental health and neither did they really know what makes a person ‘mad’. A lot of women in the 19th century were diagnosed as being insane and sometimes that was the case but most of the time it was because either their families had given up on them or they didn’t confine to the conventional life of a Victorian woman. Due to a lot of doctors and psychiatrists not really understanding the way depression and anxiety worked a lot of women would be thrown into a mental asylum just because they were stressed. Now in the 21st century what would be provided for people suffering with mental illnesses would be counselling and therapy. However in the Victorian era they did not understand this, patients were either given lots of drugs or their brain was operated on. This was not only frightening and traumatising for the patients but left the women in a hysterical state. The drugs, the operations and electric shocking only made things worse, and turned the women into brain dead (zombies).
What made a woman insane in the Victorian era? Was it because she was mentally unstable or because she chose to be different? This is the period where if women did not lead their lives the conventional way a woman would be deemed to be insane. Women had to be domesticated creatures, if they did not follow Victorian domesticity there was a problem. There has always been two ways of portraying women in Victorian culture, either the ‘angel’ or ‘monster’. To get to the point women are humans neither angels nor monsters, but they’ve always been associated with one extreme view. However women just like men have good days and bad days, so why does literature turn them into insane creatures or angels? Why does literature show that either woman have to suppress their sexuality or when they do express it is not appropriate? Let’s focus on Jane Eyre, why is Jane Eyre the feminist heroine and Bertha Mason the monster, or better known as ‘the Madwoman in the attic?
There were a lot of stereotypes of women in the Victorian era, if a woman was ‘mad’ she would be presented in a certain way for example Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, is dehumanised and presented to be like a beast. Before we even meet Mrs Rochester we are already told she is mad just like her ma so the reader already has a negative insight on her. When Rochester introduced Jane to Bertha she was described as ‘a figure ran backwards and forwards. 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 (258). In the first instance where Bertha is mentioned here she is distanced and dehumanised she is described as a ‘figure’ at first, which also adds mystery as to who she is and what kind of ‘figure’ is she. That fact that Jane cannot figure out whether she is a beast or human is degrading, but it is obvious that Bertha was not seen as human. This animal imagery is typical when describing someone that is insane, as women who were mentally unstable were seen as wild. Bertha is described as having ‘dark, grizzled hair’ which hid her head face, this is the stereotype of how insane women were seen. In the Victorian period women would have their hair up, this was the conventional way of doing ones hair so when a women had dark hair that was not styled appropriately it was looked down upon, hence why Bertha and Jane are described so differently in regards to their image. Also by Bertha being referred to as ‘it’ is further dehumanising her as she is not given a name nor a gender, she is just seen as an object/figure.
Unlike Bertha a lot of women were not locked up in the attic by their husband. So what happened to women who were so called considered to be ‘insane’? They were sent to a mental asylum, a lot of them were only meant to be there for a week or so but instead ended up staying for up to 3-5 years because they were mistreated and ended up feeling worse. The purpose of the mental asylum wasn’t to cure or help the mentally ill but more to exploit and experiment with them. Mental illness was not understood like it is now, we sympathise with the mentally ill more whereas, in the Victorian era women who were mentally unstable were seen as witches or possessed by the devil.
This sense of blaming the victim is also seen in Jane Eyre. Rochester blames Bertha for being mentally ill. He says “Bertha Mason is mad; and she came of a mad family; idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a madwoman and a drunkard! — As I found out after I had wed the daughter: for they were silent on family secrets before. Bertha, like a dutiful child, copied her parent in both points (257).” The way Rochester talks about Bertha and her mother is not only insensitive but he seems to blame her and her mother for her being the way she is. However by Rochester accusing her of being mad makes her irrelevant, during the Victorian period if a woman was considered to be insane she was not respected and neither were her views valued or heard. Although we don’t find out much about Bertha in Jane Eyre apart from her being insane Jean Rhys gives us an insight to Bertha's mind in Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys gives Bertha a voice and untold her story… We soon find out that Bertha is not too different from Jane Eyre herself, they both have a lot in common. But because Bertha is the strong minded creole woman she is presented as mentally insane rather than a feminist heroine like Jane is, which is typical. Instead we find out that her name is Antoinette Cosway and the only person that drove her to insanity was Rochester, who stripped her of her identity and bought her to England to be locked in an attic, now who seems more insane here?
The women who were sent to mental asylums were treated like prisoners rather than patients. They were locked away with no contact to others, isolated and some were even caged. I don’t know about you, but to me this doesn’t seem so healthy. The conditions in asylums were not hygienic and very crowded, the patients suffered immensely because of this. Let’s take a look at some of the so called treatments patients were manipulated to go through.
1 Lobotomy - This was a surgical operation involving incision into the prefrontal lobe of the brain, which was done by two ice pricks, which often left the patients feelings brain dead.
2 Electroconvulsive Therapy - this procedure involved small electric currents being passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. This was considered as a treatment but was seen more as torture for the patients, especially because it was meant to be performed when the patient is under anaesthetics. However sometimes this was performed when the patient was fully conscious.
3 Caged – This was more of a method of torture and control – patients who couldn’t control their emotions were caged often for days and left isolated.
4 Waterboarding Torture – Patients were blindfolded strapped to a chair and tipped into a pool of freezing cold water to subdue their emotions.
Patients were treated unethically in mental asylums, most of them started of sane and were driven to insanity because of the torture and mistreatment they received in the asylum. Mental asylums were full of women who were misunderstood or just placed there because they were not wanted by their husbands as men were the dominant ones women did not have a say in this. The only way for them to get out of the asylum was to comply with the doctors and take the drugs they were given. However these drugs only made them worse and slowed them down hence why so many stayed for multiple years.
Now that science has developed immensely doctors and psychiatrist have found out more about mental illnesses and how to treat people who suffer from mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and psychosis. Now we have the NHS we have ethical treatments, such as cognitive therapy which involves therapy through speaking to the patient. Although psychiatrist are allowed to give medication to their patients, medicines are now highly developed and tested so people do not suffer. Specific medication is given for specific disorders unlike the 19th century where all the women were given the same drugs and dosage which would numb them rather than decrease their symptoms.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre: Wordsworth Classics. Hertfordshire. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999. Print
Gilbert. Sandra M, Susan, Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth- Century Literary Imagination. Yale University: Second Edition, 2000. Print