Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.
It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.
Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.
But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.
It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.
Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.
Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”