Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Sunday, 18 April 2010 00:04 UK

Were the 'mad' heroines of literature really sane?

By Vivienne Parry
Presenter, Madwomen In The Attic

The mad heroines of classic Victorian fiction have long been objects of fascination.

A scene from the BBC's 1997 production of The Woman in White
Female insanity was often bound up with ideas of sexuality in the 1850s

The violent and feral Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, the mysterious Woman in White whose escape from an asylum begins Wilkie Collins's gripping thriller, and the terminally delusional Emma in Madame Bovary.

But were they really mad? Would we today recognise them as mentally ill or were our heroines merely misunderstood, not to mention a tad inconvenient?

For Radio 4 documentary, Madwomen in the Attic, medical historians, psychiatrists and literary specialists gave their diagnoses of our troubled heroines.

No restraint

The picture of Mrs Rochester on all fours, baying at the moon, manic laughter ringing through the house, sadly still defines our notions of madness today.

Yet even when Jane Eyre was published in 1847, Charlotte Bronte was criticised for her portrait of insanity.

But Charlotte's brother Branwell was an opium-addicted alcoholic, subject to severe depression.

"While she was writing Jane Eyre downstairs," says Anne Dinsdale, archivist at the Haworth Parsonage - where the Bronte family lived - "Branwell would have been raving in the bedroom on the second floor, where he had been confined because he was a danger.

"He even set the bed on fire."

Bertha Rochester does the same in Jane Eyre.

In the 19th Century women... outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one

"We have a letter from Charlotte to her publisher," says Anne, "in which she answered her critics saying that 'the character is shocking but all too natural'."

"Bertha is the embodiment of the monstrous lunatic who requires restraint," says historian of madness, Catherine Arnold.

At the time, mental illness was regarded with shame and as evidence of familial "taint".

Even though asylums were available, secrecy was better served by keeping the sufferer confined at home, as Rochester (and the Brontes) did.

There has been much speculation about the first Mrs Rochester's madness.

Notions of female insanity in the 1850s included "unrestrained behaviour," often merely Victorian-speak for female sexuality.

"Attics are where wives who cannot be contained, who are over-sexualised and unruly are stored away," says writer and psychotherapist, Adam Phillips.

And would not anyone have then gone mad, locked up in an attic with gin-sodden Grace Poole?

But Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, recognises a clear description of schizophrenia in Jane Eyre.

"You can rule out manic depression as there is no evidence of a mood disorder, just a chronic deteriorating condition."


By the time Wilkie Collins wrote Woman in White in 1860, there were many private and public asylums, including the long established Bethlem Hospital (from which we get the word Bedlam), now the Imperial War Museum.

A scene from the BBC's 1966 production of The Woman In White
The Woman in White may have had learning difficulties

The plot of Woman in White sounds far-fetched - wicked aristocrat Sir Percival Glyde, aided by sinister Count Fosco, plans elaborate asylum switch of sane woman (his rich wife Laura) for madwoman (the nothing-but-white wearing Anne Catherick) in order to get his hands on a fortune.

But it was based on a real-life case, that of millionaire novelist and MP Bulwer Lytton who had his wife Rosina carted off to an asylum when she began to criticise him in public.

She was released only after a public appeal.

"If a man wanted to get rid of his wife, he would simply get two doctors to certify her and lock her up," says John Sutherland, Emeritus professor of English Literature at University College London.

"It's what Dickens himself did when his wife kicked up a fuss at his affair."

But what about the "madwoman", Anne Catherick?

"They talk about her as being feeble-minded as a child and that she'd grow out of it - so perhaps a learning disability as we understand it," says Dinesh Bhugra.

"An asylum wasn't necessary."

Meanwhile he points out that there are a number of plainly certifiable mad-men in Woman in White.

The psychopath Fosco, for instance, or the obsessive compulsive Mr Fairlie. They are admired, not incarcerated.


In the 19th Century women were thought to be intrinsically mad by virtue of their femaleness, which made them vulnerable, and women outnumbered men in Victorian asylums almost two to one.

If Jane Eyre looks back to an almost medieval view of madness, Flaubert's Madame Bovary looks forward to the age of Freud and analysis.

Emma Bovary and Rodolphe in the BBC's production of Madame Bovary
Madame Bovary was not mad but a bored fantasist

Madame Bovary marries a dull, unsuccessful doctor called Charles. She dreams of luxury and romance and after the birth of her daughter, embarks on two ruinous affairs.

A serial fantasist and shopaholic, she gets into a monstrous level of debt.

When there is no way out of her debt, she takes poison and dies. It is a coolly analytic portrait of a woman unravelling.

Flaubert knew of the work of Parisian neurologist Charcot (later to be a mentor of Freud) and of his descriptions of hysteria.

"You could argue that Madame Bovary is a clinical case study," says Sandra Gilbert, Professor of English at the University of California.

But is Emma mad?

"No she's not mad, just very frustrated," says Adam Phillips.

And very, very irritating, perhaps particularly to women readers.

"Men find her fascinating and today there is no doubt she'd be a reality TV star, living out her fantasies and celebrated - not censured - for her dreams."

Vivienne Parry presents Madwomen in the Attic on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Tuesday 20 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

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