ne of the most controversial — yet essential — plot elements of Charlotte Brontë's widely beloved novel, Jane Eyre, is her depiction of Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester's first wife, a once-beautiful Creole woman who is ravaged by mental illness and is hidden away, locked up in a lonely room at Thornfield. Many critics have decried Brontë's delineation of Bertha as both a racist and insensitive portrayal of insanity. Her sensationalistic approach to describing a character suffering from mental illness during the Victorian era, while lending the gothic elements of suspense and intrigue to her cleverly crafted and brilliantly executed novel, nevertheless remains rather unsettling for modern readers, who may often wonder whether her views toward mental illness reflect the prevalent attitudes of her day. An examination of articles contemporary with the initial publication of Jane Eyre in 1847 surprisingly reveals that awareness of mental illness and sensitivity towards the care of suffering patients were remarkably acute, and these issues were being actively discussed in the press, as well as by politicians.
In the March-June, 1845 volume of The Westminster Review of London, an article entitled, "Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty," appears. This fascinating document — a report from the Metropolitan Commissioners investigating the condition of mental institutions throughout England — provides a detailed overview of various "mental asylums," with statistics regarding the number of "curable" versus "incurable" patients, and reports suggesting that the cases of mental illness reported seemed to be increasing. The report opens with its statement of purpose, briefly detailing its plan to set out a coherent report on British mental institutions. It notes regarding the issue of mental institutions:
An equally striking change is perceptible in the disposition of the public generally on this matter. The time has not long gone by when the mere mention of it was received with aversion and disgust; this has now, however, we are glad to say, given place to an interest and attention which is not merely confined to the enlightened and benevolent portion of the community, but is shared in, to a very great extent, by the public at large. [Metropolitan Commissioners 162]
Thus, this suggests that attitudes toward mental illness in the Victorian era were already shifting, and the public at large began to recognize the humane necessity of lending attention to the matter of mental institution conditions. The report continues, mentioning that in 1828, Parliament initially appointed a Commission to inspect London mental asylums on account of reports of abuse, and that this inspection resulted in improved conditions and the passing of an act in 1841 that required a Commission from Parliament to inspect every British mental asylum. In contrast to the older asylums, which resemble dreary "prisons or dungeons" and were designed primarily so that its inhabitants could not escape, the more "modern establishments" are designed with the well-being and comfort of the patients as main priorities (Metropolitan Commissioners 163). The report argues that "the patients ought to have the benefit of a cheerful look-out on a pleasing prospect" and stresses the fact that older asylums are not suitable for modern-day patients, as these facilities "have been devised more as a means of confinement than as a means of cure, more for the protection of the public than for the treatment of the patient" (Metropolitan Commissioners 166-167). It is remarkable to observe that the Commissioners who wrote the report are truly concerned about the environment the asylum provides for a patient; they are adamant about ensuring that newly-constructed asylums "avoid everything which might give to the patient the impression he is in prison" (168). This seems to contradict markedly with the attitudes expressed towards Bertha and her condition in Jane Eyre. When Bertha is finally revealed on Jane's long-awaited wedding day, she is living sequestered in her hidden apartment which does not appear to be designed with her comfort in mind:
In a room without a window there burnt a fire, guarded by a high and strong fender, and a lamp suspended from the ceiling by a chain. Grace Poole bent over the fire, apparently cooking something in a saucepan. In the deep shade, at the further end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it groveled, 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. 
Thus, Brontë likens her to a vulgar animal, with wild mannerisms and a disheveled appearance. The descriptions that follow are even less flattering: Brontë uses such epithets as "the clothed hyena," "the maniac," "that purple face," and "the lunatic" (250) to describe Bertha's condition. When she attempts to strangle Rochester, Grace Poole "gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair" (Brontë 250). Quite interestingly, this was not considered acceptable, humane treatment of patients of mental illness, even by Victorian standards. The report in The Westminster Review recalls that when the asylum at West Auckland was examined in 1842, there were discovered the most appalling conditions, where there existed "only one unglazed window" and "one woman was leg-locked by day and chained to her bed at night," as were several of the other male inhabitants (187). The article notes: "The Commissioners who first visited the asylum stated their opinion to be that it was entirely unfit for the reception of insane persons" (187). The report also mentions a visit in 1842 to the asylum at Haverfordwest, where the Commissioners reported that "the asylum was deficient in every comfort, and in almost every convenience: the rooms being small and ill-ventilated" and that they were appalled by the fact that "the dress of the patients was . . .dirty, ragged, and insufficient," and that "the refractory patients were confined in strong chairs, their arms being also fastened to the chair" (185-186). This catalogued evidence of abusive treatment in Victorian mental institutions raises two questions for a reader of Jane Eyre. Why is Bertha Mason living sequestered in a house, rather than institutionalized in an asylum, as there were asylums throughout Britain? Since she is living in a room at Thornfield, why is she being exposed to such cruel conditions?
The reader is told only briefly of Bertha's history by Mr. Rochester. He summarizes her past quite succinctly and without any semblance of sympathy:
Bertha Mason is mad . . .she came of a mad family; --idiots and maniacs through three generations! Her mother, the Creole, was both a mad woman 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 . . .Oh! my experience has been heavenly, if you only knew it! 
This statement has long been the source of criticism of Jane Eyre as a racist novel, since it is explicitly mentioned that Bertha's mother is "the Creole" and is both an alcoholic and a lunatic — traits which were common stereotypes regarding Creoles. There is no evidence in the novel that Bertha has ever been placed in a formal mental asylum in an attempt to discover a cure for her condition. This is very unusual to note, as the actual Commissioners' report relates that "the number of insane persons ascertained to exist in England and Wales exceeds 20,000, and there is every reason to believe that this is considerably below the actual amount" (168). Thus, mental illness was a recognized and widespread condition throughout England and Wales. It seems that the number of institutionalized patients was also on the rise; while the Lancaster Asylum had 160 reported patients in 1816, in 1845 it boasted 600 strong (Metropolitan Commissioners 169). While the poor would face difficulties in finding adequate care at asylums due to financial restrictions, certainly Mr. Rochester would have no such financial obstacle to surmount in finding appropriate care for his ill wife. Perhaps, however, Brontë envisioned that in the past Bertha might have sought a medical cure, and discovering none, found, as the Commissioners Report remarks, "[s]he should be removed from asylums instituted for the cure of insanity, in order to make room for others whose cases have not yet become hopeless" (170). However, the statistics in the report suggest that early treatment seemed to prove effective in the Victorian era. The report cites the "General Statement of Insane Persons Confined in Asylums in England and Wales" in 1844; it compares "Private patients" to "Pauper patients." Of 3,790 Private patients, 1,045 were deemed curable, while 2,745 were pronounced incurable. Conversely, of the 7,482 Pauper patients, 1,484 were seen as curable, while 5,998 were viewed as incurable. "From this table," says the authors of the report, "we perceive that the relative proportion of incurable paupers in asylums is double that of the private patients, who have probably had the benefit of early treatment" (173). Furthermore, in the introduction to a letter featured in The Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review in the October 1847-January 1848 edition, John Conolly, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians at London and a physician to the Middlesex Lunatic Asylum at Hanwell, is presented as a leading physician who has shown that:
the whole of the barbarous system of coercion and restraint . . .was founded on a fallacy, and that insanity . . .is simply a state of unsound, physical health — a state of functional disease — in the great majority of cases capable of a cure, under appropriate treatment; capable also, under injudicious treatment, of being rendered permanent and incurable. [Conolly 120]
Although modern readers have the benefit of increased knowledge of mental illness conditions and treatments, it nevertheless is encouraging to realize that even in the Victorian era with its rather antiquated and limited knowledge and views upon mental illness, measures were actively being taken to alleviate the suffering of patients and attempt to implement some sort of beneficial treatment. As the article continues to explain, such victims of ravaging mental illness are incapable of judging their condition with accuracy or realizing the necessity of seeking medical assistance. All of this evidence of increasing understanding and awareness of mental illness in the 1840s then places Mr. Rochester's character in a rather unfavorable light. He allows Bertha, whose family has a history of mental illness, to be locked up like a prisoner in a cheerless, windowless room, wearing dirty and ragged clothing and subject to the abuse of Grace Poole, who binds her to a chair to subdue her. There is no evidence any real attempts have been made in the past to address her situation by medical professionals and try to lessen the suffering she inevitably experiences.
Ultimately, investigation into the condition of mental institutions at the time of the publication of Jane Eyre reveals that although poor and abusive conditions and overcrowding were prevalent in Victorian era mental asylums, there also existed a surprising level of awareness of the plight of the mentally ill and a widespread desire to improve the conditions of asylums and the treatments they offered to those who were incapable of functioning in regular society due to mental illness. In both selected articles, the issue of mental illness is handled with an impressive degree of respect, sensitivity, and understanding. As the Commissioners Report authors declare, "We sympathize with the lower animals and protect them from cruelty, whilst we suffer every species of barbarity to be heaped with impunity on our afflicted brethren" (191). They hope to that improved conditions and understanding will "suffice to provide the means of comfort, freedom, and happiness to the many afflicted and worse than slave-bound of our fellow countrymen" (192). This evidence leads one to question with much greater scrutiny Mr. Rochester's character, for his treatment of Bertha Mason is unpardonable. More importantly, however, is the criticism one might direct towards Charlotte Brontë herself for her sensationalistic, highly stereotypical, and unsympathetic portrayal of a woman who has been removed from her home country, has suffered mental illness, is kept like a caged animal in deplorable conditions without medical treatment, and ultimately is compelled to end her tragic life by suicide.
Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. New York: Norton & Co., 2001.
"Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor, Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty." The Westminster Review [London] Vol. 43. March-June 1845: 162-192.
Last modified 25 March 2003