Bertha Mason’s Madness in a Contemporary Context

1 January 2017

Many works contain characters who, while not main characters by any standards, play pivotal roles and function as anything from sources of comedic relief to ties that link up loose ends or gaps in a plot. Willis claims that in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Bertha fills this role, acting as an extreme version of the madness of the situation, concentrating the intensity into a more visible spectacle for the viewer. In my analysis I will aim to discuss the mirror effect that Bertha possesses, acting as a human outlet for many of the emotions felt at Thornfield Hall.

Also I will discuss why Bertha is in fact in this state, is it as a result of racist views towards Creole people from whom she has allegedly inherited her insanity or from the ongoing repression and lack of stature possessed by women in that time. I will take in to consideration the development of the story from its original text form to the 2006 BBC edition, a story which has fascinated the public, with seventeen film adaptations to its name it truly stands out as one of the most popular period dramas.

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Susanna White when taking the task of directing stated “We are deliberately making a very passionate version of the story, as opposed to those Jane Austen Novels which are very much of society and of manners”. From this brief encounter we see that White wishes to create a fresh take on the story, by showing the emotions and complex relationships between the characters rather than completely relying on the strict class system for a plot. However, with this type of period drama, as with the aforementioned Jane Austen classics, it would be impossible to recreate the story without including the idea of society and manners to some extent.

While White may wish to veer away from the common portrayal of the story it would be impossible for her to ignore the background society in which these emotional characters are based. Bertha is a pivotal character in this respect, the idea of society may not be in the foreground in White’s adaptation, just as Bertha remains cloaked from plain view, yet remains an integral cog in the plot. As an audience we are first made aware of a supposedly malevolent presence in the house when Jane finds her wedding veil torn upon awaking.

Naturally distressed by the occurrence she reports it to Rochester who quickly dismisses it to nerves or pre-wedding jitters. Her response that she has never been happier acts as a reassurance to the reader and viewer that she is a reliable character and begins our questioning of what else lurks in the household. In addition to it awakening the audience to this presence it also creates an awareness in Jane who too begins to suspect that not everything is right.

While her scepticism at Rochester’s true feelings for her have been laid to rest she now possesses a new worry, what has happened in the past that she has yet to learn of. The dream sequence prior to the discovery of the state of her veil is an interesting addition on the part of the director. In these mere few seconds she manages to reveal all of Jane’s fears clearly. With such a drastic change to her life as her engagement, there were bound to be repercussions, and this simple few shots of her dream introduce us to these fears.

A large menacing gate placed between her, Thornfield Hall and Rochester shows us her ongoing scepticism of the strength of the relationship. The main reason for this is likely to be the reinforced class system and values of the times which are instilled upon her, refusing to allow her to be truly happy or reassured by Rochester’s love. A crying baby resting in her arms furthers the idea that she is of a different level as the onlooking Blanche Ingram tells her to leave the estate. For such a short sequence it is extremely useful in leading up to Jane’s first encounter with Rochester’s wife, Bertha.

When Jane awakes Bertha takes the opportunity to make her first impact on the narrative. Of course at the time we are not blessed with the knowledge that it is Bertha but must wait until later in the story to learn of this. What is interesting is that when Rochester returns to a distressed Jane, while she is worriedly informing him about the torn veil, she neglects to tell him about what she saw when awoke. The reasons behind this could of course her wishing not to seem delusional and to lose his respect, however t can’t help but be wondered that if she had told Rochester of her sighting, that he would be forced to confess to Bertha’s whereabouts at an earlier time and perhaps is avoided for that very reason. It is at this point that Jane’s suspicions of Rochester extend to the manor itself and serves as a pivotal turning point in the plot. Bertha herself fails to make many appearances in either the text or the adaptation yet considering this manages to have the profound impact intended. As a character she has aged well, and is highly capable of tweaking the emotions of a contemporary audience.

Mental illness was of course feared in the Victorian era, and while they may not have had as full an understanding as their modern counterparts it seems as though they did have a decent grasp, realising that some cases were in fact curable and that patients should be treated with care and respect. In an examination of the treatment of individuals with mental illness, Mia Iwama discovers the lengths that the government were going to by examining conditions in mental asylums and attempting to modernise and educate;

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. (Iwama) This discovery of the great efforts to improve life for sufferers by officials and indeed the general understanding among the public leads us to question why Bronte created this negative portrayal of Bertha as such an evil convoluted character.

She of course accounted for it by claiming it was a result of her Creole heritage, that it was a hereditary condition. There was indeed a negative outlook towards Creole people at the time and so it is likely that these feelings had been instilled upon Bronte and is why they are showing through in her writing. With an ever increasing wave of political correctness washing over us many a modern reader will perceive there to be a great air of racism to be present when Bertha is being spoken f. The novel has received much criticism over time in this regard however the adaptations generally manage to avoid this qualm and the BBC adaptation is no different. This lack of controversy stirring in the 2006 adaptation is likely due to the fact that White did not wish to detract from the emotional, relationship-based plot that she was striving for and knew that while it was important to include details of Bertha, that too many would lead to over analysis of her as a sole character.

The BBC are renowned for their period dramas and their painstaking attention to detail when it comes to reproducing them as accurately as possible. So of course when Jane Eyre was announced expectations were high, mounting pressure on the production team. The producer Diederick Santer spoke of how minute details from casting were picked up by an expectant and perceptive audience and claimed wrong in comparison to the novel; I’m really struck by the literal and pedantic obsession many of the bloggers have with the physical traits of Rochester and Jane as described in the book. Too red-haired’, ‘Eye-brows are too thin’ are some comments regarding Toby. While period dramas may not have the largest viewership it is evident that those who do have a strong interest are fearful of original texts being interfered with or misinterpreted and wish the adaptation to be meticulous with each detail. For this reason it was a brave move by Susanna White to veer away from the more traditional approach to an adaptation of Jane Eyre, normally laden with a brutish Rochester. White has managed to modernise the story while leaving the original ideas unharmed.

This angle was largely well received by the public, who now most likely found it easier to relate to a somewhat more updated presentation. However, one area that has been negatively affected is Bertha. In the text we are presented with an image of a terrifying, disturbed, almost animal-like creature, confined to her tiny quarters and denied interaction with the rest of the world. A demented creature scurrying back and forth on all fours is a far cry from what we witness in the BBC’s adaptation.

While still not a pleasant individual to encounter, Bertha is noted to still possess the beauty she once had, albeit now faded. Played by Valentina Cervi, the she beast of the text is almost non-existent on the screen. Considering just how vile a being she was portrayed as in the original, this is a sizable failing on the production team’s behalf. Describing the features she witnessed in the novel, Jane conjures up a ghastly image for the reader; I never saw a face like it! It was a discoloured face – it was a savage face.

I wish I could forget the roll of the red eyes and the fearful blackened inflation of the lineaments! (145) To a viewer whose first encounter with the story is indeed the BBC’s version, they will likely have no qualms over the image of Bertha as her attacks on both Jane and Rochester will suffice to unnerve them. It is the Bronte enthusiasts and lovers of Jane Eyre who will be disappointed in what the adaptation has to offer in this department. Bronte’s aim with Bertha was always to unnerve and indeed frighten the audience and so White’s interpretation seems lacking in comparison.

In addition, the Jane of the text is well aware what happened to her veil as it was snatched from the room, while on screen she is simply met by a shadowy figure holding a candle, and is therefore left in the dark regarding her identity for a time longer. It is not only here that she flounders in her role as being a fear-inspiring presence, but in the scene where she is introduced to Jane, she lacks the raw mindless persona expected. The question that must be asked is whether this affects the final product substantially or not. To answer this however we must again analyse what Bertha’s true purpose is in the greater workings of the storyline.

Many have viewed Bertha as a potential for what Jane may become. While another interesting idea suggests that she serves to jolt Jane and Rochester back into reality, away from their improper relationship and to make a return to their respective roles in life. However possibly the most important role of Bertha is her connection and affect on Jane. In such a restrictive era, Bertha represents the repressed woman, mentally, sexually and on numerous levels is what Jane is striving to break free from. Her torment from Bertha is really the torment she suffers due to a restrictive society.

By being locked in a cell Bertha quite literally represents the average female at the, constricted by a tight set of values. As we delve into this idea further we may begin to question more aspects of her character such as her mental affliction. This could quite plausibly serve as a metaphor for the mental restriction suffered by so many, especially a governess such as Jane who was often expected to remain out of sight and keep the children occupied. Such an exclusion from certain areas of life would surely drive a person to madness, as in Bertha’s case.

In their analysis of intercultural cinema Heffelfinger and Wright touch on this and how this ‘Britishness’ as they refer to it links Bertha and Jane: The 2006 Masterpiece Theatre version of Jane Eyre visualises the exotic worlds that provide Jane with her colonial imagination, thus locating the film, like the novel, within the geography of British imperialism …The motif of the “exotic” circulates within the film to link Jane and Bertha, to develop Bertha as a more complex character, and to establish new notions of Britishness (beyond the scope of the novel itself). (104)

In an essence, Bertha simply signifies the oppression present in Britain. While striving to modernise and move the text forward, White understands that touching on Jane’s society is paramount and uses Bertha as a vessel for this. As a character she is given just as little, possibly even less time to make an impact yet to most viewers she will leave one of the strongest. White also shunned away from the temptation to make her too sensationalised yet the audience is left asking who this mysterious being is, why is she so troubled, with her suicide leaving these questions frustratingly unanswered.

In a plot dominated by two strong-willed characters, Bertha provides a relief from the constant locking of horns even if momentarily. The idea that the two protagonists have lost their course in life and need to be put back in the right shows Bertha in a rare positive light. Alternatively, had Bertha been institutionalised in one of the many asylums that we know existed perhaps the couple would have been able to shake the shackles of their past and be content together. All in all, the BBC must be commended for their successful updating of the adaptation. For a story that has had so many, many critics are claiming this to be “perfection”.

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