Jane Eyre: Bertha Mason

Professor John Bowen explores the character of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, revealing the depths of her character and the context in which Charlotte Brontë created her. Filmed at the Brontë Parsonage, Haworth.

So, Rochester and Jane Eyre are both haunted by his first wife, by Bertha Mason, and it's one of the most powerful and moving passages of the whole book and her presence haunts it even when she's not there and she's such an interesting figure because in some ways she's like Jane – there's lots of parallels between the two of them. Jane's imprisoned early on in the red room. We later find Bertha imprisoned in Rochester's house. Both of them have this erotic romantic relationship with Rochester. It's also that you know, they're both outsiders – they're both marginalised but, of course, in other ways she's exactly the opposite. She's the other to Jane. She's everything she fears – she's this monstrous, grotesque, bestial, obscene kind of figure, so in some ways it’s a violently racist text I think, but at the same time it's when you get down to the detail, it's much more subtle, I think, and that clearly she does feel that she might become rather like a slave.

So, often when she talks to Rochester, you notice that there's a whole way in which they keep talking about slavery, so at one point she says you can go to the slave markets of Istanbul, to Istanbul, if that's the kind of woman that you want. So, the fact that she comes from the Caribbean, does Bertha Mason, invokes a whole history of slavery, slave exploitation, colonialism – England isn't, Britain isn't at it's imperial height at this point – it's only the 1840s – that comes later, but still it's a major imperial power and has been until relatively recently, a major slaving power too.

So, she's a figure of madness and we know from looking at this book here, Modern Domestic Medicine, which was owned by the Brontë family, heavily annotated by their father, Patrick Brontë. We know from this just how interested they were in bodily processes and psychological processes and mental processes and you see them exploring here in the medical literature and then working it through in the novel, what are the bodily signs and symptoms that we need to be most attuned to – what will it tell us about the status of our minds or of our bodies, how diseased they are or how healthy they are and that's there – absolutely the centre of the book with in some ways the most famous character in it – the mad woman in the attic – the sense that somewhere hidden in the secure domestic home, is a back story and an otherness that must be confronted and which can come out and get you in the middle of the night and it's associated with madness, with haunting, hallucinations and with fear.

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