Monday, 15 June 2009

The Madwoman in the Attic

People who have been hemmed in by society (aka kill your inner angel if you are a writer...)

(Article first published by Writers' News in September 1998. Copyright Carol Townend.)

As with the other articles, this has been scanned in and lightly revised.

The madwoman in the attic has become a powerful motif in literature, particularly in women’s fiction. It has been used to express the frustration women have felt at the limitations imposed on them by their societies. For a respectable woman in 19th century England, for example, the choices were stark: marry or be a governess. Fenced in by society, raging against such constriction yet helpless to do much about it, women writers have expressed their anger through the image of the madwoman in the attic. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) offers perhaps the best known early use of the madwoman motif.
In Jane Eyre Mr Rochester’s mad first wife Bertha Mason rampages about in the attic at Thornfield Hall, guarded by that most sinister of wardens, Grace Poole. As the novel has been analysed and psycho-analysed several critics have posited that the mad Bertha Mason is Jane Eyre’s ‘double’ or alter ego. The double that Charlotte Bronte created in Jane Eyre was the ‘bad’ side of a woman’s nature (Bertha) contrasted with the ‘good’ side (Jane). In a dramatic scene in Jane Eyre the two women come face to face. Jane’s wedding to Rochester has been interrupted with the words Mr Rochester has a wife now living.
Up until this moment in the narrative, the mad, bad, mutinous Bertha’s presence has only been hinted at. First in a mild form when the child Jane was so overcome with rage and fear she fainted in the red room, and later more explicitly with unexplained noises in the night at Thornfield, and mysterious outbreaks of fire. But finally the dreadful words Mr Rochester has a wife now living are uttered, and readers are forced to confront the duality in woman’s nature as Bertha comes centre-stage.
Rochester leads Jane and the wedding party up to the attic and the comparison between the two women, the civilised and the uncivilised, takes place. The animal side of Bertha’s nature is stressed. She lurks in the dark, and at first Jane cannot tell whether she is human or animal: What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not at first sight tell: it grovelled, 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. Jane on the other hand is described by Rochester as being: ...this young girl who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon.
In creating Bertha Mason, Charlotte Brontë was well aware of the taboos she was breaking by showing that a woman’s rage could be so primitive. In order to be acceptable in society, Brontë seems to be saying, women have to deny their angry, mad, demon natures exist — they have to lock them in the attic. Doubtful as to the reception her novel would receive, she published Jane Eyre under a pseudonym, that of Currer Bell. This seminal novel continues to inspire writers well into the 21st century, writers as diverse as the novelist Jean Rhys with her much-praised Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), and scholars such as Sandra M Gilbert and Susan Gubar with their wide-ranging interpretation of 19th century novels by women, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979).
In Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys tells the story of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife, and charts her decline into insanity. The novel opens with Bertha (whose name in Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette Cosway) as a child. Antoinette is a Creole heiress in Jamaica. Rhys shows us that the marriage, set in an authoritarian, patriarchal society and founded on the money gained from slavery, was doomed from the beginning.
In the 18th and 19th centuries women writers like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters had learned to articulate the concerns of women but, by the mid 20th century, Rhys was able to demonstrate that women were not the only ones to suffer as a result of the restrictions imposed by society. Men too had problems. In Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester says: A short youth mine was. And a couple of pages later Rochester is still focusing on the fact that innocence and youth slip away all too easily. This is his description of the garden of the house in Jamaica where he is honeymooning: One morning soon after we arrived, the row of tall trees outside my window was covered with small pale flowers too fragile to resist the wind. They fell in a day, and looked like snow on the rough grass — snow with a faint, sweet scent. Then they were blown away. The fragility of the flowers combined with the impossible image of snow on a tropical island add to the feeling of impending, inevitable doom.
Coming from two such widely different backgrounds, neither Antoinette nor Rochester has any chance of understanding the other. Antoinette tells Rochester that she hears London is like a dream. His response is testy: ‘Well,’ I answered, annoyed, ‘that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.’
'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?’ ‘And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets be unreal?'
‘More easily,’ she said, ‘much more easily. Yes, a big city must be like a dream.’
‘No, this is unreal and like a dream,’ I thought.
Towards the end of Wide Sargasso Sea the action moves to Thornfield Hall where Antoinette, whom Rochester now insists on calling Bertha, is imprisoned. In a scene which stresses her ‘double’ nature, Antoinette, who can no longer distinguish between dream and reality, escapes from her warder and comes face to face with herself in the mirror. It is a passage heavy with irony for in her madness Antoinette both knows herself, and does not know herself. She has heard rumours of a ghost that haunts Thornfield, she recognises that ghost in the mirror, but she does not recognise that the ghost is herself. I went into the hall again with the tall candle in my hand. It was then that I saw her — the ghost. The woman with streaming hair. She was surrounded by a gilt frame but I knew her. I dropped the candle I was carrying and it caught the end of a tablecloth and I saw flames shoot up.
Antoinette escapes the restrictions imposed upon her, first by retreating into madness, and finally by leaping to her death from the roof of Thornfield Hall.
It is the classic no-win situation; only angel women are acceptable, but women are human beings and the demon in them refuses to be chained.
Several other writers have explored similar no-win dilemmas. The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman is based on fact and concerns a woman suffering from post-natal psychosis. It gives a chilling account of ‘the rest cure’ many women endured when they were put into what was virtually solitary confinement and anything that might ‘upset’ — or rather, stimulate — them, such as books or pen or paper, would be removed ‘for their own good’. Before she loses her mind, the first- person narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is locked in a yellow-papered bedroom and ordered to stay there and rest until she recovers. Desperate for understanding, she tries to discuss her condition with her husband. He is a physician, and she finds: It is so hard to talk to John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.
John the physician is certain he knows what is best for his wife and, as everyone who has ever been patronised knows, there is no telling some people.
Again the novella The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin takes as its theme the angel/demon dilemma when it describes the sexual awakening of a woman, Edna Pontellier. Edna is torn between loyalty to her family and her need for personal freedom. Mrs Pontellier was not a mother-woman.
Like Bertha, like Antoinette, and like the first-person narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper, it is not easy for Edna to reconcile the two halves of her nature.
But retreating into insanity or killing off the demon are not the only solutions. In a lecture entitled Professions for Women, Virginia Woolf confesses that the angel in the house used to interfere with her writing. This angel, Woolf says, was: intensely sympathetic. She was utterly unselfish. She was immensely charming. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it...
Woolf’s solution was radical: I turned upon her and took her by the throat. Woolf killed the angel in her house, and in so doing she used both sides of her nature and freed herself to write.

Angel/demon dilemmas in women’s fiction:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, published 1847
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore, published 1892
The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published 1899
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, published 1966

Related criticism/essays:
The Crowded Dance of Modern Life by Virginia Woolf (which includes the 1931 Professions for Women lecture about the Angel in the House)
The Madwoman in the Attic — The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Imagination by Sandra M Gilbert & Susan Gubar, published 1979
Women Writing About Men by Jane Miller, published 1986

This article copyright Carol Townend, first published by Writers' News, September 1998

1 comment:

margaret blake said...

Fascinating and interesting article, Carol. Gave me much food for thought.

Cheers, Margaret.