Friday, 14 December 2012

The Madwoman in the Attic?

Bertha Rochester of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is commonly recognised as the archetypal 'madwoman in the attic'. Although multiple feminist re-readings have recognised her as the condemned expression of unconventional femininity, treatments of Bertha in adaptations of Jane Eyre has frequently struggled to meet the challenge of this complex character.

In the past, it was easier to lay the blame at the doorstep of society's taboos concerning polite femininity for failures to address Bertha's outrage. Take, for example, an early Hollywood adaptation of Jane Eyre, where Bertha appears perfectly civilised despite her husband's imminent wedding to another bride.

In 2006, a BBC mini-series took the daring approach of providing Bertha Mason with an empathetic backstory. By giving insight into Bertha's own love story, alongside the relationship of Jane and Mr Rochester, viewers were asked to question who is really the victim in this love triangle? The following fan video illustrates some of the subtleties in this interpretation.

The most recent film adaptation of Jane Eyre, released in 2011, captured the difficultly of portraying Bertha by expressing her predominantly in disembodied noises. Below is a central exchange between Bertha and Jane, where we see Bertha is aware of her husband's plans for a second marriage. However, this particular scene was removed in a last minute edit, reiterating the challenge of expressing Bertha's role in modern adaptations of Jane Eyre.

Is Bertha a dangerous woman, or an unfortunate victim of her society? Does the struggle some have with her character give an insight into contemporary taboos concerning manic behaviour? What can the various depictions of Bertha in adaptations and re-imaginings of Jane Eyre tell us about the changing role of women, and the social impact of mental illness?

Re-visioning the Brontës will take place at the University of Leeds on 29th January 2013.

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