Law and Conversation

September 3, 2010

Jane Eyre and mental illness

Earlier this week I urged readers to read or reread Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  In that post, I referenced two totally delightful articles analyzing the book and Mr. Rochester in particular that I came across while surfing the Bronte Blog

As both articles indicate, Jean Rhys wrote Bertha Rochester’s backstory in “The Wide Sargasso Sea,” which won the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2006 for the year 1966.  Rhys’s sympathetic treatment of the first Mrs. Rochester, whom Bronte portrayed as an inconvenient, crazy hag whose death was a relief for all, highlights how far we’ve come in attitude towards and treatment for the mentally ill since Mr. Rochester locked his wife up in her attic room. 

Present-day advocates for the mentally ill, though, will point out that treatment resources are still woefully inadequate, as I’ve noted in articles such as “Involuntary administration of psychotropic drugs: Does Illinois need new standards?” and “Bill would make involuntary commitment easier” in the January 2003 and August 2007 issues, respectively, of the Illinois Bar Journal.  (In the forthcoming October 2010 issue of the same publication I discuss the recent changes in the standard for involuntary commitment in Illinois’s  Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code and quote University of Chicago clinical professor of law Mark J. Heyrman, whose lucid commentary always gets to the heart of the matter.)  And, of course, mental illness or the hint of it still carries a strong stigma, though, unlike Charlotte Bronte, we no longer generally refer to someone who’s mentally ill as a “lunatic,” a “maniac,” or using the pronoun “it.”  For those who are interested, the website of Mental Health America of Illinois is a good starting point.  

What are your favorite 19th century novels?  How about your favorite novels that deal with mental illness?

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4 Comments »

  1. I have certain “issues” and find such support and inspiration from reading Victorian novels. You can’t help loving the independent and rescourceful Jane.

    Comment by kittymaria1 — October 24, 2010 @ 12:41 pm | Reply

    • So glad you stopped by, kittymaria1! I hope to hear more from your POV.

      Comment by helengunnar — October 24, 2010 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  2. […] I posted a couple of months ago about Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” and Jean Rhys’s ”The Wide Sargasso Sea,” the back story of Bertha Rochester.  Rhys’s story highlights the worst-case possibilities for women in loveless marriages not so long ago.  Because women were raised to be supported by their husbands, because whatever property had been theirs became their husbands’ upon marriage, and because, indeed, women lost their legal identities upon marriage until the enactment of laws giving them rights, there wasn’t much married women could do without permission from their husbands.  Divorces were both difficult to obtain and socially unacceptable in 19th century England, and, in any event, it would have been far more difficult for a divorced woman then to support herself than even in today’s challenging economic times.  […]

    Pingback by Vote today! Suffrage and stories of women’s lives and the law « Law and Conversation — November 2, 2010 @ 12:07 am | Reply

  3. […] for years in contemporary British courts, and I’m certain she did her research on past practices. As I wrote earlier, “Jane Eyre” and “The Wide Sargasso Sea” raise a multitud…, especially about the treatment of women and of the mentally ill in days not so far gone […]

    Pingback by Back Stories and Sequels: Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre, and P.D. James and Jane Austen, too « Law and Conversation — February 21, 2012 @ 12:01 am | Reply


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