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Jessica Cox, The Madwoman in the Third Storey

2015 July 20

Jessica Cox read Wuthering Heights at the age of sixteen, resulting in a developing obsession with all things Victorian.  This eventually led to her completing a PhD (on sensation writer Wilkie Collins) at Swansea University in 2007.  She is currently a lecturer in English at Brunel University, London. 

Jessica has research interests in Victorian popular fiction (particularly sensation fiction), the Brontёs, first-wave feminism, and neo-Victorianism.  She is the author of a short biography of Charlotte Brontё, editor of a collection of essays on Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and co-editor of a special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies and a major anthology set on Women and Belief, 1852-1928.  She is currently writing a book on the neo-sensation novel. 

When not immersed in Victorian literature and culture, she can often be found on the beach with her children.  You can follow her on Twitter @jessjcox and email her at Jessica.cox@brunel.ac.uk.

The Madwoman in the Attic Third Storey 

The character of Bertha Mason, Rochester’s first wife in Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre (1847), has become one of the novel’s most enduring legacies, inspiring a series of literary descendants, including the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and the character of Antoinette in Jean Rhys’s prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).  She represents a focal point for feminist and postcolonial critics of the novel, and, as ‘the madwoman in the attic’, has entered into the popular cultural imagination – it is possible to buy magnets, notepads, and earrings emblazoned with the phrase ‘I am the madwoman in the attic’. It is somewhat ironic, then, that the character of Rochester’s first wife is not, contrary to popular belief, locked in the attic, but in fact resides in a room on the third storey of Thornfield.

In 1979, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar published their ground-breaking study, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination – the first sustained feminist analysis of nineteenth-century women’s writing.  Their title, inspired by Gilbert’s ‘discussions of Jane Eyre with her second-grade daughter’ (p.xix), refers to the character of Bertha. In the original novel, however, Rochester’s mad wife is kept in a closed room on the third storey.  Gilbert and Gubar’s discussion acknowledges this, referring to ‘the locked doors of the third story behind which mad Bertha crouches like an animal’ (p.355), and suggesting that ‘The third story is the most obviously emblematic quarter of Thornfield’ (p.348).  However, in their title and elsewhere, they appear to conflate the attic and the third storey, to discuss them as one and the same place, while Brontё’s novel makes clear this is not the case: in order to reach the roof of Thornfield, Jane passes through the third storey, which has ‘the aspect of a home of the past – a shrine of memory’, and ‘up a very narrow stair-case to the attics, and thence by a ladder and through a trap-door to the roof of the Hall’ (p.125).

‘The Madwoman in the Third Storey’ is evidently not as catchy a title as ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’ – nor, it would seem, as memorable: multiple adaptations of Jane Eyre place Bertha in the attics, rather than the third storey.  In several abridged editions for young readers, including those by Usborne Classics and Edge Classics, Bertha inhabits the attics.  In Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair (2001), in which the heroine, Thursday Next, enters the world of Brontё’s novel, Grace Poole ‘escort[s] Bertha to her attic room’ (p.295), while, in an explicit reference to Gilbert and Gubar, Rochester describes his first wife as ‘the madwoman in the attic’ (p.332).  Similarly, in Jane Slayre (2010), a mash-up version of Brontё’s novel which employs much of the original text, Bertha (who turns out to be a werewolf in this adaptation) is twice referred to as the ‘thing in the attic’ (p.267, p.268).  In an article which appeared in the Guardian earlier this year, entitled ‘Baddies in books: Bertha Rocesther, the madwoman in the attic’, Samantha Ellis notes that Gilbert and Gubar ‘called their classic book after her’, but, in fact, in the popular imagination it is the other way around: Bertha has been renamed after Gilbert and Gubar’s work as ‘the madwoman in the attic’.

Illustration of Bertha from 1897 edition of Jane Eyre.

The distinction between attic and third storey may appear unimportant – after all, the room which Bertha inhabits is ‘without a window’ (p.338), its entrance hidden by wall hangings: the fact of its being in the third storey, rather than the attic, does not alter its function as an effective prison.  And indeed, I must confess that this post is inspired in part by my own pedantry, and habit of shouting ‘it’s not the attic – it’s the third storey’ every time someone mentions ‘the madwoman in the attic’.  Nonetheless, the persistence of this misrepresentation can tell us something about how we read and interpret texts, and the manner in which the cultural afterlives of a narrative can inform our views of the original.  The character of Bertha seems particularly susceptible to this: consider, for instance, the extent to which Rhys’s portrayal in Wide Sargasso Sea encourages a reading of Bertha as victim, or the visual portrayals of Bertha which almost all depart from Brontё’s description of her as ‘corpulent’ (p.338).  It is also worth noting that it is through the attics, which lead to the battlements, that Jane obtains her views of freedom – ‘that sun-lighted scene of grove, pasture, and green hill’ (p.126) – and ultimately through the attics that Bertha escapes her prison, albeit in death, so, conversely, the attics of Thornfield, in the original narrative, represent not imprisonment, but a route to liberty.

 

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