JANE EYRE                                         

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 In a Room Without a Window by Rebecca Lazure

  

        “They tell me I am in England but I don't believe them. 

          We lost our way to England (...) 

          This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” (Rhys 117)

During the 19th century, England was facing a peculiar problematic – single women outnumbered single men. Mainly explained by the massive emigration of men to the colonies, this fact would cause major troubles in the Victorian society. In 1851, three years after "Jane Eyre"'s publication, there were 365 000 women in search of a way to survive. There were exceptional cases such as that of Florence Nightingale, but single women could not live alone and expect to lead a comfortable and rewarding life. Married women's fortune and inheritance became their husband's, whom they would have to obey and serve for the rest of their lives. Legally, the wife was her husband's property. In "Wide Sargasso Sea", Antoinette - or Bertha- had to follow that rule too, just like any women of her time.

Marriage was the women's trade, their work. As men were raised to be lawyers, doctors or to take over the family business, women were expected to learn how to be a good mother and wife, in order to earn their living. Following the English law, “however brutal a tyrant [a woman] may unfortunately be chained to, [her husband] can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (Mill in Corvisy and Molinari 36). In other words, husbands had the right to beat their wives, to lock them away and to force them into unwanted sexual intercourses. The “unlucky” unmarried ones would have to find shelter in a workhouse, where women worked hard and earned half of what a man would earn. Many poor women would resort to prostitution just to get enough money to pay for basic needs. Moreover, a lot of those struggling women would have to provide for their mother or another aging relative in need.

In 1864, the "Contagious Diseases Act" was enforced and gave policemen the right to arrest any woman suspected of carrying a sexually transmitted disease, and this, on simple allegations. Those women would find themselves in hospitals or worst, in asylums such as the Magdalen Asylums. Those “shelters” were not only populated by the mentally ill, but would also house prostitutes, old women no longer able to make a living, and physically sick people. In France, in a asylum build around 1840 called "La Salpêtrière", 80 % of the people it sheltered were put there by the local law force, in order to cleanse the streets. Those places were crowded and sicknesses would spread. Sane people, being mixed with psychiatric cases, would have to endure much in addition to work very hard to earn their stay. People issued from wealthy families could also found themselves in asylums, either placed there at their request or at the request of their family. But those hospitals were rather called rest houses. They offered large premises, green lawns to roam about. But still, just as Rochester did, a large part of the bourgeois' families would decide to care for their mentally ill family members, at home.

Environmental differences put aside, doctors in asylums and rest houses were experimenting a lot with miracle cures for the inmates left to their care. For instance, the hydrotherapy, consisted in suddenly placing a patient in water or bathing a person up to ten hours in a row. In order to cure hysterical women, illness which was believed to come from the uterus or the ovaries, there were cases of ablation of the clitoris – one time without any anaesthesia by a certain Dr. Robert, in 1847.

Would Antoinette/Bertha have leaved a happier life in one of those rest houses? She was a woman from a very different context. In the Caribbeans, life was not the same as it was in England. As it happens, Antoinette, uprooted from her very loved lush island to Rochester's gray manor in England, was not left in a rest house but rather locked up “in a room without a window” (Brontë 316) -- or one where “there (was) one window high up – you (could not) see out of it” (Rhys 116). Though Rochester would have the legal right to put her into the hands of alienists[1], he preferred to leave her alone in that room. In a way, this was worse than any rest house in a way because she did not even understand that she was in England. Like a caged bird that would no longer sing, she kept dreaming of the smells and sounds of her home.

Did those women in asylums and rest houses also think that the life they were living was untrue? Did they think, like a poor seamstress living in 1849 and having to resort to prostitution in order to survive and support her mother as well, that “life (was) a curse to (them)”? (Mayhew in Corvisy and Molinari 255). Many feminist movements appeared following the "Contagious Diseases Act". To protest this violation of human rights suffragette's movements rose in the years after and women condition changed, slowly. At the turn of the 20th century, the elaboration of medication, such as Veronal, and Freud's psychoanalysis would change the way mental illnesses were treated and viewed, for better or for worse.


[1]Former term for psychiatrist. Origin 19th century: from French aliéniste, based on Latin alienus. (Concise Oxford Dictionary. 2008.)  

 

 

 

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Works Cited

Brenot, Philippe. 500 ans de psychiatrie 1500-2000. Ed. L'esprit du temps. Bordeaux. 2000.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ed. Bantam Classic. New York. Reissue 2003.

Corvisy, Catherine-Émilie and Molinari, Véronique. Les femmes dans l'Angleterre victorienne et édouardienne – Entre sphère privée et sphère publique.

     Ed. L'Harmattan. Paris. 2008.

Directors of Glasgow Magdalene Institution (The). The Fifth Annual Report of the Magdalene   Institution. Glasgow. 1865. http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/nov2000.html  

     Consulted on  21 november 2011.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Penguin Student Edition. Canada. 2001.

Ripa, Yannick. La ronde des folles : femme, folie et enfermerment au XIX siècle (1838-1870). Ed. Aubier. Paris. 1985.

Santonino, Chantal and Fencz, Richard. Une histoire de la psychiatrie et de ses traitements – Le XIXème siècle.  

    http://tecfa.unige.ch/tecfa/teaching/UVLibre/0001/bin43/dixneuf.ht Consulted  on 21november 2011.

Wojtczak, Helena. British Women's Emancipation since the Renaissance – Miss Lanchester's Case.

  http://www.historyofwomen.org/cohabcuttings.html and  http://www.historyofwomen.org/cohabitation.html  

    Consulted on 21 November 2011.

Wojtczak, Helena. Women's Status in Mid 19th-Century England – A Brief Overview. http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/19/overview.htm  

    Consulted on 21 November 2011.

 

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©Martine Pelletier