If Jane Eyre Happened In 2011by Chiara Atik on November 28, 2011
This week’s New York Times’ Modern Love essay is about a husband who becomes the principal caregiver for his wife when she suffers a psychotic breakdown. It’s all very intense, and made think about Jane Eyre, the madwoman in the attic, and what Mr. Rochester would do if he existed in 2011.
In the essay, the author’s wife, Giulia, suddenly falls into a terrifying depression and starts hearing voices at the very young age of 27. Their life becomes an exhausting series of conversations about love and suicide, and Giulia makes no secret of the fact that she is living for and relying on her husband: he is the only thing keeping her from totally breaking down, or worse. This is an enormous responsibility to shoulder for someone you love, but the author handles it admirably, and eventually Giulia’s illness passes. Now, that horrible year of voices and breakdowns is just a memory, fodder for essays and memoirs. He has his wife back though — they survived.
In Jane Eyre, a young governess falls in love with her employer, only to learn that he’s already married. It’s not (exactly) a case of bigamy: Mr. Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, is violently insane, and he therefore keeps her locked away in the attic of his house, watched after by a caretaker but hidden from view.
Mr. Rochester’s decision to keep his wife locked away is somewhat justified in the novel by the fact that his wife is so violent, and presumably a danger to others. But after reading yesterday’s Modern Love essay, it’s tempting to imagine whether, if he had chosen to take her to yoga class instead of confining her, if he had talked to her about love and suicide instead of abandoning her, if he had just been a little more patient, Bertha’s madness would have eventually passed just like Giulia’s did.
Sure, Giulia was also aided by drugs, the likes of which didn’t exist in the 19th century. And sure, Giulia is a real person, as opposed to a 200 year old fictional character. The two situations are hardly comprable.
Even so, the whole madwoman in the attic thing has always been spine-tingling. In terms of mental illness, and patience within relationships, and commitment to other people, we sure have come a long way.