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Romantic and Victorian Literature (1789-1870) – Jane Eyre and the Presentation of Bertha Mason


Review by Jenny Richards

Three clips from different television and film adaptations of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, each depicting the interruption of Jane and Rochester’s wedding and the reveal of Rochester’s previous marriage to Bertha Mason. This playlist may be useful in comparing different portrayals of Bertha Mason as each presents her in ways that are subtly different; these examples show variations in the amount that is revealed about her background, and the presentation of her race and her relationship to Rochester. This may be particularly relevant to those comparing ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, each offering different presentations of the same characters.

Much of the secondary criticism surrounding each of these texts is concerned with issues of race, feminism and mental illness.  Examining various adaptations’ portrayals of Jane, Bertha and Rochester may inform an analysis of the various interpretations that can be extrapolated from the original text regarding these themes. For instance, how sympathetic do we find Rochester in his banishment of Bertha to the attic? Is this a bold, transgressive move that contravenes the social norms of the time, relegating a madwoman to the attic instead of the asylum, or is this inhumane despite the backdrop of a society that condoned this behaviour?

Adaptations that have vocalised this defence of Rochester’s actions and those that show him as compassionate, and, even tender, with Bertha, perhaps take a less critical approach to his assertion of power over her. By contrast, versions that emphasise the resentment, anger, and frustration between them to a greater extent, seem to find the treatment of her character more problematic, showing more violence between them and offering less justification for her secret imprisonment. How this relationship is dealt with is an indication of whether the director has viewed the novel from more of a critical feminist perspective or has focused more on how Bertha’s presence affects Jane and Rochester’s journey in isolation. Do these adaptations prioritise making Rochester a redeemable love interest over a fair, rounded portrayal of Bertha’s character?

Those that have read ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ may pick up on the issue of Bertha’s race and how this has been dealt with on screen. In Jean Rhys’ novel, the character’s race is an essential part of her identity whereas in ‘Jane Eyre’ this is arguably more an auxiliary aspect of her distant, and to Jane, alien, origins and her backstory with Rochester; Bertha’s race is not confronted so directly by Bronte, as descriptions of her physicality draw out more animalistic features than recognisable human characteristics. With this in mind, it is interesting to see the casting decisions these adaptations have made; has the director been at all influenced by Jean Rhys’ emphasis on the race of Bertha’s character? How easily would each of these adaptations fit with the canon of ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’? How has this intertextuality been negotiated on screen?