Results and Analyses

Nineteenth-century women writers were locked in a patriarchal prison. The only hope of their fiction being well received lay in their ability to play into the power system, but their only hope of changing that dynamic was to write fiction that rebelled. To do so, they hid their messages behind carefully placed words and phrases. In genres such as the Gothic, this was done under the guise of the madwoman. In genres such as domestic fiction, this was done under the guise of the token woman whose agency often gets her into trouble. These characters were the secret ways which authors demonstrated their own individuality and resistance; their characters’ resistance was their resistance. Both of these tropes were considered acceptable by male authors, in fact they were using them, too. It was this mimicry that allowed the messages to hide in plain sight. 

The Gothic novels that Gilbert and Gubar turn to in The Madwoman in the Attic are by the Brontë sisters: Jane Eyre by Charlotte and Wuthering Heights by Emily. Let’s see if keyword research supports the conclusions of Gilbert and Gubar. 

Keyword: Mad

Figure 2: Jane Eyre                       Hits: 22

Let us draw our attention to these five lines:

  1. “Bertha Mason is mad” (line 2)
  2. “She was only mad” (line 3)
  3. “She came of a mad family” (line 9)
  4. “She is mad” (line 11)
  5. “The medical man had pronounced her mad” (line 19)

All of these sentences are declarative of Bertha Mason’s madness. They are not musings or opinions; to these characters, her madness is fact, and we can see that in the language. Pronunciations of feminine madness in were not uncommon in Victorian times. In her essay on Victorian women and insanity, Elaine Showalter writes that “textbook cases of female insanity” were “usually described [as] women who were disobedient, rebellious, or in open protest against the female role” (Showalter 172). This is precisely why the presence of mad females made such a great vehicle for feminine rebellion. The inclusion of these madwomen in texts immediately evoked that sense of rebellion and disobedience that the female authors, themselves, felt, but could not express in their real life for fear of being deemed mad, too. These women were their stand-ins, and the control they exerted over the narratives made them powerful. Bertha Mason is a linchpin in Jane Eyre. Without her, the characterization of Jane, herself, is incomplete. The two act as foils. The juxtaposition of Jane and Bertha serves to highlight not only Jane’s differences, but also her similarities. In the comparison, we see some of Jane’s markings of madness, and by madness, what we mean is independence. At one time, Jane even runs away from Rochester, not unlike what Bertha attempted to do. Running away from one’s beloved is certainly cause for a pronunciation of madness in Victorian times but is really an expression of agency on Jane’s part. The dynamic of Bertha versus Jane brings the inherent connectedness of feminine madness and the want for independence to the forefront of this novel, though in a way palatable to the patriarchy because Jane, in the end, consents. character of Bertha brings these messages to the forefront of the novel, though in a way palatable to the patriarchy. 

Figure 3: Wuthering Heights        Hits: 20

In contrast to Jane Eyre, where hits on the word “mad” relate to the female character, Bertha, the hits in Wuthering Heights relate to the male character, Heathcliff. Let us take the line: “You marry? Why, the man is mad!” The man referred to is Heathcliff, and the madness that Heathcliff falls into as the story progresses is brought on in direct correlation to his love affair with Catherine.Showalter tells us that “sexuality was a symptom of… female insanity” (173). Without Catherine’s sexuality, Heathcliff would not be in this mad state. It is this direct link to Catherine that drives him mad and casts him out of control. The danger that appears is how women’s sexuality can upend the existing power dynamic. An overly sexual woman was thus a madwoman, which meant they could be handled — through asylums. This handling resulted in incarceration, the goal of which was to render women “quiet, virtuous and immobile” (Showalter 167). If women were “quiet, virtuous and immobile” then their wiles could not upend power. The fact that Brontë writes of a woman who is able to drive a man mad with her love and retain this hold on him the entire text conceals the message of how women might pervert their sexuality to exert power in the masculine sphere. 

The threatening feeling that madness evokes is a reproduction of the feeling the patriarchy has towards those madly independent women who dare defy the system. In “Victorian Women and Insanity,” Showalters writes: “Victorian psychiatric labelling and incarceration was an efficient agency of socio-sexual control” (175). But in bending madness to their agenda, women writers have taken back a bit of the control without appearing outwardly threatening to the balance.

Since madness was a common signifier in Victorian literature, and women writers were perverting male dominated genres and tropes, it is essential to know how male authors wrote about madness. 

In 1851 author Charles Dickens attended a holiday party at St. Luke’s Hospital for the Insane (Showalter). Eight years later he published A Tale of Two Cities. Having been enmeshed in the Victorian psychiatric scene, let us see how he writes of madness. 

Figure 4: A Tale of Two Cities Hits: 9

“Are you a subject for the mad hospital?” (line 6). In Victorian times, the mad hospital Dickens writes of — and himself visited — “served as catch-all facilities for violent and difficult women” (The Atlantic). What is interesting, here, is that there is no direct link between any usages of the word “mad” and a female character. However, in lines 1 and 2, we see “mad and dangerous” linked. Madness was immediately associated with danger. In the case of madness and women, the danger presented itself as the “refusal of traditional gender roles” (Carroll Smith-Rosenberg as cited in The Atlantic). What we can note from this example is how women writers were drawing a picture of madness in their texts similar to Dickens — one that encompassed danger, ferocity, and raving. These depictions and links were expected, so their words were accepted; however, what lay under the depictions were those additional connotations of feminine independence. Let us see how Jane Austen, a contemporary of the Brontë sisters, dealt with the theme of feminine independence. 

Keyword: Independent 

Figure 5: Sense and Sensibility              Hits: 7

The only instance of independence being tacked onto the female spirit in this search appears in the first hit, which characterizes the protagonist, Elinor, as suffering from being a touch “proud and independent,” both of which are inherently masculine traits (in the Victorian age, at least). The word “suffering” connotes Elinor’s traits with something like a disease. This fits along with what we know about feminine madness being linked to “‘decision of character, of strong resolution, fearless of danger, bold riders, having plenty of what is termed nerve’” (F.C. Key as cited in Showalter 172). For Victorian women, independence and madness go hand-in-hand. Elinor only has to be characterized as having ferocity of character once to be seen as a liability throughout the text. Austen, though, makes her the protagonist. The situation of the fiercely independent woman as the main voice is Austen sending the message that independent women and can will take center stage. Not pushing her independence in the face of readers, but writing it in undertones, made the story palatable to publishers. 

Let us shift, now, to a novel that Gilbert and Gubar did not dive into — Lady Audley’s Secret — and see what turns up when we go back to our original search for “mad”. 

Keyword: Mad

Figure 6: Lady Audley’s Secret                  Hits: 77

Lady Audley’s Secret turns up the most hits for the word “mad” in the entire corpora. There are almost a dozen of these hits that directly link the word “mad” with the word “woman.”

This is not shocking given the premise of Lady Audley’s Secret; Lynn M. Voskuil describes the character of Lady Audley as first appearing “the part of authentic, devoted wife” only to later “attempt[s] to murder Talboys (and others who incidentally stand in her way) in order to maintain her new, wealthy life” (614). Lady Audley is the antithesis of the domestic ideal. 

With such an overt divergence from the feminine model, it is not shocking that Braddon’s book was met with “reviews that remarked on Lady Audley’s ‘misrepresentation’ of women” (Voskuil 622). Of these reviewers, Voskuil writes that several “vehemently objected to Lady Audley’s falseness [and] her unnatural embodiment of femininity” (614). Despite this, Braddon’s book was widely popular, why? Well, the first reason being that Lady Audley’s tendencies were written in accordance with Gothic tropes. And the second reason being, perhaps, that women related to Lady Audley’s murderous need to retain the wealth that gave her a modicum of independence. Now that we have some context on Lady Audley’s Secret, let us look at a few examples that support her characterization. 

The last eight hits all directly link the word “mad” with the word “woman”. Let us look at the last line: “Mad woman pacing up and down some prison cell”. The cost for madness in these texts (and in the real world women faced) was imprisonment. As aforementioned by Showalter, the  “Victorian psychiatric labelling and incarceration was an efficient agency of socio-sexual control” (175). Women were afraid to act out like Lady Audley does because their displays of independence (though Lady Audley’s is quite extreme) were liable to get them imprisoned. Men locked women away at any sign of independence so as to avoid the danger their ideas posed. Their expression of personhood was pinned down to an act of hysteria. 

Let us now switch gears and turn back to the domestic novel, Marriage, written in the same manner as Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. We will look at a new keyword: “space”.

Keyword: Space

Figure 7: Marriage                                   Hits: 4

 In Marriage, we see a “small space,” a “brief space,” and a “vacant space.” In the final quantifier, “vacant space” is being used to refer to the mental capacity of a female character, pointing us to this notion that the woman was not able to think, feel, or imagine. This leads back to that argument that women writers were concealing their feelings of entrapment in women who themselves were feeling the effects of subjugation, which was taking their agency to think and act. Similarly, in the hit “small space,” the context tells us that there was a “want for breath and repose,” which can be likened to women’s want for agency in a time where they were being crushed by the demands of the patriarchy which allowed them no such breath or repose.  

Overall, instances of these three keywords in several different novels prove to each have fruitful takeaways when placed within the context of how Victorian women subverted popular tropes of the time. We will further explore these findings, their implications, and future developments in the conclusions.

Continue to Conclusions.

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