BBC Radio 4, 20 April 2010
This programme, using Jane Eyre, The Woman in White
and Madame Bovary as examples, showed how nineteenth century authors dealt with the concept of madness in women,
with contributions from literary critics Sandra Gilbert and John Sutherland amongst others. Charlotte Bronte had direct
experience of madness from her brother Bramwell; this inspired her to suggest that mad women (as well as mad men) should
be shut away from society - as in the case of Mr. Rochester's wife. Hence the origins of the phrase "the skeleton in the cupboard."
The Woman in White was a considerable pulp fiction success in its day; author Wilkie Collins was more interested
in portraying the mad woman as an idiot, a feeble-minded person not worth our attention. This representation, it was alleged,
was inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton's experiences of having his wife certified after she harangued him in public while he
was campaigning for election as an MP. To describe a woman as feeble-minded was simply a means of patriarchal control.
Flaubert's Madame Bovary adopts a very different representation. Here the
eponymous central character's hysteria can be traced back to her frustrating life as a housewife and mother. With no space
to express herself during her everyday life, both her mind and her body persecute her. This was the fate experienced
by many provincial women, both in France and elsewhere.
The madwoman in the attic remains a familiar figure in modern literature - perhaps
this is due to the persistence of patriarchy, or perhaps it is simply an expression, once again, of female frustration. The
producer was Simon Hollis.