Our second article comes from Stacey Kuster, who plays Bertha. Since her character is mentally ill, and that illness is pivotal to the plot, Stacey has researched how the mentally ill were treated in Victorian England.
Mental Illness in Victorian England by Stacey Kuster
Before the mid-1800s it was the common belief that people with mental illnesses were tainted by the devil. Patients were treated poorly, most lived in unsanitary conditions–often caged—and received minimal food (which might be rancid). Mentally-ill patients were treated like animals by their caretakers and facilitators, many of whom believed that this was all they deserved. Women could find themselves labeled insane and locked up in madhouses for a range of conditions – from postnatal depression to alcoholism or senile dementia, and even for social transgressions such as infidelity (‘moral insanity’).
In the Victorian era, there was a shift in attitude towards mental illness. People in general began to realize the importance of paying attention to the conditions of mental institutions. Compared with the early asylums–rough, brutal places where the most disturbed patients were chained in windowless rooms with straw bedding–the mid-Victorian era was positively progressive. Theories that still hold today, such as the value of occupational therapy, were becoming fashionable. At this time, there was a shift away from the idea of control from without (via chains and shackles) and towards control from within, via treatment or cure.
At the time of the publication of Jane Eyre in 1847, investigation into the condition of mental institutions revealed that although abuse and overcrowding were prevalent in mental asylums, there also existed a surprising level of awareness of the plight of the mentally-ill and a widespread desire to improve the conditions of asylums and the treatments they offered to those who were incapable of functioning in regular society due to mental illness.
[Ed. note: Thus in the novel, Bertha is segregated, but not shackled. Her treatment may not strike us as humane, but for the time it was better than average. It should also be noted that divorcing a mentally- ill spouse has been legal only since the early 20th century, and even then the healthy spouse may still have some financial burden. Presumably, the husband’s financial responsibility for his mentally-ill spouse was one reason the state would not allow/encourage divorce, as the burden might then be placed on the state for her care.]