What was really wrong with all those unstable women in classic novels?

Madwomen in the Attic (Radio 4) was a spirited, none too earnest look at unstable female characters in classic novels. “Back-diagnosing psychiatric illness from the pages of novels – where’s the rigour?” asked presenter Vivienne Parry, adding: “But it’s so much fun, let’s do it anyway.”

Starting with the most famous of the lot, the imprisoned Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said he feels everyone has her kind of attic in their own head – “at the top of the building, a sealed-off space you have to make an effort to get to”. Dinesh Bhugra, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, gamely had a go at diagnosis. Most probably, Bertha, uprooted from Jamaica, was an early example of psychosis related to migration, he noted. If he were treating her, he’d try anti-psychotic medication, psychotherapy and occupational therapy: “and then she might not play with matchsticks”.

Anne Catherick in The Woman in White and Emma in Madame Bovary also got restrospective assessments – “most probably a learning difficulty” and “possibly bipolar” – but the most convincing observation came from literary academic Sandra Gilbert. “Over and over again in these novels, the woman labelled mad is someone who has not accepted her socially established position in a culture that wants to subordinate her,” she said.

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