The Madwoman and the Blindman marks a watershed moment in cultural disability studies. As Lennard David comments in his foreword to the collection, this is the first volume about representations of disability that concentrates on a single work — Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847). The decision to publish an edited collection on Jane Eyre from a disability studies perspective demonstrates clear confidence in the field, as a critical approach capable of providing a variety of ways to complement and challenge existing Brontë scholarship.

The collection comprises eight chapters. The first two, Elizabeth Donaldson's "The Corpus of the Madwoman" and David Bolt's "The Blindman and the Classic" offer a rereading of influential feminist critiques — particularly Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gilbar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). While Gilbert and Gubar's argument is steeped in perceptions of disability, Donaldson argues that interpreting Bertha's madness and confinement as representative of Jane's guarded interiority, or of the social constraints placed upon women, is a fundamentally flawed approach. To read disability as symbolic of something (anything) else is to misunderstand the embodied experience of disability. Tempting as it is to view Bertha Mason as an anti-patriarchal dissident, Donaldson argues that this approach encourages the amalgamation of madness and mental illness with rebellion, and strengthens a "monolithic" (15) feminist understanding of mental illness — one that does not conform to either lived experience of mental illness, nor to the depictions of disability in Jane Eyre.

David Bolt deconstructs the use of blindness in Jane Eyre, focusing on the prioritisation of sighted experience as patriarchal and normative. Comparing Jane Eyre to Rudyard Kipling's The Light That Failed (1891), Bolt argues that ocularcentricism is incompatible with feminist understandings of Brontë's text, with the visually impaired Rochester and the mentally ill Bertha becoming Othered catalysts for the development of non-disabled characters. Bolt pays particular attention to the use of multi-sensory language, and to the final interactions between Jane and Rochester — where Jane's summary of Rochester's dependency fails to acknowledge Rochester's subjectivity. While Jane states that Rochester "loved me so truly," she follows that statement with a more distanced opinion: "he felt I loved him so fondly" (45). Brontë's representation of Rochester reflects the experience of visual impairment only from the perspective of the sighted Jane, without any attempt at imagining Rochester's interiority — a "feminist" conclusion only in that the sighted character is female and the impaired character male.

The third essay in the collection sees a shift away from explicitly feminist readings of Jane Eyre, as Julia Miele Rodas suggests that Jane Eyre can be usefully read as autistic. Rodas begins by outlining the initial critical responses to Jane's character and behaviour, as resisting "intimacy" (52) with the reader — described by one reviewer as a creature with "sharp eyes and dogmatic speeches […] an uninteresting, sententious, pedantic thing" (51-52). While Rodas does not claim that this description summarises autism, the review does counter a potential assumption — that the contrast between the passion of Jane's narrative and her much more constrained behaviour towards other characters is due to social conformity. It is clear throughout the novel that Jane is willing to ignore social convention — from her blunt speech to Rochester, when he asks her opinion of his appearance, to her assaults on John and Mrs Reed — so that Jane's frequently reticent behaviour cannot be explained as either shyness or obedience to polite forms. Rodas argues that as the reader is granted privileged access to Jane's thoughts, her self-control is less obvious than her emotional turbulence, and posits that this is why Jane's autistic traits (in particular, her social awkwardness and reduced affect) have not often been analysed outside of feminist readings. If one accepts this interpretation of Jane's behaviour, this could represent a significant development in the study of autistic representation. The idea that a lack of affective empathy equates to a lack of emotion and care is one of the most pervasive and damaging stereotypes surrounding autism. By virtue of being an emotionally complex character, capable of both interior reflection and connection with others, Jane Eyre would offer new (if long-published) representational patterns. Furthermore, Jane's position as narrator would add to contemporary discussions of twenty-first century autistic narrators, some of which have been praised as offering particularly innovative insights into autism — partially on the basis of their prioritising of autistic interiority via the narrator. Under Rodas' argument, Jane Eyre could valuably inform these discussions.

One of the more appealing elements of Rodas's thesis is that her positioning of Jane as autistic does not devalue the significance of other interpretative factors; disability is one part of a whole. Similarly, Margaret Rose Torrell suggests that the treatment of male bodies in Jane Eyre directly interacts with both gender and disability studies. In contrast to Bolt's argument about the patriarchal tendencies of the text, Torrell posits that Rochester represents a cautiously progressive depiction of disability and masculinity, as a character that Jane sees as full of "athletic strength" and in his "vigorous prime" (86), after the fire, and to whom she is clearly still attracted. Torrell argues that at the close of the novel Rochester represents a breaking of traditional binaries: that Jane's recounting of how a tear "trickle[d] down the manly cheek" combines both the "emotional and embodied" (87) with the masculine.

Shifting into medical history, D. Christopher Gabbard grounds his article in the changing approaches towards the care of mentally ill individuals in the UK from 1820 to 1847. While acknowledging the potentially problematic depiction of disability in Jane Eyre — particularly Brontë's use of the "cure or kill" (92) narrative — Gabbard suggests that there is a development of attitudes towards caregiving, which encourages more constructive engagement with disability. By the 1840s, when Jane recounts her narrative, asylums were seen as a new, progressive and "therapeutic" (101) method of accommodating and caring for mentally ill individuals, in contrast to previous patterns of private confinement. By the 1820s and 1830s there were several mental asylums in Yorkshire, and Gabbard posits that readers would have recognised that Rochester had made a choice to keep Bertha isolated at home, rather than seeking treatment for her — a choice that was not necessarily in Bertha's best interests. By detailing the contrast between Jane's treatment of Rochester after the fire, in the aftermath of both her own disapproval of Rochester's treatment of Bertha ("cruel" and "vindictive" (101)), and the careful attentions Jane received from the Rivers family, Gabbard argues that Brontë's novel holds up the "caring labor" of Miss Temple and the Riverses as the ideals that guide Jane's treatment to Rochester, while covertly criticising the "custodial care" (91) of the Reeds, Mr Brocklehurst and Rochester. Such an interpretation does not counter the problems raised by the cure-or-kill element of the novel, but it does serve to delineate changing social attitudes to disability.

Essaka Joshua offers a theological analysis, concentrating on Brontë's use of Biblical language as it pertains to disability. Joshua suggests that the context of many of the Biblical references indicates an enabling interaction between disability and theology — in particular, the idea that "disability is a sign of being saved or chosen" (115). The examples are numerous and varied, and highlight Brontë's ironic use of the Bible — such as the reference to Blanche Ingram, "a great lady, who scorned to touch me with the hem of her robes as she passed" (117), represented as a haughty (and thus fundamentally false) Jesus-figure. Joshua argues that the reference to Christ is part of a wider pattern of imitation Messiahs in Jane Eyre, and that Jane's distance from Blanche indicates that "disability is not lack of healing" (117). Yet while Joshua is convincing in arguing for Brontë's ironic use of Biblical quotation, her interpretation of that section of the novel as indicative of a positive portrayal of disability seems questionable: Jane compares herself to a poor, haemorrhaging woman, dependant on simply touching the cloak of the man she follows for her well-being — but disability, in this instance, is a cipher for Jane's unrequited love of Rochester. This metaphoric use of disability has little to do with the actual experience of illness or impairment, and Joshua's example is not perfectly convincing in arguing for Brontë's positive use of biblical language to discuss disability. I would have been interested to see direct engagement with Brontë's most challenging uses of biblical references to describe disability — the consistent descriptions of Bertha (by both Rochester and Jane) as a "devil" and a "demon" — before Joshua's conclusion that Brontë uses disability to refer to salvation.

Susannah B. Mintz's article focuses on the recognition of illness and disability in Jane Eyre. Mintz discusses how, throughout the novel, disabled or atypical characters are introduced, and necessitate the reader's negotiation of physical "irregularity" — a word that Brontë uses 186 times in the course of the novel, most often to describe characters' bodies. Mintz's argument rests on Brontë's consistent use of physical descriptors — that the frequent reference to irregularity ensures that these characters are not spectacles, but rendered normal, and recognisable. Mintz concludes that this return to the irregular, in conjunction with the frequent references to (and undercutting of) physiognomy and phrenology, creates a rising sense of irony throughout the narrative — that the body, and disability, are not linked to general trends of personality or morality, but to individual characterization.

The final essay in this collection discusses the portrayal of disability in film and television adaptations of Jane Eyre. Martha Stoddard Holmes offers a comparison of several adaptations from 1944 to 2006, focusing on how filmmakers negotiate the "marketing problems" of the original plain Jane and "ugly" Rochester (152), and the representation of Rochester's visual impairment and amputated hand. Most interesting about this analysis is its cumulative effect: while Rochester's visual impairment is represented in each version (either by bandages, facial scarring, or blank stares), almost every adaptation ignores his amputated hand — several featuring a clear use of both hands in the denouement. Stoddard Holmes concludes that while Brontë — and her nineteenth century audience — had no problems conceptualising Rochester, blind amputee, as sexually desirable, twentieth and twenty-first century productions assume that clearly visible disability is too much for audience sensibilities. Continuing Stoddard Holmes's logic, I wonder whether the only reason that it is acceptable to visualise Rochester's blindness is because of viewers' knowledge that it is a short-term condition — that by the end of the narrative (if not the film), Rochester will have regained part of his sight.

Lennard Davis describes The Madwoman and the Blindman as a "coming of age moment" (ix) for disability studies. I am inclined to agree; focused as it is on literary and cultural disability studies interpretations of a single novel, and making clear the varying ways in which disability studies contributes to Brontë scholarship, this is a rich and engaging text. I look forward to the publications that will follow, as part of the new Literary Disability Studies series forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan and edited by Bolt, Rodas and Donaldson.

Return to Top of Page