It’s a story rich in medical references providing lots of opportunities to look around the gallery and see evidence of the outcomes of these references. “I knew my traveller with his broad and jetty eyebrows; his square forehead, made squarer by the horizontal sweep of his black hair. I recognised his decisive nose, more remarkable for character than beauty; his full nostrils, denoting, I thought, choler; his grim mouth chin and jaw-yes, all three were very grim, and no mistake. His shape now divested of cloak, I perceived harmonised in squareness with this physiognomy.“ Jane’s description of her first sight of Mr Rochester is loaded with physiognomy, the belief that characteristics of a person were linked to their physical features. While Jane is scathing in her prejudices she is also at the receiving end from Dowager Ingram who exclaimed within earshot “I am a judge of physiognomy, and in hers I see all the faults in her class.”
The idea we can assess someone’s behaviour without knowing anything other than what information our eyes see is such nonsense, when we work with young pupils they are quick to agree.
There’s also use of adjectives like phlegmatic (stolid/calm), choler(anger), sanguine (optimistic) all referencing the four humours medical approach where the belief was the balance of liquids (blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm) controlled a persons behaviour or manifest in an illness.
Many of the group had re-read the book and saw new things through the lens of medicine and good discussion surrounded the mental health of Bertha Rochester and we questioned whether Mr R should take any responsibility for her behaviour? The portrayal of Mr R is variable through the eyes of Jane and we were all a little dumfounded by the outcome and ventured into pop psychology about Jane’s background and her lack of male role models and also strong female characters who did not meet an untimely end.
Lots of historical medical thinking from this 19th century classic has helped decide 2017’s list of books which are all contemporary in writing although not always in their content. Watch this space for a list of next year’s book group, or sign up to the Facebook group and hear more. If a super fan then there's a Pinterest board with some useful links from recent books and free for all to add their own pins and ideas. Discussions can expand from the evening to Facebook to Pinterest, share your views your way!