There are numerous examples of “mad” women in literature: Shakespeare’s helpless Ophelia, Charlotte Brontë’s abject Mrs Rochester, Wilkie Collins’ maudlin woman in white.
The way this madness is depicted often provides a glimpse into the way women are perceived in society at a particular point in time. Much of the literature involved in depictions of mad women from the Victorian era renders them as mad simply for being female. They are also shown as victims, often housebound, but unable to subscribe to that most sacred of female spaces: the domestic space.
Two new books, Havisham by Ronald Frame and Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates, depict a woman’s descent into madness, with varying degrees of success.
As the name suggests, Havisham attempts to chart the life of Dickens’ iconic Ms Havisham, giving her a back story to explain the debilitated way we find her in Great Expectations, whereas Mudwoman follows the decline of a university president shattered by trauma from her childhood.
With the continued repression of women – seen most starkly and most recently in the horror of rape – contemporary literature has a responsibility in the manner it depicts women, especially “mad” women. If women continue to be depicted as hysterical and helpless (or as angelic mothers, for that matter), nothing will change.
This is one of the reasons Frame’s attempt to resurrect and explain Ms Havisham fails. Dickens is not known for his subtlety, especially in his rendering of characters as symbols and Ms Havisham is a particularly successful one, which is why she still lives so large in the collective imagination.
But the problem with symbols is that they have no depth or identity. They merely stand for something. Ms Havisham embodies the woman scorned, a frightful, decrepit creature bent on revenge against men. But she is nothing in herself. She is something only in relation to her loss. Her body – clad in her wedding dress and reminding Pip of a skeleton, sexless and wasted – becomes an extension of her home, and both become monuments to her pain and betrayal.
Thus the personal and the public, her body and her home, are ultimately sculpted and defined by men – the one who jilted her and the ones she will destroy through Estella.
The symbol is powerful not only because the act of monumentalising the moment of your undoing is a fascinating, grotesque thing to do, but also because a woman who allows such stasis and corruption into the space of the home is the ultimate failure.
Worse, perhaps, than her profound corruption of Estella is the manner in which she lays waste to the domestic on the altar of her own personal passion and pain.
Frame doesn’t make Dickens’ ponderous Victorian symbol into an autonomous person. His story, though vaguely entertaining, serves only to diminish her, and doesn’t come near to explaining her vindictiveness and the depths of her fiery extremes. Most importantly, it does not extract her from the lot of only being a woman – or, in fact, a person – in relation to men. In framing her the same way that Dickens does – as a victim and as powerless – he fails her and his reader.
Whereas Ms Havisham is the tabula rasa upon which we project our dark imaginings and deep fear of women, Mudwoman actively projects herself on to her environment.
Mudwoman, or Meredith, is tossed on to the banks of a river and left for dead by her mother. She is rescued, adopted and rises to become the first female president of an Ivy League university. But slowly she begins to unravel. Things deeply repressed begin insidiously sliding into her present.
A crippling paranoia clouds her judgement. She falls into fugue states in which wild, agonising and violent things happen (and don’t happen) to her.
Mudwoman is also strongly situated in a house. This time it is the university president’s house – one that has been occupied by male presidents for 200 years. In an echo of Havisham, Mudwoman describes her house as a mausoleum. This is not because it is a monument to her destruction (though it is a catalyst), but because it is steeped in a decidedly male history to which she has no access. It is in this house that she begins her decline, but not because she has failed in some feminine domestic role. The house is male in Oates’ book, which is a compelling reversal.
Meredith experiences the ravages of rape in her childhood and in her fugue states begins to re-experience that terrible terror. This transforms her environment, making it a scary place – something many South African women can relate to. Sexuality for Meredith is associated with fear and death, and this is something we urgently need to understand: rape is an act of violence against the mind as well as the body. So she begins to reach the outer edges of her madness.
But Mudwoman is not mad because she is a woman; she is mad because she is experiencing, all at once and all over again, the trauma of her childhood in her adult life. She is a victim of her past, yes, but she has agency and depth. She is not whittled down to form a foil for her supposedly more important male counterparts.
Oates manages to describe a woman’s madness without stripping her of humanity, all the while removing her from a male-female dichotomy. Meredith exists as human – traumatised, deeply flawed, even mad, but emphatically a person.