Did the “Woman in the Attic” in Jane Eyre Have Huntington Disease?

  • Elizabeth A. Coon
  • Anhar Hassan

Abstract

Background: References to neurologic disorders are frequently found in fictional literature and may precede description in the medical literature.

Aim: Our aim was to compare Charlotte Brontë’s depiction of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre to the tenets set forth in George Huntington’s original essay “On chorea” with the hypothesis that Mason was displaying features of Huntington disease.

Results: Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 Victorian novel Jane Eyre features the character Bertha Mason, who is portrayed with a progressive psychiatric illness, violent movements, and possible cognitive decline. Similar to Huntington’s tenets, Mason has a disorder with a strong family history suggestive of autosomal dominant inheritance with onset in adulthood, and culminating in suicide.

Conclusion: Brontë’s character had features of Huntington disease as originally described by Huntington. Brontë’s keen characterization may have increased awareness of treatment of neuropsychiatric patients in the Victorian era.