The portrayal of mental health problems in the literature of the past ranges from the condemnatory to the sympathetic. One can't help but feel, for example, that Don Quixote is desperately ill, but Cervantes uses that for comic effect; he is not using it to explore the nature of delusion itself, or to make a point about how society treats mentally ill people. Some writers seem to be able to capture the 'what it is like' to suffer from a particular problem, and in some cases they can do that without eliciting the generosity of spirit in the reader. Despite the horrific cruelty of Rochester in the fact and manner of his keeping of Antoinette (or Bertha, as we know her), despite the clear sense that he is responsible for her insanity, her erratic and violent behaviour, and ultimately (SPOILER ALERT) her suicide, we as readers are still, somehow, meant to feel relieved at her death. We are meant to be pleased that this human barrier to the happiness of our protagonist has been removed, in spite of the circumstances. It is fascinating therefore that Charlotte Bronte should portray her, between the lines, with such depth, clarity and care. She is a fully realised character underneath the indirect way we access her in the book, one who deserves our sympathy and understanding, rather than our condemnation.
So, it is with great interest that I read Walter Scott's portrayal of what seems to be something like PTSD manifesting itself as bipolar disorder in The Heart of Midlothian. Madge Wildfire is every bit as fully recognised a character as Jeanie or Effie Deans, every bit as rich as Flora MacIvor, who is a much more interesting character than Rose, just as Rebecca is far more complete than Rowena in Ivanhoe. It would be fascinating to get hold of him and find out exactly how he managed to finesse this woman, because her madness is absolutely believable. We are not as readers meant to get her, in contrast to more modern explorations of failed mental health where the exact point is to portray the wie es eigentlich gewesen of the malady. Scott does her instability gloriously well, but I can imagine that many of his contemporary readers (as well as the two-hundred years' worth since) would find Madge anywhere from uncomfortable to unrealistic. I don't think she is unrealistic in the slightest, although there may be some bias of some kind because I recognise in it my own portrayal of Edward Strelley's grief over Elizabeth. I confess myself frustrated with him at times, because he's so unpredictable and difficult to railroad into the historically fixed plot points of the story I'm trying to write.
If there's a criticism to level at Scott, it's that a lot of his (male) heroes are far less interesting than the stories they inhabit. Waverley himself is dull, Ivanhoe is relatively uninteresting. Sir Kenneth in The Talisman has a bit more about him, although obviously that was all lifted from Kingdom of Heaven (there's a joke in there somewhere, although I can't figure out what it is...). Perhaps that's why they're not taught at school, because they're all plot and so you can't write about the character in detail. So it is with the fictional women that Scott exercises his talent at character: because their 'plot' is fixed by who they are, there is no need to divest them of personality. One imagines that Scott had meticulous plans for the central plots of his novels, and it is this very rigidity that means his main characters can't be remarkable as individuals.
Anyway, what drops out of all of this is the touching notion that Scott was actually rather compassionate, even for the people who in his books constitute the dregs, the underclass who can frame a story but who are not generally themselves central. He sees the value, the essential humanity of all his characters, and isn't shy of putting it out there on the page.
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