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I am trying to work out how long Bertha Mason had been locked up by the time we reach Thornfield in the story. This is part of an argument I am working for work and I haven't been able to find a definite amount of time. Adding to this variations in timeline if we add Wide Sargasso Sea I have had some trouble working it out.

It can be assumed it's at the least around ten years since we know Adèle is just under ten years old. Mr. Rochester's travels that led to him meeting Celine were likely started after he had returned to England, with Bertha having already exhibited signs of her maladies back in Jamaica. From what I could gather it seems he locked her up as soon as he returned after the deaths of his father and brother.

Is this about right as accurate time for how long she had been in the attic? Anything else that I can look at to work out the timelines? I would prefer the answers mainly from the Jane Eyre text but will also accept anything that can help from Wide Sargasso Sea.

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TL;DR: Nine years.

Timeline

The timeline of events relating to Bertha’s imprisonment is (approximately) as follows, relative to the year Y in which Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall:

  • Y−14 — Mr. Rochester marries Bertha Mason
  • Y−13 to Y−11 — Mr. Rochester’s brother dies
  • Y−10 — Mr. Rochester’s father dies
  • Y−9 — Mr. Rochester moves to Thornfield Hall, imprisons Bertha, departs for Europe
  • Y−8 or Y−7 — Adèle born
  • Y — Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall
  • Y+1 — Mr. Rochester attempts to marry Jane; Jane flees; Thornfield Hall burns.

Evidence

Mr. Rochester had been in possession of Thornfield Hall for nine years when Jane arrived:

“The present Mr. Rochester has not been very long in possession of the property: only about nine years.” [Volume I, chapter XIII]

The Rochesters had been married for four years when he inherited Thornfield Hall:

“I lived with that woman up-stairs four years […] My brother in the interval was dead; and at the end of the four years my father died too.” [Volume III, chapter I]

Mr Rochester imprisoned his wife when he arrived in England, so that no-one should know:

“My father and brother had not made my marriage known to their acquaintance […] To England, then, I conveyed her: a fearful voyage I had with such a monster in the vessel. Glad was I when I at last got her to Thornfield, and saw her safely lodged in that third story room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast’s den—a goblin’s cell.” [Volume III, chapter I]

By comparing Mr. Rochester’s ‘ten years’ with Mrs. Fairfax’s ‘nine years’, we deduce that a year passed between Jane’s arrival at Thornfield Hall and the attempted marriage.

Bertha’s imprisonment must have been immediately on arrival, since no-one locally was aware of her identity:

“At Thornfield Hall!” ejaculated the clergyman. “Impossible! I am an old resident in this neighbourhood, sir, and I never heard of a Mrs. Rochester at Thornfield Hall.”

I saw a grim smile contort Mr. Rochester’s lip, and he muttered:—

“No—by God! I took care that none should hear of it—or of her under that name.” [Volume II, chapter XI]

Immediately after installing Bertha in the attic, Mr. Rochester left for the continent:

Ten years since, I flew through Europe half mad; with disgust, hate, and rage, as my companions” [Volume II, chapter IX]

Adèle was seven or eight when Jane meets her for the first time:

I looked at my pupil, who did not at first appear to notice me: she was quite a child, perhaps seven or eight years old [Volume I, chapter XI]

Mr. Rochester had been married to Bertha for fifteen years when he attempted to bigamously marry Jane:

“‘I affirm and can prove that on the 20th of October A.D. —, (a date of fifteen years back), Edward Fairfax Rochester of Thornfield Hall, in the county of —, and of Ferndean Manor, in —shire, England, was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinetta Mason” [Volume II, chapter XI]

“You say you never heard of a Mrs. Rochester at the house up yonder, Wood: but I daresay you have many a time inclined your ear to gossip about the mysterious lunatic kept there under watch and ward. Some have whispered to you that she is my bastard half-sister; some, my cast-off mistress;—I now inform you that she is my wife, whom I married fifteen years ago,—Bertha Mason by name” [Volume II, chapter XI]

By comparing the ‘fifteen years’ that the Rochesters have been married with the ‘four years’ they lived together before Mr. Rochester’s father died, and the ‘ten years’ that Bertha was imprisoned at Thornfield Hall, we deduce that it was a year after his father’s death that Mr. Rochester brought his wife from Jamaica to England.

  • Thanks! I don't currently have my old copy of the novel and there is some points here I had forgotten about like Mrs. Fairfax giving us an amount of time the current Mr. Rochester has been in possession. thank you very much @Gareth-Rees – Scott.Bell Jul 1 at 18:29
  • @Scott.Bell: You don't need your own copy of the novel since there are many editions online. My links are to the first edition (1847) on the Internet Archive. – Gareth Rees Jul 1 at 18:30
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    Good job in collecting evidence, but this answer doesn't take into account that some of the figures may be rounded. A difference between one person saying nine years and another saying ten years doesn't necessarily reflect a difference of one year between the statements; it could just be that one statement is more precise than the other. – Rand al'Thor Jul 1 at 18:30
  • @Randal'Thor That was my main issue, not being sure if it was rounded numbers or not. And not being able to remember well how long they had been married before the arrival at Thornfield. But the main point of what I am working with is we were looking on when it would have been the last time Bertha herself would have had contact with say Richard Mason or anyone else and when did anyone trying to reach her or ask about her run into only contacting Mr.Rochester. – Scott.Bell Jul 1 at 18:34
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I have a few details to add to the existing answer.

Bertha had been in the attic for around 10 years. This can start to be worked out from the date given at Rochester and Jane's attempted marriage by Briggs who announces the impediment of a previous marriage:

I affirm and can prove that on the 20th of October A.D. (a date fifteen years back)

Ch. 26

When Rochester then relates the narrative of his previous marriage to Jane, he states that:

I lived with that woman upstairs four years

Ch. 27

This means that at the time of Jane and Rochester's marriage attempt, Bertha had been locked away for 11 years (15 years total since Bertha and Rochester's marriage date that Briggs gave, subtracting the four years lived together).

Now, since you asked how long from when Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall, it has to be noted how much time elapsed between arrival and attempted marriage. Jane began her post as a governess in October of the year before her attempted marriage which she reveals during her momentary stay at the George Inn just before being taken to Thornfield:

I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours' exposure to the rawness of an October day

Ch. 11

This then relates to the October date of Bertha and Rochester's marriage, meaning that exactly 14 years had passed from then to Jane's arrival at Thornfield. The real problem with working out exactly how long is because it is not revealed how exact Rochester's four years with Bertha were until she was locked away and so 10 years is still an approximation, but matches Rochester's comment of

Glad was I when I at last got her to Thornfield, and saw her safely lodged in that third story room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast’s den

Ch. 27

made 8 months after Jane's arrival at Thornfield (October to July as the failed ceremony took place in July since in Chapter 25, shortly before the wedding, Jane describes the day as "no glimpse of blue sky had been visible that July day")

Mrs Fairfax's claim of Rochester only having had possession of the property for "about nine years" is somewhat dubious in its obvious approximation and ties in with her significant lack of awareness about Rochester's marriage to Bertha, as evidenced by his comment in the same paragraph, with Rochester affirming that the doctor Carter and Grace Poole were the only two people he ever told of Bertha (excepting her brother):

Mrs Fairfax may indeed have suspected something, but she could have gained no precise knowledge as to facts

Ch. 27

This could suggest that Mrs Fairfax is less informed in general about the family's affairs and so I deem Rochester as a more accurate albeit very personally involved source on the duration of Bertha's imprisonment. Even so, Mrs Fairfax and Rochester's comments coincide in stating around 9-10 years as the duration of imprisonment and this is perhaps as accurate as one can gather from the details given by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, since taking any material from Wide Sargasso Sea is equally as speculative as the opinion of any reader.

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The two answers that have been posted so far are exclusively based on Jane Eyre. An Autobiography and assume that that story's narrator is reliable. Of course, one may well ask to what extent her account of her husband's past can be relied upon, since she does not condemn the cruelty of his imprisonment of his first wife.

In Chapter XXVI, Richard Mason's solicitor Briggs mentions a marriage date fifteen years before Jane and Rochester's planned marriage:

I affirm and can prove that on the 20th of October, A.D. — (a date of fifteen years back), Edward Fairfax Rochester, (...), was married to my sister, Bertha Antoinette Mason, daughter of Jonas Mason, ...

After some resistance, Edward Rochester finally admits,

I now inform you that she is my wife, whom I married fifteen years ago, (...).

In Chapter XXVII, Rochester tells Jane,

I lived with that woman upstairs four years, and before that time she had tried me indeed: (...).

This may lead to the conclusion that Bertha's confinement started eleven years before the events in Chapters XXVI-XXVII, assuming that the years have not been rounded up or down. However, one should not overlook that Bertha Mason's or Antoinette Cosway's confinement did not start at her arrival in England.

In Chapter XXVII, Rochester also tells Jane how he got married and what happened after that (emphasis added):

'One night I had been awakened by her yells—(since the medical men had pronounced her mad she had of course been shut up)—it was a fiery West Indian Night; one of the description that frequently precede the hurricanes of those climates; (...). (...) I was physically influenced by the atmosphere and scene, and my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate, with such language!—no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she: though two rooms off, I heard every word—the thin partitions of the West Indian house opposing but slight obstruction to her wolfish cries.
(...)
'"Go," said Hope, "and live again in Europe: there it is not known what a sullied name you bear, nor what a filthy burden is bound to you. You may take the maniac with you to England; confine her with due attendance and precautions at Thornfield: (...). 'To England, then, I conveyed here; a fearful voyage I had with such a monster in the vessel. Glad was I when I at last got her to Thornfield, and saw her safely lodged in that third-storey room, of whose secret inner cabinet she has now for ten years made a wild beast's den—a goblin's cell.

This suggests that the years have been rounded up (if eleven is correct) or down (if ten is correct), but we don't know for how many years Bertha or Antoinette lived in confinement while in the West Indies. Rochester says that "here vices sprang up fast and rank", which suggests that this started not long after they were married.

In the beginning of Part Two of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway/Mason and her unnamed husband (Edward Rochester's name is never mentioned in the entire novel) travel to their "honeymoon house". The man starts to dislike the environment very soon; even before they have arrived at the house, he tells himself that "the woman is a stranger". Near the end of Part Two, he writes a letter:

Then I wrote a letter to the firm of lawyers I had dealt with in Spanish Town. I told them that I wished to rent a furnished house not too near the town, commodious enough to allow for two separate suites of rooms. I also told them to engage a staff of servants whom I was prepared to pay very liberally—so long they keep their mouths shut, I thought—provided that they are discreet, I wrote.

This ties in with "of course been shut up" from Chapter XXVII in Jane Eyre. However, it is not clear how much time passes in Part Two of Wide Sargasso Sea; it is easy to get the impression it covers just a few weeks or, perhaps, months.

Part Three, which is again told from Bertha's or Antoinette's point of view, does not provide clear information on the duration of her confinement. During the dream at the very end, she says,

I passed the room where they brought me yesterday or the day before yesterday, I don't remember. Perhaps it was long ago for I seemed to know the house well.

In fact, Part Three contains several mentions of Bertha or Antoinette getting Grace Poole's keys and wandering around Thornfield Hall, so she must have been brought there long before "yesterday or the day before yesterday". Overall, the events in Wide Sargasso Sea are hard to date, except for its beginning after the Emancipation Act of 1833, which abolished slavery in Britain and its colonies.

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