The descriptions of her in the book (I just reread it a few weeks ago) were that sort of thing from the time period where you can’t really tell what the person is supposed to look like - all about her dark and swollen countenance suffused with blood and suchlike. Here, I’ll post the bits in that scene where Rochester takes them all up to see Bertha that discuss her appearance (it’s public domain, of course.)
I’m just re-reading the book right now, and when Mr. Rochester finally gives his long explanation to Jane after his secret is exposed, he says that Bertha is actually five years older than he his.
The book says he lived with Bertha for four years, at which point to had confirmed that she was mad. Then the above quote - so I figure he was 22 and she was 27 when they were married. After living together for four years, he brought her back to England and installed her at Thornfield, and she would have been about 31 years old.
So at the time of the novel, Bertha is about 41 years old. After living crazily in a small room for ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if she looked at least 5 or 10 years older than her real age.
I like Jean Rhys’s take on the story from Bertha’s perspective in Wide Sargasso Sea.
Yeah, but looking 50 still doesn’t make her old enough to be a mad nanny or spinster aunt. Seriously, Mrs. Fairfax has GOT to have suspected. Especially since I imagine everybody knew Edward spent some time in the tropics and that’s surely obviously where Bertha’s from (she doesn’t seem to speak in her appearances in the book as far as I can remember, but that doesn’t mean she never does).
So he comes home to his ancestral manse with a madwoman in tow that Mrs. Fairfax (remember, she’s distantly related) knows damned well isn’t a spinster aunt. Maybe nobody says anything, but she’s got to be thinking it’s a mistress or a wife.
Mrs. Fairfax does not know that Bertha is Rochester’s wife. There is nothing written as to the explanation he gave her or the others, but we know that Rochester has said “At last I hired Grace Poole from the Grimbsy Retreat. She and the surgeon, Carter (who dressed Mason’s wounds that night he was stabbed and worried), are the only two I have ever admitted to my confidence. Mrs. Fairfax may indeed have suspected something, but she could have gained no precise knowledge as to facts.” Of course everyone knew “someone” was in the attic room with Grace Poole. If Bronte had intended for Mrs. Fairfax to know Rochester was married, we would have known that. I have read and re-read this book many times. I never got the impression Mrs. Fairfax knew. We have no idea who she thought Bertha was, but in my opinion, if she knew she was Bertha Antoinetta Mason Rochester, it would not have been implied, it would have been written. Besides, why would Mr. Rochester say “Mrs. Fairfax may indeed have suspected something, but she could have gained no precise knowledge as to facts” if she knew?