Being Bertha Rochester: Three Novels

One of the many remarkable things about Jane Eyre is the way in which, even caught between those two powerhouses--steely, unbendable Jane and passionate, self-involved Rochester--the madwoman in the attic manages to hold her own. Properly speaking, Jane Eyre is a love triangle, and despite the fact that we barely even see her, Bertha Rochester, Jane's dark reflection, makes an indelible impression. Bertha is consumed by the same passions that Jane is able to master, which tracks with Charlotte Brontë's 19th century outlook (although it's important to point out that Jane is hardly prim and proper--she feels passion, but she doesn't allow it to overcome her reason and morality), but in the 150 years since Jane Eyre claimed its place in the canon, authors have gone back to the madwoman in the attic, sometimes in an attempt to tell her side of the story, and sometimes in order to give her a happier ending. The three novels I'm about to discuss each deal with Bertha in a unique way and shed a light on our continuous struggle with depictions of wicked, promiscuous women.

The most conventional approach to Bertha's story comes from Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys' Bertha, here called Antoinette Cosway, is a Creole heiress in the West Indies, whose family, having fallen upon hard times, marries her off to young Englishman. According to Brontë, Bertha's insanity is the result of her promiscuity and (she not-very-subtly hints) her non-white lineage, but Rhys turns the tables by stridently insisting that it is Rochester and the English society he represents who drive Antoinette (Rochester even strips her of her name, claiming that Bertha is more proper) to madness, of which promiscuity is only a symptom. Antoinette becomes a representative of generations of subjugated women, sold into marriage by a white, male establishment, and then told to be ashamed of their femininity and their sexual impulses. The sexual politics are conflated with race politics--Antoinette's family home is surrounded by disgruntled former slaves, who reject Antoinette for her whiteness just as thoroughly as Rochester derides her for not being white enough. Caught in the middle of several conflicts, without friends and allies, treated with indifference and eventually cruelty by her uncomprehending husband, Antoinette's mind snaps, and her removal to cold, wet England after a lifetime spent in the jungle only serves to further her deterioration. The book ends with Antoinette fantasizing about her final release--burning down the house that has become her prison.

Although powerful and compellingly written, Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre seems to have borrowed from Brontë her tendency to use her fiction as a pulpit. The book is strident and often shrill. Rhys piles the tragedy and melodrama on with a shovel, but unfortunately she is neither as talented as any of the Brontë sisters, nor does she have the excuse of writing during the first century of the novel's existence. Wide Sargasso Sea often slips away from Rhys' control, becoming the very book she was trying to lambast. (There's also the question of whether reading Bertha Rochester as a victim of the patriarchy is even remotely original or shocking for modern readers, although a quick look at the book's Amazon reviews reveals many readers who complain that Rhys has ruined their enjoyment of Jane Eyre by damaging their opinion of Rochester.)

Taking an opposite approach to Rhys was Daphne du Maurier in her most famous novel, Rebecca. Where Rhys' Bertha was a victim, du Maurier's is a victimizer, far worse than Brontë's. Bertha Rochester was insane--she couldn't help making Rochester's life a living hell, and she certainly suffered more than he did. Du Maurier's Rebecca de Winter, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and perfectly evil. She uses people--mainly men--for her own purposes and cares for no one but herself. She torments her husband, Maxim, with her infidelities, but also with his inability to dominate her and make her love him as much as he loves her. When she discovers that she's dying of cancer, Rebecca plays one final trick on Maxim by goading him into killing her, thus ensuring that even after her death, she will blight his existence (don't be fooled by the Hitchcock version, in which Maxim is innocent. Excellent as it is, the movie so thoroughly soft-pedals the ending as to completely change the story).

According to du Maurier, Rebecca is triumphant even after death. Whereas Brontë's Bertha never had a hold on Rochester's heart (and whereas Rhys' Antoinette briefly manages to entice her husband but quickly loses him), du Maurier assures us that Maxim will never forget Rebecca. He marries the novel's narrator, the unnamed Jane character who is thoroughly unlike Rebecca--meek, quiet, young and impressionable--because he hopes she will make him forget his pain, not because he loves her. Throughout the novel the narrator finds herself overshadowed and overwhelmed by Rebecca's memory, and as the novel ends we find her and Maxim living in seclusion the quiet, bland existence of shell-shocked soldiers or penitent hermits. The destruction of Manderley--which in Brontë's version of the story and in the Hitchcock film is a release for Jane and Rochester--is here presented as Rebecca's final, irrefutable victory, one last twist of the knife from beyond the grave.

Probably most intriguing about du Maurier's version of Jane Eyre is the fact that, having unapologetically sided with the bad girl (although Maxim, an unrepentant murderer, and 'Jane', who unhesitatingly helps him cover up the murder, can hardly be said to be 'good'), it is now being subjected to the same rethinking as Jane Eyre itself. Sally Beauman's Rebecca's Tale retells du Maurier's story from the dead woman's point of view through Rebecca's journals. As Beauman writes in her introduction to Virago's 2003 edition of Rebecca:
One way of reading Rebecca is as a convention-ridden love story, in which the good woman triumphs over the bad by winning a man's love: this version is the one our nameless narrator would have us accept, and it is undoubtedly the reading that made Rebecca a bestseller. Another approach is to see the novel's imaginative links, not just with the work of earlier female novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë, but also with later work, in particular Sylvia Plath's late poems. Rebecca is narrated by a masochistic woman, who is desperate for the validation provided by a man's love ... This woman, not surprisingly, views Rebecca as a rival; what she refuses to perceive is that Rebecca is also her twin, and ultimately her alter ego. The two wives have actually suffered very similar fates. Both were taken as brides to Manderley ... Both were marginalised within the confines of the house ... The difference between them lies in their reactions: the second wife gladly submits, allowing her identity to be determined by her husband, and by the class attitudes and value systems he embraces. Rebecca has dared to be an unchaste wife; she has broken the 'rules of conduct' Maxim lives by. Her ultimate sin is to threaten the system of primogeniture. That sin, undermining the entire patriarchal edifice that is Manderley, cannot be forgiven--and Rebecca dies for it.
The third reexamination of Bertha Rochester comes from Michel Faber's gargantuan Victorian potboiler, The Crimson Petal and the White. Crimson is not simply a retelling of of Jane Eyre but a remixing of it, with a healthy dollop of Victorian sexual politics mixed in. The Jane/Rochester/Bertha triangle is recreated in the novel through Sugar, a successful prostitute who, in her spare time, writes a violent novel about woman who murders men; William, a failed author whose cosmetics business is transformed into an empire with Sugar's help; and Agnes, William's wife who is being driven slowly insane by a brain tumor. Faber tells Jane's story in reverse--Sugar starts out a common prostitute (which is probably where Jane would have ended up after leaving Rochester with no money or references), becomes William's mistress, is brought into his home as governess to his daughter Sophie and finally leaves him, going out into the world as a proper young lady.

Faber references and plays with our received notions of the Jane Eyre story in many ways (one of the joys of reading The Crimson Petal and the White is discovering these subtle jabs at the novel) but the most interesting one is the way in which he commingles the Jane and Bertha characters. Sugar, the Jane character, is the sexually promiscuous one, whereas Agnes is not only chaste but in complete denial of her sexuality. Agnes is in many ways infantile, almost a child. She sublimates her sexual nature and even her adulthood in religious hysteria, and her only sexual contacts come when William forces himself on her. In Faber's tale, Jane/Sugar's responsibility is not to Rochester/William but to the women he hurts--Bertha/Agnes and Adele/Sophie, both of whom she rescues from William's obliviously damaging clutches. Faber's Bertha is once again a victim, but for once she is treated to something resembling a happy ending.

For Charlotte Brontë, Bertha Rochester was a hurdle to be placed in her lovers' path. If she thought of Bertha's life at all it was to condemn her for her choices, for being the slave of vice and lust and for dragging a fairly innocent Rochester down with her. In one form or another, the authors I've mentioned here (and, I'm sure, others I've yet to read) have challenged that view. I've listed them here in the order of my opinion of them as novels--I disliked Wide Sargasso Sea, enjoyed Rebecca, and loved The Crimson Petal and the White. But regardless of my personal feelings, I have to wonder what it says about us that for more than 60 years, we have struggled with the fate of Bertha Rochester--was she a victim, a villain, or something in between? Did she deserve her fate, and did her husband and her successor deserve theirs? This fascination with a little-seen character is a testament to Charlotte Brontë's strength as a writer, I think, however little she may have intended it.


Helen Louise said…
That was a really interesting post. I have some rather jumbled up thoughts on the topic, which you might just find interesting :)

The only one I've read of the three is Rebecca, but I disliked Sally Beauman's introduction to it, and just couldn't get through Rebecca's tale... I think it was simply that I wasn't that interested in the character of Rebecca. Granted, the evil/sexy/cunning thing is brilliantly played out, but I read it with more fascination for the narrator. Although I now possess a copy of the Hitchcock film (haven't watched it yet), I'm not entirely sure I'll like it. It seems to me that the story functions through the agonising frustration of seeing everything through the unnamed narrator's eyes. I remember getting annoyed and wishing she'd get her act together so that we could find out what really happened. But at the same time I find the treatment of her character brilliant. I don't think the story would work through the eyes of Maxim. Sally Beauman seemed to disregard her, as a sort of a 'Dr. Watson' type narrator whose observations were to tell us more about the other characters than herself... I believe she claims that in the end Rebecca is much more memorable than the narrator, as if she dies and Rebecca lives. In the context of the book she has a point - but actually what made me want to reread the book, and get the film, was the narrator herself. I've always thought that her "beautiful and unusual name" was "Daphne du Maurier". I liked Jane Eyre, but I think that the 'Jane' of Rebecca is more interesting and probably more believable.

I got the impression from Jane Eyre (although I haven't read it in a while) that Mr. Rochester was just as promiscuous as Bertha, but that Brontë thought that this was rather more pardonable, perhaps because he's nicer and English - oh, and male.

I also get the impression, reading about Charlotte Brontë's life, that Jane Eyre's real name should have been "Charlotte Brontë". (Didn't Brontë end up with someone rather like St. John Rivers?) But then, I suspect all writers succumb to making a "Mary Sue". Perhaps that's why she so easily pardons Mr. Rochester and condemns Bertha, like Shakespeare pardoning Antonio and condemning the only slightly worse Shylock (Apparently Merchant of Venice has been redone with Shylock as the tragic hero... If it wasn't for Portia, I'd have been entirely on his side).

I'm not so sure it's Brontë's strengths that make us fascinated with Bertha - or at least, I suspect that it's the flawed creation of Antonio that makes me side with Shylock, and so the flawed Mr. Rochester that gives us more sympathy for Bertha. But then, it's extremely irritating when moralists rant about how the 'good guy' is flawed or the ending isn't 'just' (I've seen a few things claiming that Harry Potter should be disliked because he's sometimes rude, he occasionally lies, and he breaks rules, and so is therefore entirely bad and our children should not read about him)... so perhaps I'll let Brontë pardon Mr. Rochester after all - we're all flawed in our way. I read a Christian story designed to put children off Harry Potter and it had the most sanctimonious and annoying 'perfect' hero, called Larry Carter of all things. I'd much rather read about someone who's actually a human being.
I had a complicated relationship with the narrator when I first read Rebecca. At first I pitied her and hoped things would turn out well for her. Then I started losing patience - she was falling for such obvious tricks and behaving like such a ninny! (It didn't help that I'd already seen the film and knew exactly what Mrs. Danvers was doing, although I think I would have guessed the business with the costume on my own.) At the book's turning point, when the narrator learns what Maxim did and decides to help him get away with it, I started losing all sympathy - she genuinely didn't care that he'd killed his wife. All that mattered was that he said he cared about her. She ends the book as a rather monstrous person, in my opinion, and at least Rebecca had been upfront about her monstrousness.

I agree that Beauman's introduction is overstated, as is her thesis, but I think she has a point when she argues that Rebecca is the novel's real main character. Certainly she's the one who comes closest to triumphing.

I got the impression from Jane Eyre (although I haven't read it in a while) that Mr. Rochester was just as promiscuous as Bertha

I think what we're supposed to understand from the book is that Rochester was fairly upstanding before his marriage, but that after he realized he'd been saddled with a lunatic for life, he made for the continent, and a life of dissipation. And I don't think Bronte forgives him for this - he is censured and in many ways punished for this behavior, and he doesn't get to be happy until he repents of it - but she certainly feels that he was justified in his desperation.
Helen Louise said…
I've finally gotten around to reading The Crimson Petal and the White... was thinking about this post recently, then discovered that thanks to the recent TV adaptation, copies were in abundance at the bookshop. Great stuff, thanks for writing about it here :)

If you've not read Brick Lane by Monica Ali, you may like it, though it's about relatively contemporary Bangladeshi immigrants to Britain rather than Victorian Londoners, it seemed to share a few themes with Crimson. Both novels focus on the relative powerlessness of the female protagonists, both of whom take their fate into their own hands at the story's climax. Both novels have somewhat buffoonish male characters who see the female protagonist as an accessory to their lifestyle, not really quite noticing the woman's own personhood... but both novels are rather tender with these buffoonish males, portraying their faults clearly but also allowing readers to draw their own conclusions (Chanu loves to rail against racism, it's never clear whether he's using this as an excuse or whether he is genuinely the victim of discrimination... His various pretensions also seem at first ridiculous but after a while they seem like harmless eccentricities - perhaps they are even the defence mechanisms that he uses to tackle an often harsh and judgmental world.) And both novels deal with ideas about women's purity and sexuality within a society where women's modesty is tightly regulated and controlled - where a woman's worth can be destroyed if her virtue is in question.

Popular posts from this blog


Recent Reading Roundup 55

2021, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year