The Mad Woman In The Attic

 

One of the most fascinating characters in literature is the mysterious mad woman confined to an attic in Jane Eyre. I have read and re-read Jane Eyre many times and I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never paid much attention to this spectre of a woman lurking in the shadows until much later in life. To my young mind, she was nothing more than a plot device; a nuisance and an impediment to this beautiful love story between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Still I was aware that she wielded a lot of power as her existence threatened the happiness of two people in love.

A strange woman evoking fear, Mr. Rochester’s long-suffering first wife is depicted as a savage creature with a preternatural appearance and a diabolical laugh:

In the deep shade, at the farther end of the room, a figure ran backwards and forwards. What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours; it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing, and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face.

Throughout the book she is described in a degrading and dehumanizing way as a ‘clothed hyeana’, a ‘goblin’, a ‘vampire’, someone of ‘pygmy intellect’ and is referred to as an animal or by the neutral pronoun ‘it’. She is considered a raving lunatic as she sets fire to Mr. Rochester’s bed, attacks Mr. Mason and tears Jane’s veil on the eve of her wedding. On re-reading the book now I realize that years of confinement without fresh air or sunshine would be enough to drive anyone mad. We don’t have her account of the story. She is referred to by her maiden name Bertha Mason although she is Mr. Rochester’s legal first wife. Hidden, stifled, negated, she is denied of her conjugal rights. Her ethnicity is not clear; she is described as dark but was probably a white Creole woman, but even as a white woman she is viewed as the foreign ‘other’ compared to the ‘civilized’ English.

Two feminist critics, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in a 1979 book entitled The Madwoman in the Attic posited that she represents the subverted rage of Charlotte Brontë herself, the female voice stifled in literature who had to write the story under a male pseudonym or that she could be the evil doppelgänger of Jane herself. Read the book if interested in a thorough analysis. Although a little dated, it’s a seminal work which sowed the seeds for future literary criticism.

While recently re-reading Jane Eyre, I focused on the dichotomy between the two women; the kind and good-hearted Jane and the wild and intimidating Bertha. In Victorian novels women are often depicted as one of two binary opposites- angel or monster.

It is interesting that both women possess qualities attributed to the other. As a child Jane displayed bouts of aggression when confined to the red room by her aunt. Years later, Mrs. Reed on her death bed, reveals: ” I could not forget my own sensations when you thus started up and poured out the venom of your mind: I felt fear as if an animal that I had struck or pushed had looked up at me with human eyes and cursed me in a man’s voice.” Jane’s aggressive and unladylike behavior, similar to Bertha’s is also likened to that of an animal and a man. It was social conditioning at her boarding school that curbed her impetuousness. She became docile and learned to control her feelings. Yet Jane is a passionate, independent and courageous woman who has a rebellious streak and shows spunk when needed. She does try to assert her individuality when she refuses to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress on finding out that he is already married or when she refuses to be dolled up in silks to please him.

Bertha, for all her belligerence, is a subjugated woman forced to give up her wealth and her country. Even Jane can’t help feeling sorry for her and rebukes Mr. Rochester:“ Sir.. you are inexorable for that unfortunate lady: you speak of her with hate—with vindictive antipathy. It is cruel—she cannot help being mad.” Bertha represents the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. She is Jane’s alter ego who acts out her darkest repressed desires. This type of ‘doubling’ is a motif prevalent in many Gothic novels.

Jane Eyre is one of my most favorite literary characters. Even to this day I admire her for her resilience, her tenacity and her ability to forgive. She is a sensible woman who follows her heart but doesn’t compromise her integrity. Most women, I imagine, identify with her irrespective of ethnicity and skin tone. The racial prejudice and xenophobic overtones escaped my attention as I was heavily invested in her romance. But now with age I view Mr. Rochester in a different light. He’s a dark and brooding man who tried to deceive Jane. And then, there’s the troubling issue of mental illness and its depiction! And I have become more enamored with the woman in the attic who eventually jumps to her own death and enables the couple to get married. ” Reader, I married him” declares Jane towards the close of the novel.

Reader, I married him first!

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The Sargasso Sea with free- floating sargassum!

There’s always another side to every story. Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea, written in 1966 is a prequel and a post colonial reading of Jane Eyre, narrating the story from the perspective of Bertha Mason. She literally brings her out of the closet..er..attic. She gives a voice to the silent woman and reveals how she was a victim of patriarchal and colonial hegemony. Her mental illness made matters worse.

The first Mrs. Rochester who goes by the name Antoinette Cosway in Rhys’ book is a white Creole, born and raised in the West Indies. The novella is divided into three sections narrated alternatively by Antoinette and by Rochester and is set in the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Jamaica. The last section takes us back to Thornfield Hall in England. Antoinette lives with her mother and sick brother in relative poverty until her mother remarries the wealthy Mr. Mason. Black workers burn down their plantation house, her brother dies and her mother slips into madness. She spends the rest of her maiden days in a convent school until her marriage is arranged with Mr. Rochester. He marries her for her dowry and is deceived into the marriage by his own father and brother who wish to disinherit him and hide the history of insanity in his fiancée’s family from him.

The text highlights the political and racial tensions between former slaves and slaveowners after the Emancipation. Antoinette’s parents who were once slaveowners represent a shameful legacy to the locals. Antoinette who grows up in isolation belongs nowhere. A white European girl raised in Jamaica, she is as much of an outsider to the English who visit the island and marry the white girls as she is to the local colored people. She experiences a sense of alienation and rootlessness:

It was a song about a white cockroach. That’s me. That’s what they call all of us who were here before their own people in Africa sold them to the slave traders. And I’ve heard English woman call us white niggers. So between you I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong and why was I ever born at all.”

Mr. Rochester is ill at ease in his own way in this languid and lush country which is frighteningly oppressive in its intensity of sensations and he laments: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” On the one hand he lusts after his seductively beautiful bride and on the other, he is bewildered by her strange native habits and her familiarity with the servants and especially with her nanny Christophine who practices obeah ( voodoo) and doles out rum and love potions as and when needed. Rumors of madness in her family drive a wedge between the couple. Eventually Antoinette herself starts showing signs of mental illness.

Marriage is another form of slavery.  It is interesting that Antoinette whose name has been changed to Bertha ( just as Mr. Rochester would, on occasion, call Jane by the name of Janet) and who is transported to England and locked in the attic for years, only gets her liberation through death. And Jane, who is free to marry, will be confined in matrimony due to her gender and also as she will have to take care of a crippled and invalid husband.

Although the idea of giving a voice to the marginalized woman is subversive and original, Wild Sargasso Sea, in my opinion, is so dreadfully written that it loses all its credibility. The sentences are disjointed and incomplete and often missing punctuation. Maybe Rhys’ intention was to portray Antoinette’s fragmented self with incoherent dream like visions and a hallucinatory effect but the execution is poor. Moreover Antoinette still remains in the shadows. I did feel an inexpressible sadness for her and her plight but I felt she could have been fleshed out more as a character. This is one of the rare instances when I enjoyed the film more than the book.

The book tackles issues of racism, reverse racism, xenophobia and misogyny in the sensual setting of the West Indies. The Sargasso Sea, defined by ocean currents instead of land boundaries and masses of free floating seaweed which, according to mythical lore, trapped ships, serves as an apt analogy for the struggles of racial identity. What a pity then that the writing ruins what could have been a brilliant book of intertextuality!

All I can say in defense of the book is that we’ll never see or read Jane Eyre the same way again.

 

 

Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

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Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

 

 

A Blind Date With A Book

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Have you ever been on a blind date with a book? I recently went on my first one thanks to an event my library had organized for Valentine’s Day. Many libraries and bookstores are playing Cupid with their patrons in the month of February by offering them the opportunity to go on a blind date with a book. Books are wrapped in brown paper to conceal their identity. You have to commit to reading a book without knowing its title or author. A genre or basic category could be marked or there could be a vague description or a few keywords pertaining to the theme to create mystery and suspense and pique your interest. Often we pick a book based on the cover but cover art can be distracting and even misleading by giving us the wrong impression of the content. As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover. Besides, who doesn’t like surprises? If you are someone who restricts yourself to certain genres, you could open up a new world by reading something you wouldn’t have read otherwise. You rate the date when you return the book after reading. You never know, you may meet your perfect match. And no hard feelings, if it doesn’t work out. Abandon the book and move on to the next one.

So, what book did I end up with? I was attracted to the cover that had the words ‘Storytelling and Fantasy’ on it. As I ripped off the brown paper, I saw a thin book entitled The Search after Hapiness ( I’ll get to the spelling mistake in a minute) and the author none other than the famous Charlotte Brontë. I have read, re-read and enjoyed the timeless classic Jane Eyre countless times. I can confidently say that it was one of the first books that made me a lifelong reader. If you take a random survey and ask people to name their hundred greatest books , I’m sure Jane Eyre would be included in many a list. I have also read The Professor and Villette by Brontë but I had never heard of this book before. For me, it was love at first sight as soon as I saw the name of the author. I was even more delighted to discover that the tale in front of my eyes was written by Charlotte Brontë in 1829 when she was just thirteen years old.

In the introduction to the American edition of the book, T. A. J. Burnett explains how the motherless Brontë children engaged in games of make believe to occupy their time in the remote moorland parsonage where they were raised. In June 1826, their father gave them a box of twelve wooden soldiers as a gift. The lonely and isolated children were very imaginative and they created a fictitious city called Glass Town that was conquered and colonized by their twelve heroes. The children themselves were the four genii who presided over the inhabitants of the city. Their games were inspired by the stories in The Arabian Nights which was part of their father’s library collection. Charlotte’s brother, Branwell Brontë, wrote a detailed account of these made up stories in a work entitled, The History of the Young Men from Their First Settlement to the Present Time. The Search after Hapiness is not part of the Glass Town stories but according to the preface to the tale by Brontë, the action is set in Glass Town and Charlotte’s favorite toy soldier named ‘The Duke of Wellington’ has an important role in the story. Brontë wrote the tale in her own hand and in minuscule letters in imitation of print. Her spelling and punctuation errors have been retained in the American edition of the book. The original manuscript has no illustrations but this edition has exquisite watercolors by artist Carolyn Dinan that add to the charm of the tale. When I started reading the book, I immediately noticed the glaring spelling mistakes and the long, winding sentences. I’m glad the editors decided to retain the errors as I think they help convey the youthfulness of the writing and enable us to understand the budding creativity of the author. I was also struck by Brontë’s impressive vocabulary and vivid imagination. The young girl couldn’t spell but she certainly had a way with words.

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The original manuscript of the book, written in miniature print by Charlotte Brontë.

As I started reading the tale, it seemed like I was flying on a magic carpet to the world of The Arabian Nights. I came across magnificent palaces, lush gardens, a subterraneous passage with a stone rolled to the entrance, globes of light and, of course, there was a magic genie thrown in for good measure. The plot itself is incongruous and implausible. Henry O Donell is a young man who leaves behind the city and the people he loves to go on a quest of happiness. During the course of his adventures, he meets Alexander de Lancy, a native of France, who is on a similar pursuit of happiness. They decide to travel together and come across a very old man who narrates his story of enslavement and release to them (the device of a tale framed within another tale is also reminiscent of The Arabian Nights). For some inexplicable reason or by a quirk of fate, Alexander gets separated from Henry. The latter, meanwhile, feels very nostalgic for the home he has left behind and bursts into tears. A mighty genie stands before him, ready to grant his wish and he is instantly transported back to his castle where he coincidentally bumps into Alexander who has become a rich merchant in Paris. And needless to say, they lived happily ever after in their separate cities. The search after happiness brings them back full circle to their own homes.

This book will not appeal to readers who are not familiar with the works of Brontë. In fact, they will probably dismiss the tale as puerile and absurd. It is replete with spelling errors and the rambling descriptions and the problematic syntax make it even more tedious to read. But for those who know Brontë and have enjoyed her oeuvre, it is a fascinating window into the mind of an imaginative and gifted child who would grow up to become one of the most celebrated authors of all time. It is also noteworthy that the story includes Charlotte’s earliest known poem, “In this fairy land of light.” The tale written through the eyes of a thirteen year old helps humanize an author whose reputation has grown to mythic proportions. The book made me wonder about the early writings of other famous authors and how reading juvenilia might help parents and teachers identify and encourage talent at a young age. As far as rating my date goes, I would say it was meant to be. I had no idea such a book existed and as I am a big fan of Charlotte Brontë, it was truly a match made in heaven!

The photos are from the public domain collection of the British Library.