That moment when you’re walking down the aisle and then find out that your groom was not only already married the entire time you were dating, but had his wife stuffed in the attic WHILE YOU WERE LIVING IN THAT SAME HOUSE. Right? No? Exactly, no. Because no one with a bare-bones sense of humanity would actually do that. I’m sending that poor woman a fruit basket with a key hidden under the pineapple, an escape map of the Rochester grounds, and a machete in case she wants to get revenge on her way out.
Before I found out about the existence of Wide Sargasso Sea (which has remained on my TBR for far too long), the “woman in the attic” storyline within Jane Eyre, framed by our male lead as some kind of terrible misunderstanding where he is the victim (*sighs in fucboi recognition*), gave me the heebie-jeebies for more reasons than the ones in plain sight. Mr. Rochester does not stop at duplicity, lying, or even the eye-popping, mind-boggling cruelty of imprisoning his spouse in an attic; he is violently and arrogantly ignorant, plagued by Victorian imperial entitlement, and, in plain English, thoroughly dehumanizing his wife.
If Antoinette Cosway Mason—her name before Edward Fairfax Rochester pulled the classic colonial gargoyle move of changing a creole woman’s name into something more English—had been of fine, stout mental health when she got married, she could have understandably hit her breaking point after her marriage. Victorian British repression, the war against the mythical female hysteria, and the iron fist of colonialism with all its layers (elitism, violent racism, rampant sexism) are the true forces behind the making of “the woman in the attic”—nameless, mad, villain. So much gaslighting my head hurts.
Mental Health Day is coming up. So, if you find Mr. Rochester as problematic as I do, humor me for a moment, and let’s speculate: what would have happened if Mr. Rochester had not been an imperial-minded, densely patriarchal, oppressive fucboi with severe allergies to accountability? Well, we’d be talking about a whole new character. Let’s give Antoinette a better partner: what would he look like? Let’s study the facts first.
As of European imperialism, mental health in people of color has developed a branch particular to being under the boot of the colonizer. Every subject of the British empire who was not born on British soil to a completely white family and raised under British customs, was subject to a viciously layered form of oppression. We’re talking about a strong cocktail of dehumanization (“your life is of no value/less value than European lives” and quite literally “you’re not actually human”), powerlessness (“you do not nor will ever make the rules here”), abuse (“your purpose in life is to be used by others”), marginalization (“don’t forget this is not your country, stay on the sidelines and take the scraps”), and invisibility (“justice, laws, and protection do not apply to you”); take a moment to truly put yourself in these shoes, and you will need no further explanation as to why I maintain that Antoinette did not need a complicated family background to have become mentally ill.
She does, however, also have a traumatic family history; as per Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette Cosway Mason’s childhood includes sinking into poverty, an abusive stepfather, losing a sibling, losing a home, becoming separated from her mother, and witnessing her mother’s mental downfall due to financial and family struggles. Antoinette was also privy specifically to Englishmen taking advantage of vulnerable local women, as this was the reason why her mother acquired the English surname Mason in a second desperate marriage.
Upon marrying Rochester, Antoinette faces a blackmailer demanding money and threatening to destroy her reputation, and a cheating husband who flaunts his affairs and starts calling her Bertha? (Run, girl). Her marriage falls apart, she is an orphan, and (cherry on top) is shipped to England, where she knows no one. Enter attic arrest.
So, now that I have left you with some empirical context and stepped aside to drill a hole into my punching bag (which I labeled “Empires of the World”), let’s get back to the creative portion of this article: if I could have my way and put a different dude in Antoinette’s path that was loving, supportive and actually helpful, what would this person look like? Do you feel a list coming? I do.
1. Support, support, support
Antoinette has had a difficult life, and aren’t relationships supposed to be a kind of safe haven? The right person (let’s call them Human Jollywoke—Hugh, for short) would know this and maybe reassure Antoinette that she is no longer in that same turbulent place that was her childhood. She is safe now and she has a friend.
2. Thou shalt not gaslight
You don’t get to hit someone over the head with a (metaphorical) lead pipe and then complain that they’re on the ground. They’re on the ground because you hit them. Maybe if Rochester had asked Antoinette (not Bertha, DAMN IT) why she was upset, he might have realized that he was the one being a crapper.
3. Awareness is sexy.
If Mr. Jollywoke was English, he would be aware of his privilege and use it for good. He would not leave Antoinette stranded in a sea of racism and nonexistent opportunities, but would help amplify her voice in their social circles, and walk by her side as a person who respects her. Mr. Jollywoke would not act like Antoinette is crazy when she points out that proper English ladies think less of her for being creole. He would listen to her, do his best to understand her, and use his influence to help empower her.
4. To diagnose or not to diagnose
Some of those who have studied Jane Eyre from a clinical perspective have come to the conclusion that Antoinette exhibits symptoms of Huntington disease. I personally don’t know if I buy it (see the aforementioned lead pipe), but I’m not above finding myself in the wrong. If she did develop Huntington disease at some point during her traumatic life, the answer was NEVER to have her husband tie her to a chair and lock her away from humanity. A clinical label is not a “certifiably crazy” stamp, but an invitation to take special care. I still hold the belief, though, that Antoinette’s only illness was being a traumatized creole woman in a consistently retraumatizing living situation.
5. Death already did us part because you are dead inside
It was too common a tale in colonial West Indies for European men to marry local women of white-enough appearance and upbringing, the result often being humiliation and abuse and a lot of men taking advantage of vulnerable situations. Mr. Jollywoke would be someone with no interest in silencing, taming, or stashing Antoinette away. Ideally, Hugh would have a healthy enough self-esteem to consult Antoinette on where they would live and what kind of a role she would have in their married life.
In honor of Mental Health Day, please remember to do your part in crushing the systems that keep, in the words of George Orwell, some people “more equal than others.” Also, remember that red flags are real, and that they exist to keep you out of relationshits. Isolating and controlling someone’s access to the world are some of the early signs of an abusive relationship, so please please please call a friend or a domestic violence hotline if you fear for your life. Never forget you are the full weight of an Antoinette; it is no one’s right to make you a Bertha.