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.
Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, which is based on Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Monroeville was also the hometown of Truman Capote.
Jon Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction book is an expansion of his essay on Christopher McCandless, titled Death of an Innocent. Into the Wild was later adapted into the Academy Award nominated film of the same name and was directed by Sean Penn. The book and film both take place in the Alaskan wilderness.
A Painted House was inspired by author John Grisham’s childhood in Arkansas. It follows protagonist Luke Chandler, who is the youngest in a family of cotton farmers, struggling to earn enough money to pay back their debts.
Stephen King’s iconic novel The Shining takes place at the Overlook Hotel situated in the Colorado Rockies. The setting was influenced by King’s own experience visiting The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado in 1974. The Shining was adapted into a film of the same name in 1980 and remains one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Richard Yates’ debut novel Revolutionary Road is set in the Connecticut suburbs in the 1950s. Yates intended for the novel to be an indictment of American life in the 50s during a time where there was a general lust for conformity.
The Saint of Lost Things is a novel by Christopher Castellani that takes place in 1953 in a tight-knit Italian community situated in Wilmington, Delaware. It paints a picture of the Italian-American experience with compassion and honesty.
Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, a novel set in Clayton County and Atlanta, Georgia during the American Civil War and Reconstruction Era, in 1936. Gone with the Wind received a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1937 and was later adapted into a film. Gone with the Wind was the only book Margaret Mitchell published during her lifetime.
Named directly after the state itself, Hawaii by James Michener was published in 1959, the same year Hawaii became the fiftieth state of the U.S. With an episodic format, the novel begins with the formation of the islands and narrates the stories of all the different groups of people who arrive on the islands.
Housekeeping is a novel by Marilynne Robinson, published in 1980. The novel is set in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, which has similar details to Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho. Housekeeping was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was awarded the PEN/Hemingway award for best first novel. The novel was also included in TIME’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 novel, The Jungle, to portray the exploited lives of immigrants in Chicago and other similar industrialized cities. In his book, Sinclair inadvertently exposed many health violations and unsanitary practices in the American Meatpacking Industry during the early 20th century, which led to many reforms including the Meat Inspection Act.
The second novel in his Growth trilogy, Booth Tarkington published The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918. The novel is set in a fictionalized Indianapolis with much of it inspired by the neighborhood of Woodruff Place. The Magnificent Ambersons won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, just a year after it was published.
A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, is a modernized retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The novel is set on a thousand acre farm in Zebulon County, Iowa. A Thousand Acres won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1991.
Though this novel features the iconic line “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum begins and ends on a farm in Kansas. One of the greatest stories in American literature, The Library of Congress has declared the novel “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has been adapted numerous times into films, plays, comics, and more.
Another prominent novel in American Literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel begins on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky and is said to have gone on to help lay the groundwork for the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the bestselling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of the century, after the Bible.
Interview with the Vampire is a gothic horror novel by Anne Rice and was published in 1976. The novel follows the vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac, who is based in Louisiana. Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire shortly after the death of her daughter, Michelle, who serves as inspiration for the child-vampire character, Claudia.
The iconic Carrie by Stephen King was released in 1974 and is set in the fictional town of Chamberlain, Maine. The novel revolves around misfit, Carrie White, who uses her newfound telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who mistreated her. The novel has inspired many adaptations including several films, a 1988 Broadway musical, and a 2018 special episode of Riverdale.
Set in Baltimore, Maryland, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was written by Anne Tyler and published in 1982. Considered her best work, by the author herself, the novel was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Walden, first published in 1854, was written by transcendentalist Henry David Thoreou and details his experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin near Concord, Massachusetts. The book closely details human growth and development and what that looks like when one lives a simple life.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published in 1993. The novel is set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the 1970s and centers around the five Lisbon sisters. Most notably the film was adapted into the 1999 film of the same name, written and directed by Sofia Coppola.
Written by Sinclair Lewis and published in 1920, Main Street is a satirical novel about small town life set in Minnesota. It details the life and struggles of protagonist Carol Milford Kennicott in the small town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Main Street is arguably Lewis’s most famous novel, which eventually led to the author’s 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature.
William Faulkner’s fourth novel, The Sound and the Fury, was published in 1929 and is set in Jefferson, Mississippi. The novel uses several narration styles, including stream of consciousness. The novel was not initially a success, but eventually was ranked sixth on the list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library in 1988.
Another American classic, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the story of a young boy growing up along the Mississippi River. The novel is set in the 1840s in the fictional town of St. Petersburg, which was inspired by Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain grew up. Though originally, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a commercial failure, it went on to become a masterpiece of American Literature.
A River Runs Through It is a semi-autobiographical account of author Norman Maclean’s relationship with his brother Paul and their childhoods in an early twentieth-century Montana family. A River Runs Through It is part of a three story collection and was the first work of fiction to be published by the University of Chicago Press.
My Ántonia is the final book in author Willa Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ of novels. My Ántonia tells the story of an orphaned boy and the eldest daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants, who are brought to Nebraska as pioneers. The novel is considered Cather’s first masterpiece and she was praised for bringing the American West to life.
Set in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a blend of fact and fiction. Author Hunter S. Thompson included vivid descriptions of illegal drug use and its retrospective on the 1960s culture. The novel follows protagonist Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Ganzo, as they travel to Las Vegas to chase the American Dream.
The Hotel New Hampshire is a coming of age novel by John Irving, published in 1981. The novel is set in New Hampshire and follows the Berrys, a quirky New Hampshire family. It was adapted into a film in 1984 and stars Jodie Foster, Rob Lowe, and Beau Bridges.
Drown is a semi-autobiographical short story collection from author Junot Díaz. The collection takes place in both the Dominican Republic and New Jersey, where Díaz moved with his family as a young boy. This collection addresses the trials of Dominican immigrants and their attempt to achieve the American Dream.
Richard Bradford’s 1968 novel, Red Sky at Morning follows protagonist Josh Arnold as he relocates from Alabama to Corazon Sagrado, New Mexico during World War II. The novel is still regarded as a classic coming-of-age story and was adapted into a film of the same name in 1971.
Another piece of classic American Literature, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is set in Long Island, New York. Fitzgerald was inspired by the parties he had attended while visiting Long Island’s North Shore. The novel has since been adapted into everything from films, ballets, operas, plays, and more.
A classic piece of Nicholas Sparks literature, A Walk to Remember, the author’s third novel, takes place in Beaufort, North Carolina. The novel was inspired by Sparks’ sister, who died of cancer in June 2000. A Walk to Remember was later made into a film of the same name, starring Shane West and Mandy Moore.
The Round House is author Louise Erdrich’s fourteenth novel and is part of her “justice trilogy” along with Plague of Doves and LaRose. The story takes place on a Native American reservation in North Dakota and follows young protagonist, Joe, who decides to take matters into his own hands and sets out to investigate his mother’s attack.
The Broom of the System is author David Foster Wallace’s first novel. The novel takes place in Cleveland, Ohio and follows protagonist, Lenore Beadsman, a twenty-four year old telephone switchboard operator who has to navigate three different crises.
Author Toni Morrison completed her trilogy of books dealing with all kinds of love with the release of Paradise in 1997. Paradise takes place in the fictional town of Ruby, Oklahoma and focuses on the town itself and its implications on women from a nearby Convent. Morrison originally wanted to name the novel War, but was overridden by her editor.
Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 and takes place at a mental institution in Oregon. It was later adapted into both a Broadway play and a 1975 film, which won five Academy Awards. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was also included in TIME magazine’s 100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.
Published in 2002, The Lovely Bones is set in a suburban Pennsylvania town. The story of a girl who watches the struggles of her friends and family after being murdered and has to come to terms with her own death instantly became a bestseller. The book was adapted into a film in 2009 by Peter Jackson, who personally purchased the rights.
My Sister’s Keeper takes place in the fictional town of Upper Darby, Rhode Island, and is the story of a young girl who sues her parents for medical emancipation when they ask her to donate her kidney to her sick sister. The book was later adapted into a film with an alternate ending, which went against the wishes of author Jodi Piccoult.
Written by Sue Monk Kidd and published in 2001, The Secret Life of Bees is set in the fictional town of Sylvan, South Carolina in 1964. It is a coming of age story that deals with loss and betrayal. It was a New York Times bestseller and was adapted into a film, noted for Queen Latifah’s critically acclaimed performance as August Boatwright.
Tom Brokaw’s A Long Way from Home is mostly set in South Dakota, where Tom spent his childhood and began to live out the American Dream alongside his family. A Long Way from Home is a memoir that recounts the American experience, as lived and experienced by Tom Brokaw and his family.
The Firm, by John Grisham, is set in Memphis, Tennessee and features a lawyer stuck between a rock and a hard place when the FBI comes to investigate his colleagues at a new law firm, which almost exclusively deals with unlawful clients. This novel was the second book published by Grisham and the first of his to gain wide-spread popularity. The Firm was later made into a movie starring Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
Originally written as a screenplay, No Country for Old Men was written by author Cormac McCarthy and published in 2005. The novel takes place near the Mexican-American border in Terrell County in Texas. No Country for Old Men was later adapted into a film of the same name, which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Inspired by the life of Ann Eliza Young, The 19th Wife is a novel by David Ebershoff and was published in 2008. The novel takes place in southern Utah and follows protagonist Jordan who tries to determine if his mother killed his father. The novel was adapted into a television movie and was aired on Lifetime.
Considered a children’s literature classic, Pollyanna is a 1913 novel by author Eleanor H. Porter. The novel is set in the fictional town of Beldingsville, Vermont and follows young orphan Pollyanna Whittier. Since the release of the novel, ‘Pollyanna’ has come to be used as a term to describe people who are unfailingly optimistic and are naturally positive.
Another work of children’s literature, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson takes place in rural Virginia. It is the story of two young kids who create their own magic kingdom in the forest. Paterson drew inspiration for Bridge to Terabithia after her son’s childhood friend was killed in a freak accident. The book was most notably adapted into the 2007 film starring AnnaSophia Robb and Josh Hutcherson.
A YA cult classic, Twilight takes place in Forks, Washington. The vampire-romance novel was a New York Times bestseller and was named one of Publisher Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2005. Twilight was later adapted into the popular film of the same name starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson.
Shiloh is a children’s novel by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and is set in Friendly, West Virginia. The book follows young protagonist Marty Preston and an abused beagle he rescues from his neighbor. Shiloh won a Newbery Medal along with other state awards and was later adapted into a film of the same name in 1996.
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder was published in 1932. The novel takes place in Wisconsin and is based on Wilder’s childhood in Big Woods near Pepin, Wisconsin. Little House in the Big Woods was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s first book to be published and it began her Little House series.
The Laramie Project is a 2000 play by Moisés Kaufman and is set in Laramie, Wyoming. The play centers around the murder of a gay student at the University of Wyoming in 1998. The Laramie Project was adapted into a film, commissioned by HBO in 2002.
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Fiewel and Friends has recently announced the 2021 launch of Reclaimed Classics, a new YA series that seeks to reimagine classic literature from new cultural perspectives.
Even the English major most enthused about classic literature knows that just about everything in the literary canon has one thing in common: white authors. The newly-announced Reclaimed Classics aims to counter those primarily-white narratives by reimagining classic works—including Robin Hood, Little Women, Treasure Island, and Wuthering Heights—from the perspective of diverse characters.
According to Emily Settle, the mastermind behind the series, the idea came to her after reading a Twitter thread where a NYT columnist imagined what Batman would be like if Bruce Wayne was black. From there, she thought about ways to retell well-known classics from cultural perspectives not typically represented in the literary canon.
C.B. Lee, the author of the upcoming Treasure Island, says she is “excited to be working with the spirit of adventure and discovery that [she’s] always loved about Treasure Island and bringing it to the South China Sea with a courageous girl at the forefront.” She also hints at an LGBTQ+ protagonist, asking, “What would freedom mean for a young queer girl in the 1800s?” Treasure Island will be the debut book of the series, set to release in Spring 2021.
Little Women will follow as author Bethany C. Morrow imagines the classic Louise May Alcott story from the perspective of a black family during the Civil War. Morrow points out that, despite taking place during the Civil War, the original Little Women fails to “involve or present any narratives of black American women at the time” but instead presents “a story of northern white Americans, which becomes synonymous with ‘abolitionists’ and ‘good’ [despite the lack of] any actual evidence of that, nor any consideration for how a black American from anywhere in the country might think about that characterization.” She hopes to counter this white narrative with her own adaptation of the classic.
Morrow hopes that her novel, coming Fall 2021, can play on the universality of love and sisterhood, and hopefully become “a welcome adaptation among many.”
Next, coming Winter 2022, is Robin Hood by Aminah Mae Safi. The book will feature a young Muslim girl during the time of the Third Crusade. Speaking about her upcoming book, Safi says, “By taking this medieval legend of a crusader and turning that into the story of a young Muslim woman who is fighting to protect her own homeland from invaders and her own region’s fragile peace, I can also reclaim a piece of history.”
The series will conclude with Wuthering Heights by Tasha Suri. In the Emily Bronte classic, Heathcliff is ‘foreign’ looking and struggles to find acceptance in the novel because of it. Suri hopes to play on that idea, but by writing “a reclamation that says: everyone comes from somewhere, and colonialism may try to make us its monsters, but we don’t have to let it.” Her book will be available in Spring 2022.
Currently, the series only includes four titles, but Settle expects it to extend into a larger collection of works. You can keep up to date with the series on Goodreads, the authors’ Twitter pages, or the Feiwel and Friends social media accounts.
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