I first read Wide Sargasso Sea because I had to. It was a set text for my English A-level. I loved it then, even though I’d fallen out of love with reading (I loved the idea of reading, of being seen as a person who read, but not the reading itself. The activity had been ruined, alongside many others, by the obsessive compulsions which had by that point taken over my teenage life).
I couldn’t have told you why I loved it. I felt sorry for the first Mrs Rochester, as one is supposed to, and angry for her, too. I liked the heat and colours of the book, the intensity, the feeling of remaining in a very small space however far you travelled. I found the rhythms of Antoinette’s voice, set against the drab entitlement of Rochester’s, perfect in their disorder. She got inside my head. Such a sad book and it felt like a sanctuary.
Our A-level teacher was a feminist. She used the title Ms and the boys would linger over it – Mzzzzzzzz, like the buzz of a bee – in an attempt to undermine her. A whole bunch of them, 18, white, middle-class and male, and already disturbed to meet a woman who wouldn’t define herself according to which man, husband or father, presumed to own her. We’d sit around the table, drawing spidergrams based on each character (poor Annette, poor Antoinette, surrounded by serious men with surnames – Cosway, Mason, Rochester – who would not listen). Then some boy would raise a hand to ask a question – was the treatment of women really so awful? – and he’d never, ever forget to slip in that little, buzzing reminder of misplaced pride at his male heritage. We’ll use the name you ask for, Mzzzzzz, but what we call you is not what we’re thinking. Always remember that.
It’s only now, two decades on, that the irony has struck me. Rochester refuses to call Antoinette by her own name, calling her Bertha instead (“Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha”). And there those boys were, at the fag end of the twentieth century, judging a fictional character for his sexism while mocking the woman before them for having a title of her own. Of course, they weren’t alone in this. “The new teacher calls herself Ms [X],” my mother told me, “but really she’s Mrs [Y]. That’s what her husband’s called.” Sexism is always elsewhere, in other times, other countries. It’s always other people. The people we know, liberal people, people like us, who might one day read an entire book written by a woman, well, sexism’s not for the likes of them.
Obviously we had also read Jane Eyre (two books written by women! Then also Grace Nichols, The Fat Black Woman’s Poems. That’s what happens when your English teacher’s a feminist, they said, suggesting bias, maybe even prejudice against normal writers, who are men). Which then led to the question: are you Team Jane or Team Antoinette? Oh, always Antoinette. Always the mad woman in the attic as opposed to “reader, I married him” White Feminist Jane. Jane who doesn’t even know, doesn’t even think that “Bertha” might have a narrative of her own. There’s only room for one woman, one story. Rochester, we can repeat him, always understanding the man a little more. How opaque, how English, how interesting. But as for Jane, she can take a seat. I didn’t question it at the time.
Gloria Steinem has suggested women become more radical with age. Certainly I think we start to feel more connected to other women as a class. We’ve been told what a woman is, what she wants, how she feels. We know that we are not women in that way, but it can take a long time to realise that other women are not that person, either. Aged 18, I felt the experience of being considered insane and having not a single explanation – not one – that can exonerate you to be very specific, both to Antoinette and to me. I’d spent most of my lower secondary school time in hospital, trying to convince people that my dysfunctional relationship with food did not mean I had a dysfunctional relationship with reality. It’s only later I’ve noticed that this pattern of not being heard – of having to be Bertha if you refuse to be Jane – is widespread and deeply ingrained in patriarchal culture.
“Will you listen to me for God’s sake,” Antoinette said. She had said this before and I had not answered, now I told her, “Of course. I’d be the brute you doubtless think me if I did not do that.”
“Why do you hate me?” she said.
“I do not hate you, I am most distressed about you, I am distraught,” I said. But this was untrue, I was not distraught, I was calm, it was the first time I had felt calm or self-possessed for many a long day.
I didn’t realise, at 18, how hard it is for women to tell their stories. By which I don’t mean write a novel or a blog, but just have the simplest utterance absorbed by another person, rather than bounced straight back off an impermeable wall. It is fashionable to criticise the way in which female writers give away too much of themselves. Why are they so desperate, so needy? I think it’s because they’re still trying to make a case for female subjectivity. It’s very difficult to find words that penetrate, especially if you’re not prepared to cut yourself loose from the female masses and position yourself as a special case. I see so many conversations of the sort Rochester has with Antoinette. I’ve been in so many myself. One might not end up locked in an attic, but knowing that one is forever on the back foot, having to demonstrate the validity of one’s personhood, is its own trap. It would be typical of a madwoman to deny that she’s mad. Either a woman says what you want her to say, obediently digging her own grave, or you supply your own subtext, weeding out the dog whistle prejudice and hidden irrationalities. It genuinely is enough to drive her insane.
We used to ask questions such as “Is Antoinette mad?” and “Is Rochester a sympathetic character?” How much should we dismiss the woman? How much can we excuse the man? Practice for all the years in which female dissent will be pathologised, male abuse normalised (“say nothing and it might not be true”). Is being seen as wild and hysterical essentially the same as being wild and hysterical? As girls, we were not learning the gentle art of remaining calm, but we were learning to politely ignore whatever it was that fed our fury. Devoted practitioners of empathy, we railed against the oppression of fictional women. Feminism, for us, became a process of remarketing reality as “not so bad.” A local man killed his wife during that A-level year and I remember our mothers – my mother, at least – saying the victim had been a “terrible nag.” Feminism was supressing the horror you felt at such a comment; if you were to see it in context you wouldn’t dare move.
I thought that when I saw him and spoke to him I would be wise as serpents, harmless as doves. “I give you all I have freely,” I would say, “and I will not trouble you again if you let me go.” But he never came.
You won’t find the right words. Even if you can write the most beautiful, passionate books, it won’t be enough to give you the last word on who you are. I’m glad I didn’t know that at 18, glad I know it now. Back then I wouldn’t have had the confidence to read women (just women) again.