Outside the city limits, everything becomes anonymous. These were my thoughts while looking out of the taxi on our way to Fiumicino. The center of Rome, despite its decadent air, still reigns in fascination. And the traffic creates a stop-start motion that gives one the possibility to look out the window and focus on details. Such as the bas-relief figures over doors and windows. Those stoned faced creatures make me think of Judy Garland chanting in The Wizard of Oz but instead of lions and tigers and bears there are medusas and eagles and masks. Then, once on the autostrada, the magic ends and the taxi driver begins to drive as if practising for the Grand Prix. The vast area between the city and the airport is a no man’s land without identity, an ocean of nothingness, a blur. Finally, at the airport, luggage checked in, and seated on a plane with a 30 minute delay, I pulled out my book: Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargassa Sea.
Jean was born in Dominica, another victim of British imperialism. When she moved to England and read Jane Eyre for the first time, Jean was indignant. So much so that many years later she decided to write the story from the point of view of Bertha, the mad woman in the attic.
Jane Eyre seems to be such a romantic story that, initially, it’s difficult to believe it could upset anyone. But reconsidering, it does have some rather alarming elements. Jane works as a governess for Mr Rochester and falls in love with him despite the fact that he is ugly, nearly twice her age, and totally alien to her social status. Even though he already has another girlfriend, Rochester blatantly flirts with the vulnerable Jane. Jane, orphaned, feels alone in the world and longs to be loved. Emotional needs distort her perception. Finally Jane agrees to marry Rochester but, once at the altar, discovers that he is already married. Rochester’s real wife is hidden in the attic. He claims she is mad and for this reason has kept her locked up. The name of his wife is Bertha.
As nowhere in Jane Eyre is Bertha given a chance to speak for herself, Jean decides to tell her story for her.
Antoinette Cosway aka Bertha grows up in Jamaica. Initially her family is very rich thanks to their sugar plantation. But then the slaves are emancipated and the Cosway family, unable to exploit free labour, is economically ruined. The father dies and Antoinette’s mother ends up as a victim of her own fragility. When the mother dies, too, Antoinette is encouraged to marry Rochester which she does. Once married, Rochester insists that they go to live in England. And here Antoinette learns that marriage is a trap. Rochester not only gains control of his wife’s property, he takes on lovers, locks his wife up in the attic, and, when she rebels, claims that she is crazy. Antoinette, already alienated from her country and her culture, is not allowed to look in mirrors and her husband begins to call her Bertha. He does what he can to demolish her identity.
”Mad” is the term used for women who refuse to conform. But the true madness is patriarchal.
In England, up until the end of the 19th century, coverture was the common law of England. That is, a married woman and anything she owned was considered her husband’s personal property. She had no identity other than that given to her by her husband.
Antoinette, in order to regain a sense of control over her life, burns down her husband’s house then commits suicide. Some say she was crazy. Others say she was simply using the only power she had left—that of physically ending her life.
The title of Jean’s book comes from the Sargasso Sea, the only sea without a coastline. It’s also known as the Sea of Lost Ships as many ships are found there mysteriously drifting with no one on board. Experts blame the dense seaweed that covers the sea’s surface. For women, a patriarchal society is like this seaweed. It traps you, inhibits your mobility, and eventually keeps you from navigating your own life.