Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies
English Language and Literature
Women Figures in Caribbean and British Setting: Comparison of Two Periods
(19th and 20th Centuries)
Master’s Diploma Thesis
Supervisor: prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.
I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.
I would like to thank my supervisor, prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.,
for her valuable advice and kind help with my diploma thesis.
Table of Contents
The Nineteenth Century 3
The 19th Century in Great Britain with Focus on Women’s role in the Society 3
The 19th Century in the Caribbean with Focus on Women’s role in the Society 12
Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Great Britain and the Caribbean 18
Portraits of Female Characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton 25
Portraits of Female Characters in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea 32
The Twentieth Century 39
The 20th Century in Great Britain with Focus on Women’s role in the Society 39
The 19th Century in the Caribbean with Focus on Women’s role in the Society 46
Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing in Great Britain and the Caribbean 54
Portraits of Female Characters in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Millstone 64
Portraits of Female Characters in Jamaica Kincaid’s novel Lucy 70
Development of Women’s Role in the British and Caribbean Societies from the 19th to the 20th Century: Similarities and Differences 77
English Résumé 98
Czech Résumé 99
Although two parts of the vast British Empire for a long time, Great Britain and the Caribbean are two entirely different worlds concerning their culture, social structure and many other aspects. However, during the period of British colonization of the West Indies these countries inevitably influenced each other. Only after participating in the courses about Caribbean literature and British women writers at my university I fully realized the enormous gulf among the countries Britain united under its rule. Therefore I have chosen West Indies as the example of a colonized country and I decided to examine the differences and similarities in the development of the women’s position within the British and Caribbean societies since the women’s question has been a very hot issue from the nineteenth century until now.
My diploma thesis is thus going to analyse problems which nineteenth- and twentieth-century women from both above mentioned regions had to face during their lives, as for example unequal educational or professional opportunities and sexual oppression as well as legislation privileging men to women, and others. To illustrate the development on the concrete cases, I have chosen four novels by four female writers, one for each period and each region: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone and Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Although Wide Sargasso Sea was published in 1966, it is going to be used as the representative of the nineteenth century because Jean Rhys is one of the few Caribbean-born female artists who wrote about nineteenth-century Caribbean women. Besides, she was born in 1890 and therefore brought up in the Victorian period, so her connection with this era is indisputable. What these authors have in common is the description of the position of women in the particular society. They all drew inspiration from their own lives when writing their stories and that is why I decided to include a short biography of each writer. Because, as Margaret Drabble said in an interview conducted by Gillian Parker and Janet Todd when asked if she sees literature as text and context, or as text alone, we have to “see it as social context. Also I see it a lot in terms of a writer's personal biography. … It's so obvious that writers are influenced by the way their parents behaved. It seems to me ridiculous to isolate a text, in fact almost meaningless” (171).
In my opinion, the most suitable methodological and theoretical approach to this topic will be the combination of a comparison and a diachronic study because my thesis goes back to history and traces the changes between two different periods and two different regions of the British Empire. The work will be therefore divided into several parts. There will be three main chapters, the first dealing with the nineteenth- and the second with the twentieth-century historical and social background with the focus on the position of women within the British and the Caribbean societies. Subsequently, the female characters from the aforementioned novels will be analysed. In the third chapter I am going to compare the development of women’s role within the two chosen societies, pointing out their differences and similarities.
The Nineteenth Century
The 19th Century in Great Britain with Focus on Women’s Role in the Society
The nineteenth century, whose major part is connected with the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901), was the time of changes for the whole British society. In other words, “the main characteristic of the Victorian era was constant change, variety and self criticism” (Trevelyan 15). However, unlike in many other countries, the changes in Great Britain were taking place quite peacefully. Britain managed to maintain the inner peace of the country even during the difficult times of the Industrial Revolution and it was the only one of powerful European countries that did not see barricades in the revolutionary year 1848. As for the external peace, it was secured by the British navy which was practically invincible. Britain at that time was a country of increasing wealth and power, called ‘the workshop of the world’ (ibid. 16-17). Naturally, all these changes in the whole British society had to reflect themselves also in the lives of women (Grylls 254).
As Lynn Abrams states in her article Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain, the synonym for an ideal woman of the nineteenth century was “domestic” and Queen Victoria herself became the icon of middle-class femininity and domesticity. She always appeared to be the Mother and the Wife above all. Usually accompanied by her husband Albert and several children, Victoria represented the model of marital stability and motherhood. The ideal woman of the Victorian period was also pious, respectable, and so busy that she did not have time for leisure activities. Besides, she accepted her role of helpmeet and domestic manager as well as her place in the sexual hierarchy unconditionally, acting as the pillar of her family.
In spite of this idea that woman was a sort of angel of the house (Grylls 256), according to Helena Wojczak, a British researcher and author of women’s history books, in the middle of the nineteenth century most women lived in a state only a little better than slavery. In A History of the English People Paul Johnson even writes that women in Victorian England had fewer rights than in Anglo-Saxon times (237). Generally, women were considered to be very much inferior to men, being actually looked upon as their “property” (Taylor). Even the fashion of this period symbolized the constriction of women’s life. Not only did it restrict women’s movement and tightly laced corsets hardly enabled women to breathe, but also the cage crinolines, which were so popular among the wealthy, often caused death in flames, because “the skirts were so wide that many women died engulfed in flames after the material caught fire from an open grate or candle” (Wojtczak).
During their whole lives, women were dependent upon their male relatives, whether they were their husbands, fathers or brothers (Bergmann 114). This dependence, as Wojczak claims, was given by the fact that men usually held all the financial resources and women did not have any possibilities how to gain their own money, because all professions were closed to them. Nevertheless, financial dependence was only one of the restrictions imposed on women. Each wife had to obey her husband; he could spend his wife’s money on mistresses and prostitutes; he had rights to the woman personally as well as to her body; he could even force his wife into sex and childbirth. Worst of all, all the children born in the marriage were also the property of their father and he could take them from their mother wherever he wanted. If a woman was unhappy in the marriage, it was virtually impossible to escape. Wojczak provides an example of such a getaway: “Susannah Palmer escaped from her adulterous husband in 1869 after suffering many years of brutal beatings, and made a new life. She worked, saved, and created a new home for her children. Her husband found her, stripped her of all her possessions and left her destitute, with the blessing of the law. In a fury she stabbed him, and was immediately prosecuted” (ibid). Moreover, it was not until 1891 when a wife could obtain a divorce (ibid.). Before, as you can read in Paul Johnson’s historic study, if she wished to get divorced, not only did she have to prove her husband’s adultery, but also at least some of the following crimes: incest, bigamy, rape, homosexuality or cruelty (the level of cruelty being judged by the court). However, adultery was sufficient grounds for a man to divorce his wife (238).
The only women who were not forced to obey men were wealthy widows and spinsters, who are dealt with for example in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford. However, if a woman did not get married, she was looked at as a pitiful creature with no possibility to fulfil her life (Wojczak). That is to say, motherhood was considered to be female fulfilment and a woman who did not become mother seemed to be abnormal in a way (Abrams). In fact, there were forty-two per cent of these unmarried and childless women, who were often called ‘redundant’ (Beales 354). This situation was caused by emigration of large numbers of marriageable men to America and the Colonies. Between 1830 and 1875 about five million young men left Great Britain and almost half of single women had no chance to find a husband (Klein 262-263).
To stay an unmarried woman in the society where family created the essence of human existence was not easy. So important was it to be a good wife and a perfect mother that even manuals were released which contained advice on how to become an ideal housewife. One of them was Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, which was first published in 1861 and remained a bestseller for more than fifty years (Abrams). While some historians as David Taylor states that the middle-class wives spent most of their time doing such activities as embroidery and knitting, others, as Lynn Abrams, claim that maintaining a middle-class household involved hard physical work which was usually done by women, because in the majority of middle-class families just one servant was employed. Thus, women were not allowed “to spend days doing embroidery and playing the piano” (ibid.). However, the domestic sphere became a cultural expression of the female world and to make their house a comfortable and welcoming haven for their husbands remained one of the wives’ main tasks (ibid.).
Nevertheless, if we speak about domesticity, family life and motherhood, we have to distinguish between middle-class and working-class women. The ideology of domesticity was powerful amongst the working classes as well as amongst middle ones and during the nineteenth century working-class men began to demand the privileges of domesticity for their wives (ibid.). However, the notion of domesticity had quite a different meaning for these women. If a husband did not earn enough money to support his wife, she had to continue working all her life with only short breaks to give birth (Wojtczak). Thus, in practice, as Abrams writes, domesticity for working-class women meant that they were employed in low-paid jobs which could be carried out at home and were considered to be compatible with marriage and children. Although the work was not easy, the fiction was maintained for the outside world that women’s only duties are to be found in the domestic sphere. This kind of work, among other things, allowed expansion of domestic industry and supported the ideology of domesticity. Moreover, cheap labour was provided in the form of married working-class women who needed these jobs for their families to survive.
Motherhood, which has been already mentioned above as the only fulfilment of women’s lives, became at the same time “a social responsibility, a duty to the state and therefore a full-time job, which could not easily be combined with paid work” (ibid.). Also being a mother was now something what has to be learned. This ideal motherhood demanded each woman, among others, breastfeed her children and be constantly present for them. Here we can see another difference between middle-class and working-class women. What was practicable for one group was impossible for the second. Women from the working class were not able to stay with their children all the time, because they had to earn money. Unfortunately, infant mortality rates in the industrial cities such as Manchester were very high and mothers were accused to be responsible for death of their children. “Middle-class philanthropists, government inspectors and medical men united in their condemnation of the infant-care methods of poor women. Infant deaths, it was believed, could be prevented if poor mothers breast-fed their babies and were taught baby care” (ibid.).
Although there were undeniable differences between the position of middle-class and working-class women, the fact is that none of them were equal to men. This inequality was painfully obvious also in the sphere of education and occupation. As for the education, T. H. Huxley wrote that “girls have been educated to be either drudges or toys beneath man, or a sort of angel above him” (qtd. in Grylls 256), or, as Ruskin claimed, “you bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments” (qtd. in ibid. 256). Actually, men did not feel need for women’s education, because women were largely seen as “a living testimony to her husband's social status” (Klein 264), whilst industry and intelligence were not counted among female virtues (ibid. 264). Thus, according to Helena Wojtczak, the middle-class girls usually received only a basic education given by their governess – which was, by the way, one of few jobs middle-class women could aspire for. Of course a lack of education seriously restricted women’s choice of occupation. What did not cause such a big problem for middle-class wives, who were financially supported by their husbands, appeared to be troublesome for working-class ones. Half of these women worked in domestic service and the rest were usually unskilled factory hands or agricultural labourers. Clothing industry offered almost the only skilled work for women, but it was ill-paid and low-status as well as the other jobs. However, the worst of all “occupations” was prostitution. These “fallen women” who were forced to sell their bodies because of tragic life circumstances, were not unique in nineteenth-century Britain. In the country without an established welfare system and without men who could support them, some women had no choice but prostitution.
If prostitution, although often condemned by most people, was tolerated (Beales 353), it was not the case of female sexuality itself. While male adultery was considered something natural, sexuality of women was seen as dangerous. Women’s lot in life was to be good wives and mothers, there was no place for passion, and sexuality had to be suppressed. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century (mainly due to Sigmund Freud’s observations) when women began to be encouraged to expect sexual satisfaction in marriage (Abrams 156). Nevertheless, the issue of female sexuality came to the fore due to feminists, who fought for women’s right to control their sexuality. Thanks to them, sex ceased to be only a matter of reproduction, but it started to be considered something that belongs to women themselves (ibid. 171).
However, there was one sphere of action which seemed to be almost exclusively female even during the Victorian period. It was charity (Bergmann 16). For plenty of women, working for charity was a kind of self-realization. As Bergmann states, the women involved in charity (who often appear in Victorian novels) can be divided into four groups: “Firstly, those who act for religious motives; secondly, those whose conscience roused by the poor, and who also find personal friends among them; thirdly, young women who feel sympathy but are too inhibited to find any real expression for it; and lastly, those for whom charity work provides an occupation and an interest above all” (ibid. 57). Charity also appeared to be the meeting point of the middle-class and working-class women. The lady philanthropists visited the homes of the poor and tried to advise them how to manage their households and take care of children. Nevertheless, it was not only their need to help others, but also the excitement what led middle-class women to the slums. Thus, their help could sometimes seem to be quite hypocritical, because “[the philanthropists] provided aid to mothers and infants in the name of improving infant and maternal mortality rates, while barring illegitimate children from their crèches. They could lecture working-class women on cleanliness in homes resembling slums, while they relied on servants to keep their own homes up to the required standard” (Abrams). Anyway, this philanthropic activity, which was open to women because it did not break the traditional view on female role, later proved to be a starting point of less traditional action (Bergmann 90).
In fact, a considerable number of the first feminists were active in the philanthropic movement and first demands for improvements of women’s position in society arose from this feminine sphere (Abrams). However, as the situation of middle-class women and their working-class counterparts was entirely different, their demands widely varied. Whilst the middle- and upper-class women felt idle and futile and they claimed equality with men, working-class women, who spent hours in the factories, wanted protection above all (Klein 263). In other words, the first-wave feminists asked for better education and employment opportunities for middle-class women and better working condition together with the increase of wages for working-class ones. One key demand was, however, common for both groups – the right to vote, which could assure women certain influence over their fate (Abrams).
The way towards independence, or emancipation, of women (which Viola Klein calls “revolution”) began already with the publishing of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Although her work had no influence in the practical sphere, her educational works served as a good example of the way of improving young girls’ education. But it was Harriet Martineau who put the feminist thoughts into practice. She tried to describe the whole society by means of understanding women’s lives and she was also the first to deal with the notions of marriage, motherhood, domestic and public life. Nevertheless, the turning point in the emancipation of women seems to be the foundation of the first college for women by F. D. Maurice in 1848 – Queen’s College. Though the teachers were all men at first, because there were not female teachers with appropriate qualifications, such school meant a remarkable progress on women’s way towards equality. Shortly after Queen’s College, the first girls’ public school was established in Cheltenham Ladies College with headmistress Dorothea Beale and in 1869 some universities were open to women. Also, the first women inspectors of workhouses and pauper schools were employed, who managed to improve working conditions in factories and bring humanity and efficiency into the Poor Law. In addition, some skilled jobs, as telegraph clerks, were now available for women (Grylls 254-258).
Except for those struggles and achievements in the field of education and occupation, there was another major aspect of female emancipation – the struggle for women’s rights at law. They wanted especially possession of each woman’s own property, her own children and her own person. The Custody of Infants Act was passed in 1839 and some protection of women’s own money was incorporated into the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857. However, the Married Woman’s Property Act did not come to existence until 1882. One of the most notable contributions to legal reforms was Barbara Leigh Smith’s (later known as Madame Bodichon) list of the laws relating to women, which was published in 1846. The same woman was responsible for the first female newspaper, the Englishwoman’s Journal, issued in 1858 for the first time (ibid. 258).
Finally, the main demands of the first feminists can be summarized to four points – improvement of education, professional and industrial liberty, political status and equal moral standards for men and women. Although, as Klein states, “it seems easier to set up new institutions or reform legislation than to change popular opinion” (266), by the end of Queen Victoria’s reign some of these new and revolutionary ideas were already accepted, which was, among other, possible because of the fact that the sovereign herself was a woman. Also, women’s fashion began to change. It can seem to be unimportant, but actually, it marked a great shift of women’s position towards freedom (Grylls 260).
The 19th Century in the Caribbean with Focus on Women’s Role in the Society
The nineteenth-century Caribbean was the Caribbean inherent in European culture. Some centuries before, before Columbus arrived in the West Indies, these islands were inhabited by people with a very viable culture. Unfortunately, twenty-five or thirty years after Columbus’s arrival the aboriginal population was almost totally destroyed. Therefore if we speak about the Caribbean society of the nineteenth century, it means that we deal mainly with the European colonizers, Creoles (native-born offspring of European settlers), African slaves and their descendants (Lamming 2). Nevertheless, the nineteenth century was the period of changes not just in Great Britain, as mentioned above, but also in the Caribbean, on of the parts of the British Empire. Apart from the efforts towards the abolition of slavery and the beginnings of the struggle for independence of the colonies (which culminated in the twentieth century, but had its roots in the nineteenth), it was the time when women’s position in the society underwent some significant changes (Korrol IV-861).
One of the most important things we have to have in mind when speaking about women’s position in the Caribbean society is that we cover several different groups of women. Firstly, as we can read in the article Women in World History, there were quite a great number of British women, who were coming to various parts of the empire to find opportunities and a way of life not available to them in Britain. As was stated in the previous chapter, about five million young men left Great Britain for colonies between 1830 and 1875. However, around 1850 the number of white women living in the colonies also increased. British women were encouraged to travel to colonies particularly because of growing interest of white men in indigenous women. In order to maintain the social hierarchy of the colonial world and to preserve racial purity, British government did not hesitate to support British women’s movement to the Caribbean and other colonized countries. In certain colonies, British women got pleasure from such a way of life which would not be possible in Britain itself. They could employ a lot of servants, unlike in their home country, where most of them could not afford more than one, and they enjoyed sense of prestige and racial superiority as they were representatives of the colonial power. Surprisingly, according to Nigel Sandler, in the first half of the nineteenth century before slavery was abolished, also white female slaveholders, who built up their own plantations or they inherited them from their deceased husbands, were not exceptions. And although it was assumed that female slave owners were not as cruel as their male counterparts, often the opposite was true. As Sadler states in his essay on women’s role in slavery “some of the harshest treatments could be vetted out by a slave owner’s wife against a female slave who her husband had been intimate with or an enslaved child that was the result of a sexual encounter between her husband and a slave… European women’s cruelty shocked many observers in the Caribbean” (2).
The second group of women consisted of female slaves, who were usually descendants of those slaves shipped from Africa. Even though some standard laws were introduced in the nineteenth century to protect the enslaved women, which reduced the types of punishment and the number of lashes a woman slave could receive, forbade public punishing and punishing of a pregnant enslaved woman, they were frequently ignored. Also, female slaves were forced to do as hard work as men (ibid. 4). In fact, they were seen as equal to male slaves in the eyes of their master as long as they were able to work equally hard (Momsen 45). They worked as domestic slaves, who took care of the house and the children, cooks, their master’s mistresses, maids, cleaners or wet nurses. Some of the most exhausting female jobs were washerwomen, laundresses and water carriers, who were physically punished if their work was not satisfactory. In the time of the harvest women had to work also in the fields together with male slaves (Sadler 4) and towards the end of the slave trade women were used more and more as field labourers rather than domestic workers (Morrissey 3). The result was that more women than men worked it the fields, partly because of their higher life expectancy (Sadler 4).
However, though it can seem improbable, enslaved people were encouraged to have their own families and to maintain their family ties. It was a woman who ran the home. In other words, unlike British society, original Caribbean society was considered to be matriarchal, though women ruled at home only. The importation of African slaves into British territories finished in 1807 and the slave masters realized that without stable family life of the slaves, their population would decline. Sometimes the female slaves were even considered ‘baby machines’, whose most important role was to deliver the next generation of slaves (ibid. 5). Nevertheless, this effort to reach the highest slaves’ birth-rate possible was in contradiction to the increasing use of women as field labours, because when working in the fields, women were not able to produce as many children as if they worked at home (Morrissey 3).
Yet the worst thing about slavery was that plenty of enslaved women were sexually abused by their masters. Not only did the slave owners see these women as their property, but also they did not regard this enforced sexual intercourse as rape, because Black women were believed to have low morals, lack shame and be promiscuous (Sadler 5). As Harriet Jacob, an American author who escaped form the slavery (“Harrier Ann Jacobs”), wrote: “He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things… No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death” (qtd. in Sadler 6).
Of course in such a situation plenty of slaves struggled for freedom and liberty and the whole first half of the nineteenth century is affected by this fight. What is remarkable is that they were women who led the majority of rebellions. One of the most significant revolts of the nineteenth century in the Caribbean took place in Matanzas province, Cuba, in 1843. Although its female leader, Carlota, was finally captured, tortured and killed, she set an inspiring example for many others. However, passive resistance was far more common than open revolt, at least in the British parts of the Caribbean. Every day enslaved women tried to fight with their masters by their own means. They for example burnt the favourite dress of the house lady during ironing or put too much salt in the food. Also they sang their native songs as they worked and taught their children about their traditions, Africa, and rebellion leaders (ibid. 6-7).
After abolition of slavery in 1838, as Janet Momsen states in her essay, British authorities endeavoured to persuade Caribbean women about prestige and moral superiority of marriage, trying to conform to the Victorian ideology of domesticity. Single women in towns were even arrested for unbecoming behaviour. In spite of that, many Caribbean women continued to resist formal marriage because they had got used to certain independence and they did not want to lose it. Besides, the British familial patriarchal ideology allowed domestic violence, loss of parental rights and a double standard of sexual freedom. Therefore, women often chose economic autonomy and personal freedom outside marriage. However, the notion of housewife and domesticity which the British wished to introduce in the Caribbean as they did in Great Britain, was in conflict with the fact that despite the end of slavery, Caribbean women’s still highly participated in the labour force, though the wage offered to them was substantially lower than money men could earn. So “while the planters criticized mothers for neglecting their offspring, they preferred to hire females, whom they considered more regular than males in their work habits” (qtd. in ibid. 46).
In fact, Caribbean women did not find themselves in such a passive position as British ones and took active part in all the events happening in the nineteenth century:
Cutting across class and racial lines, they joined the movements for independence, took sides on political issues, and participated on many levels. On a personal basis, women could not help but be involved as wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of those who fought. Some chose to lend their support as combatants, spies, couriers, or informants. Others served as hosts and organizers of political meetings, as quartermasters and camp followers. They donated monies, food, and supplies, and they suffered the loss of loved ones, property, and wealth. Many died for their actions. (Korrol IV-861)
One of the strongest motivations for women’s involvement was the protection of their own property. Whilst in Great Britain they were men who protected their possession, in the Caribbean women often had to do it themselves. Thus, they cannot stay passive when the government increased taxes and introduced other regulations. Also, men found out that women could be useful in the war and women were publicly asked to join the war efforts, working often in field hospitals, where they provided vital services (ibid. IV-861-IV-863). In other words, “the notion of women’s social usefulness was gradually replacing more traditional ideas of female seclusion” (ibid. IV-862). Due to this change of female status, secondary schools for girls began to be founded, although the real struggle for women’s access to education and to the profession did not begin until the first years of the twentieth century as Rhoda Reddock states in her article and the percentage of female enrolment to schools was incomparable to male. In Jamaica, for example, 72.9 per cents of men, but only 27.1 per cents of women entered schools in 1899, and education was still seen as inappropriate for women (Parry 86-87). Nevertheless, lack of education did not prevent women from establishing various female organizations and starting to fight against legal and social constraints which relegated female members of all social classes to prescribed roles, usually in the domestic sphere. Creole women from the upper and middle classes organized intellectual, social-cultural meetings, where they discussed current political issues among others (Korrol IV-862).
Though the struggle for abolition of slavery and for independence caused a number of serious losses in many spheres, it undoubtedly brought several substantial changes in the women’s question. “Women’s actions had provided alternatives to the stereotypical notion that labelled them as the harmless, gentle, and weaker sex. Their organizational and leadership abilities were acknowledged” (ibid. IV-863). The women’s movement in the Anglophone Caribbean started to form towards the end of the nineteenth century in women’s self-help societies, first of them being the Lady Musgrave Self-Help Society of Jamaica. These first organizations largely consisted of white upper and upper-middle class women, whose main aim was to support “gentlewomen who had fallen on reduced circumstances” (qtd. in Reddock). Though the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself in 1838 (Higman), lower-class, black and coloured women did not join these societies until the beginning of the twentieth century, when they launched campaigns for women’s political rights, girls’ education and legal reforms (Reddock).
Actually, the relationships between British and colonized women were always complicated, whether during the slavery or post-slavery era. As well as in Britain, there were only few sorts of jobs which were available to British women. Except for the domestic work, they could realize their potential in the educational sphere only. So they did. However, whilst white women tried hard to ameliorate the situation of Indian women (whom they saw as their “sisters”) through missionary work, education, and medicine, their sympathies towards African women were not so widespread. The reason was that black African women, who the British husbands often took as mistresses, were considered primitive and highly sexualized (“Women in World History”). Anyway, the end of the nineteenth century brought the beginning of emancipation for both groups of women, the colonizers and the colonized, and the idea of equality between men and women became crucial for both groups, no matter what colour of skin they had.
Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing in Great Britain and the Caribbean
One of the signs of the gradual emancipation of women in the nineteenth-century Britain was that the female contribution to literature began to be more and more influential. No longer was women’s writing regarded as disreputable, unladylike and unsuitable for their position in society. It was Jane Austen who started speaking about such burning issues as morality and social organization (Stevenson 95). Her novels marked the beginning of the development of social analysis applied largely to the novel at that time. It was the period during which female writers became equal, if not superior to male ones (ibid. 97). However, women’s way towards literary independence and fame was not that easy. As well as other spheres of life, writing was dominated by men in the Victorian period. Therefore some female authors used masculine pseudonyms to ensure that their works were accepted by both, publishers and the public. They were afraid that if they wrote under their real female names, readers would not take them as seriously as their male counterparts. That is why Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot and the Brontë sisters – Charlotte, Emily and Anne – wrote under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell respectively (“Pen Name”). Nevertheless, despite these difficulties women were able to succeed in the field of literature, one of the main reasons for their success being the fact that women’s writing was very specific, because, as Margaret Drabble states a century later, “[women’s novels] are not just novels that happen to be written by women, but are novels that express a certain woman's view of the universe that can be appreciated by any careful reader. This is the point of view that women writers write for everyone, but have a special and individual voice that reflects the same values as men, but in uniquely different ways” (Moran 103).
The shift in literary themes was also considerable. Fiction vastly outnumbered non-fiction literature and both male and female novels usually described the doubts and decisions of the main characters within social context. The most common themes as courtship and marriage, and lives of ordinary people were described in both types of novels appearing in the nineteenth century – contemporary and historical (Stevenson 97). As Chesterton says in his work The Victorian Age in Literature, the key feature of Victorian fiction, which focuses mainly on the differentiations and life turnovers women had to deal with, is sympathy. “And sympathy does not mean so much feeling with all who feel, but rather suffering with all who suffer” (Chesterton 94). The typical Victorian novel described the nineteenth-century family and had a happy ending, which was quite often the central couple’s wedding. One of the most significant writers of this period who fully followed the main principles of the Victorian novel was Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.
When Elizabeth Gaskell died in November 1865, the Athenaeum, a literary magazine published in London from 1828 to 1921 (Wikipedia Contributors), wrote that she was “if not the most popular, with small question, the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.” Nevertheless, this highly regarded writer fell into oblivion only a few years after her death and the interest in her personality did not increase until the second half of the twentieth century (Victorian Web). In recent years Gaskell’s importance as a Victorian author has been rediscovered and many of her books have been republished, so we can appreciate the account she offers about nineteenth-century life. The account which was strongly influenced by Gaskell’s personal experience.
Elizabeth Gaskell was born either on 29 September (both Easson and Sanders state this birth date in their works) or on 29 November (Foster) 1810 in London as Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson. She was the eighth child of William Stevenson and his wife, Elizabeth Holland, but one of only two children who survived infancy. The other was her brother, John, who entered merchant marine service as a young man and was lost during a voyage to India (Sanders 1). The figure of Elizabeth’s lost brother perhaps contributed to characters of Frederick Hale in North and South and Peter in Cranford (Easson 2). Only thirteen months after Elizabeth’s birth, her mother died and the little girl moved to Knutsford, Cheshire, where she was brought up by her mother’s sister, Mrs. Hannah Lumb. This woman replaced Gaskell’s mother in the girl’s life and Elizabeth later referred to her as “more than a mother” (qtd. in Sanders 4). As well as the lost brother, the character of mother who dies during her daughter’s young age appears in plenty of Gaskell’s novels as North and South or Mary Barton, which will be discussed later in this thesis.
Elizabeth, who was given education (including Latin, French and Italian) at Avonbank School in Stratford-upon-Avon (ibid. 6-7), married William Gaskell, a junior minister of Cross Street Unitarian Chapel in Manchester, in August 1932, and settled in this city. William fully supported his wife in writing and she started to contribute to various journals and magazines. However, Elizabeth Gaskell’s real career as a writer began with publishing of Mary Barton in 1848. It was partly her own experience with poor living conditions of working-class people and partly her grief over her only son’s death what urged her to write this story of a young Manchester girl. The novel brought her fame, but not everyone accepted it with enthusiasm. Manchester factory owners claimed that she “misrepresented their case and the labour situation in general” (Foster). Nevertheless, the main importance of this novel lay in the fact that she introduced the problems of industrial north to the middle-class southern readership that was entirely unfamiliar with this environment (ibid.).
Not only did Gaskell try to indicate difficult situation of the working class, but also, by her own way of life, she was able to prove that a Victorian woman can be more than just a housewife. As Foster says in her article:
With her four daughters, whose ages in 1850 ranged from four to sixteen, her involvement in parish activities, and her increasingly frequent visits to family and friends throughout Britain, it is astonishing that she was able to achieve so much. Though, as several of her letters indicate, she found it difficult to harmonise the several competing ‘me’s’ in her -- wife, mother, Sunday School teacher, artist -- her writing was too essential to her to be relinquished. (ibid.)
The 1850s were the most prolific years of Gaskell’s life. After publishing Mary Barton, she was introduced to one of her most influential contemporaries, Charles Dickens. She started to contribute to his new periodical Household Words. In this magazine, her popular work Cranford appeared for the first time in 1851 as a series of sketches of a small-town life. The novel of the same name was released two years later. 1853 was a very significant year for Elizabeth Gaskell as an author. Except Cranford, also Ruth was published, a novel which was, according to her biography on Victorian Web, one of the two controversies in Gaskell’s literary career. Even though the topic itself was quite delicate – Ruth is a story of a “fallen woman” – it was not only this theme what shocked the readers deeply, but mainly the way Gaskell dealt with it. Contrary to general public’s expectations, she did not condemn this woman who became a prostitute, but she exonerated her. The next novel, North and South, also began serialisation in Household Words. It was then published in 1855 and although it treated a very similar topic as Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell tried to show several different points of view on this problematic issue – the first of a mill-owner, the second of a working-class family, and the last one of an outsider (ibid.). Later in the 1850s and ‘60s, Gaskell wrote several short stories for various magazines, but she also travelled a lot. Her last three novels were Sylvia’s Lovers (1963), Cousin Phillis (1864), and Wives and Daughters (released unfinished in 1865), the last mentioned considered to be Gaskell’s masterpiece (ibid.)
The fact that Gaskell was concerned in women’s situation in society is evident not only in her books, but also in some of the remarks she made towards this issue. She said that “women must give up living an artist’s life, if home duties are to be paramount. It is different with men, whose home duties are so small a part of their life” (qtd. in Beer 33). Therefore, as she was one of the typical representatives of Victorian authors with a strong female voice, I chose her novel Mary Barton for the purposes of this thesis.
As for women’ literature, comparing the two parts of the British Empire, the situation in the Caribbean was entirely different in comparison with Britain. In the West Indies and in the whole colonial culture “books were assumed to be written overseas, in England, and… women, especially at that time women of African descent, might be excellent storytellers, but not writers” (Savory 16). Even the term “voicelessness” is used by Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido when speaking of Caribbean female authors’ texts. By voicelessness, they mean that during a significant part of Caribbean history, there did not appear women’s text which would express specifically female position on such themes as slavery, colonialism, decolonization, women’s right and other cultural and social issues (Davies, Savory Fido 1).
Although some prose written by women appeared in the francophone Caribbean before the end of the nineteenth century, these female authors, who were defined as femmes de couleur, were not noticed until the twentieth century due to feminists’ efforts to point out the importance of women’s literature in the colonies (ibid. 2). However, the anglophone Caribbean lacked the female writers throughout the whole nineteenth century and the few authors who wrote about this region were Englishwomen, hence able to provide just an outsider’s point of view. Therefore I chose Jean Rhys, who was born in 1890 (thus she was brought up still in the Victorian period, but wrote in the twentieth century), as the author who could provide the most detailed account of the women’s position in the nineteenth-century Caribbean society in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea.
Jean Rhys was born on 24 August 1890, as mentioned above, in Rouseau, Dominica, in the West Indies as Ellen Gwendolen Rees Williams. Her father was a Welsh doctor who had emigrated to the Caribbean, and her mother was a white Creole from a wealthy and powerful family of plantation owners. Whilst Rhys loved her father, who was a very warm and understanding man, she always described her mother as cold and distant. Despite a very close relationship between the little child and her father, Rhys's childhood was not overly happy. Besides her mother's coldness, she suffered from the feeling of not belonging anywhere which, indeed, she never overcame. Rhys's identity was the most delicate issue during her lifetime and it still is even more than forty years after her death (O'Reilly).
Wherever Jean Rhys lived, she almost always felt as an outsider. Even as a child, she did not know where to belong. “Her parentage combined British with white Creole; she was a white girl in a predominantly black Caribbean island; she attended a convent school in which most of the other children were black; and she was taught to behave like a genteel English lady, adhering to the values of a country she had never visited” (ibid.). At the age of seventeen, Rhys left Dominica for England and she never returned to her native island except one visit thirty years later. However, England turned out to be a deep disappointment for this teenage girl as well as for other young people from the Caribbean. The romantic image of the country that the colonizers tried to impress upon the colonized disappeared at the moment she touched the ground of England. Cambridge, where she started to attend the Perse School for girls, seemed to be grey and wet and English people cold and distant (ibid.). Two years later, she entered the Academy of Dramatic Art, but she left after her father’s death. She always said that she left this academy because her mother, a widow at that time, could not afford to keep her there. Nevertheless, a different version exists that she was rejected by the theatre school because of her West Indian accent. If it is true, it was just another failure in the quest for Rhys’s identity (Savory 24).
The problematic identity was characteristic not only for Rhys’s personal life, but also for her writing career. With her famous novels as for example After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie (1931), Voyage in the Dark (1934), Good Morning, Midnight (1939) or Smile Please (released unfinished in the year of Rhys’s death in 1979), she was long time considered an English writer by both, critics and readers. However, she always refused to be English (O'Reilly). It was only with the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 when Rhys become known as a West Indies writer and the critics ranked her among the most important authors of this region (Frickey 8). It is exactly in Wide Sargasso Sea where the issue of problematic identity is very striking.
Concerning the topics she dealt with, Rhys denied that she intended to pass a feminist message. She said that she wrote simply about life. Thus, in her work she treated the tension between black and white inhabitants of Caribbean islands, Dominica, her native and beloved island, race, class, nationality, gender and religion generally (Savory 1). However, although she rejected herself as a feminist writer, all of her main characters were women. Even a theory appeared of the composite heroine, because “essentially the novels deal with the same woman at... different stages of her career” (qtd. in Gregg 3). Feminists in the late 1960’s and 70’s considered the Rhysian heroine to be a representative of the fate of a single women in a men’s world (Frickey 12). Whether Jean Rhys intended to be a woman writer or not, she provided us with an important image of the female status in society in both English and Caribbean backgrounds. For the purpose of this diploma thesis, Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea is the most essential as it depicts the life of women in the nineteenth-century Caribbean setting.
Portraits of Female Characters in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton
Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton with the subtitle A Tale of Manchester Life (first published in 1848) portrays the poor life conditions of the working class in Manchester during a period of industrialization and economic depression. After the death of her mother, Mary Barton, a young woman from a working-class family, has to take care of her father and she starts working for a dressmaker. When her father together with other workmen loses his job, the financial situation of the Barton family sharply deteriorates. Mary sees the solution to this problem in accepting the proposal of Harry Carson, the rich son of the mill owner. However, after realizing that she does not love him, she refuses to marry him. Meanwhile, her father, John Barton, is chosen to represent the local trade union in delivering the Chartist petition to London. Unfortunately, the petition appears to be a failure. The union decides to murder Harry Carson as a warning to Manchester’s wealthy families. It is again John Barton who draws the lot to perform the deed. Jem Wilson, another worker and the love of Mary’s life, is accused of the crime, and Mary must try to clear his name without implicating her father. Finally, she succeeds, but her father confesses to the crime on his deathbed. Mary and Jem marry and emigrate to Canada to start a new life in a new country.
Although Mary Barton is predominantly a social novel which tends to point out the widening gap between workmen and their masters, the feminine voice is also very strong in this story. Gaskell offers the insight to the lives of women from several different social classes, the highest being the Carson family, who are the factory owners, the lowest Mary’s aunt Esther, a prostitute. The working-class women are represented mainly by Mary Barton herself, Alice Wilson, an old washerwoman, and Margaret Jennings, a blind young girl, who becomes a singer (Craik 7).
The female members of the Carson family do not play an important part in the story. However, Gaskell’s description of their leisure time activities clearly shows the lifestyle of upper- and middle-class Victorian women:
So the three girls were by themselves in the comfortable, elegant, well-lighted drawing-room; and, like many similarly situated young ladies, they did not exactly know what to do to while away the time until the tea-hour. The elder two had been at a dancing-party the night before, and were listless and sleepy in consequence. One tried to read “Emerson's Essays,” and fell asleep in the attempt; the other was turning over a parcel of new songs, in order to select what she liked. Amy, the youngest, was copying some manuscript music. (Mary Barton 246-247)
Harry Carson’s three sisters are depicted as carefree young women whose needs and demands are fulfilled immediately either by their servants or father and brother. Though I have already mentioned above that some historians consider this perception of nineteenth-century upper- and middle-class women fallacious, their lives were undoubtedly easier than those of working-class women. On the other hand, wealthy ladies’ financial dependence on their male relatives was much higher, because, unlike working-class women, they were not able to earn their own living. Thus, if all men in a family died, those ladies found themselves almost helpless, not knowing how to solve this uncomfortable situation (a concrete example of such a woman being the character of Miss Matty Jenkyns in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cranford).
The most distinctive of the working-class female characters in Mary Barton is, naturally, Mary Barton herself. Though the main plotline deals with the social conflict of different classes, it is also “the tale of a young woman’s path to maturity and to her choice of life-companion” (Bergmann 135) or, in other words, “the conventional story of the girl, her true lover, her would-be seducer, and her great moral test” (Craik 31). Mary, as early motherless, becomes strongly attached to her father. This dependence makes her unable to decide about her own life as she always has to take her father’s opinion into consideration. Unfortunately for her, John Barton knows exactly what sort of life his daughter should lead. He is a very proud workman, who cannot stand the idea of his own daughter being “a do-nothing lady, worrying shopmen all morning, and screeching at her pianny all afternoon, and going to bed without having done a good turn to any one of God's creatures but herself” (Mary Barton 24). Thus, when Harry Carson, the son of the mill-owner, makes her a proposal, because he believes (according to Victorian standards) that the secure marriage is all a young poor woman might long for (Easson 80), Mary is not able to say ‘yes’ without her father’s consent. Whilst she is flirting with the idea of accepting Carson’s marriage proposal, which would fulfil her dream “of the day when she should ride from church in her carriage, with wedding-bells ringing, and take up her astonished father, and drive away from the old dim work-a-day court for ever, to live in a grand house” (Mary Barton 104) and which would ensure a comfortable life for her and her father thereby (because, as Bergmann says, “in the Victorian novel marriage is usually in some was or other connected with money”), at the same time she realizes that John Barton would disapprove if he knew of her acquaintance with this young rich man. Not only does her father’s attitude contribute to Mary’s final decision not to marry Harry Carson, but also her love towards John is so strong that she is unable to give him up to the authorities when she finds out he is a murderer. However, whereas in the upper- and middle-class families we speak mainly about economic dependence, these are emotional ties which are stressed in the case of the working class. Nevertheless, each kind of reliance on somebody or something complicates and restricts women’s life and independence.
Besides troublesome relationships, Mary Barton has to overcome such grave difficulties as “hunger that gradually oppresses the Bartons, the fever that attacks the Davenports, the accident that years before crippled Mrs Wilson when she ‘cotched her side’ in the spinning machine” (Craik 18-19). Also, Mary sees how the long working hours, either in the factories or in the dressmaker’s workshop, where she labours, damage family life. Working often from 5.30 a.m. to 7 p.m., women were unable to look after their children properly (Easson 53). Even the pregnant women laboured in the factories almost until the time of delivery. “The new baby was often looked after by an old woman or a child, the mother literally running home at dinner to feed it, and if the baby was restless it was given opiates or doses of gin” (Fryckstedt 24). Therefore, as mentioned in the first chapter, mothers were often accused of being responsible for their children’s premature death. From the scenes in Mary Barton, where Gaskell depicts how mothers had to fight for the lives of their children and wives for the lives of their husbands, we can imagine the vicious circle of the nineteenth-century working-class life. If women had no money, they had to labour unsocial hours; if they worked in the factories or elsewhere, they could not supervised their children for a whole day and were accused of poor care; if they stayed at home to look after their children, they had no money for food and therefore plenty of children died of starvation.
The scene in the novel when Mary is deciding what sort of occupation to choose also clearly demonstrates how limited was the choice of job for women at that time:
[John Barton’s] most practical thought was getting Mary apprenticed to a dressmaker; for he had never left off disliking a factory life for a girl, on more accounts than one. Mary must do something—going out to service and the dressmaking business; and against the first of these, Mary set herself with all the force of her strong will. What that will might have been able to achieve had her father been against her, I cannot tell; but he disliked the idea of parting with her, who was the light of his hearth; the voice of his otherwise silent home. Besides, with his ideas and feelings towards the higher classes, he considered domestic servitude as a species of slavery. (Mary Barton 41)
However, there was one more ‘choice of occupation’ possible, which is represented by another important character in Mary Barton, although she does not enter the story very often. It is Esther, Mary’s aunt. She is a prostitute, a “fallen women” known as a Butterfly, who was forced to do this job by adverse life circumstances. As a young woman, Esther fell in love with a wealthy man and when he walked out on her, she had no possibility but become a prostitute. The way Elizabeth Gaskell described the character of Esther as an unselfish woman, who regrets her faults, makes the reader sympathise with this figure. To be sympathetic with a prostitute was something outrageous at that time and Gaskell was often criticized for her attitude, which is a convincing demonstration of Victorian hypocrisy: though everyone knew that prostitution was quite widespread and a great number of men used the services of these women, the nineteenth-century society pretended that there is nothing like this ‘sinful job.’ Furthermore, by the life story of Mary Barton herself Gaskell showed how easy it was to end up as a prostitute. As Angus Easson states, if Mary accepted Harry Carson’s proposal, he would very probably abandon her and she would be left without a penny (79). Through the character of Esther, Gaskell demonstrates the fate of many ‘fallen women,’ who turned to prostitution usually without their own efforts and died alone in some dirty inns, if not directly on the street:
“I know the Butterfly was here,” said [the landlady of a low-lodging house], looking round. “She came in, the night before last, and said she had not a penny to get a place for shelter; and that if she was far away in the country she could steal aside and die in a copse, or a clough, like the wild animals; but here the police would let no one alone in the streets, and she wanted a spot to die in, in peace. It's a queer sort of peace we have here, but that night the room was uncommon empty, and I'm not a hard-hearted woman…, so I sent her up—but she's not here now, I think.”… [The police] made some inquiries, and found that in the restlessness of approaching death, she had longed to be once more in the open air, and had gone forth—where, no one seemed to be able to tell. (Mary Barton 465)
One of the features of Gaskell’s writing which make her novels so real is that she speaks about the events and terrors happening to many actual people of her time (Craik 19). She is also interested in the psychology of the characters. As for Mary, her feelings, and mental and emotional processes are examined in detail when she has to cope with her mother’s death or when she helps her friend Margaret to overcome her gradual blindness for instance. The inner struggles Mary has to fight with herself when she is making a decision whether or not to marry Harry Carson, and later when she does not want to admit that she loves Jem Wilson, are also described immensely powerfully.
Although this novel deals mostly with the struggle between social classes and the injustice happening to poor working-class families, it also clearly portrays women’s position in the nineteenth-century society. Mary Barton, the principal female character of this story, is able to develop from an ideal submissive Victorian woman towards an independent heroine who fights for the love of her life with all available means despite adversity. Finally, as well as the majority of the heroines in Victorian novels, she is rewarded for her courage and sympathy by marrying the man whom she loves.
Portraits of Female Characters in Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea
Although Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea was released in 1966, it traces the life of a nineteenth-century Creole heroine, Antoinette Cosway. The story, which is divided into three parts, each of them having different narrator, begins in Jamaica during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is five years after Antoinette’s father drunk himself to death because the Emancipation Act, passed in 1833, freed the slaves and caused the bankruptcy of many white slave owners. However, the former slaves are still employed as servants and Antoinette’s family has to face the hostility flaring between black people and their ex-masters. This hatred even leads towards murder of Antoinette’s little brother and insanity of her mother. Antoinette then enrols in convent school, where she is taught, together with other Creole girls, what a proper English lady should know. The second part of the novel is told by Mr Rochester (whose name, is fact is never revealed and he is only by inference Rochester from Jane Eyre), Antoinette’s new English husband, who married her despite knowing very little about her life and family. The couple’s early hope that their marriage could be happy fades away when Mr Rochester starts listening to the rumours about his wife’s family. Gradually, he becomes convinced that Antoinette is mad as well as her mother was. Antoinette, sensing her husband’s hatred, asks Christophine, her black former servant and close friend, for a magic love potion. Rochester believes that his wife is trying to poison him and they argue very passionately. Later, he cheats on Antoinette with their servant, Amelie. When his wife finds out about the infidelity, she seems to die of her inner pain. The third part, narrated by Antoinette herself, takes place in England, where she was taken by her husband and is now locked in his mansion. She dreams about the freedom she had on her home island whist being imprisoned in a dark fusty room. After having a strange dream several times, Antoinette decides she had to act. The novel ends with this young wife holding a candle and walking downstairs from her prison.
Whilst Gaskell’s Mary Barton deals mainly with the conflict between different social classes, Wide Sargasso Sea depicts primarily racial and national differences, including the clash of male and female world. Antoinette Cosway, a white Creole girl living in Jamaica, spends her whole life in quest for her identity (as well as Jean Rhys herself). As a member of the former slave-owning class, she is despised by both, the blacks and the newly rich whites (Wilson 68). Called ‘white cockroach’ by black people and ‘white nigger’ by English newcomers, she cannot find her place in white culture either (Savory 139). The only place where she feels at home and safe is Coulibri, her native house, because “this is my place and this is where I belong and this is where I wish to stay” (Wide Sargasso Sea 108). However, this only real identity Antoinette has is taken from her by the fire set in Coulibri by black people.
If Antoinette hopes to find her identity through the marriage with an Englishman, she fails. These are socially, historically, and geographically opposed societies they come from which cause the major conflict between the two lovers (Frickey 11). As plenty of Victorian marriages, Antoinette’s is also first of all the matter of money. Whilst socially and economically, the marriage was frequently the only way how a woman could save herself from ruin (as for Antoinette’s mother Annette), it often meant a sharp emotional deterioration (Gregg 91). Rochester is determined to follow all the standards Victorian marriage should have and feels nervous, when he seems to be unable to execute his rights over his wife. He appears to be safe only if he can control surroundings, including his own wife. That is why he cannot stand the bright colours of the Caribbean islands, because “in Antoinette's husband's mind there is fear of a brightness which is threatening because he cannot control it as he has learned to control himself” (Savory 145). For the same reason he insists on calling his wife Bertha instead of Antoinette. Not only is Antoinette a French name and therefore strange for him. Also, it is the name of Antoinette’s mother (Annette being only the English version of the same name), who should have been a mad woman according to some rumours. Thus, by inventing an entirely new name for his wife, Rochester creates a new identity for her that should cut her ties to her mother’s madness (Gregg 98). Actually, it is just a show of Rochester’s power over his wife, who is forced to accept this new identity, no matter if she wants it or not.
When he passes my door he says, “Goodnight, Bertha,” He never calls me Antoinette now. He has found out it was my mother’s name. “I hope you will sleep well Bertha” (Wide Sargasso Sea 113)
“Don’t laugh like that, Bertha.” “My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha?” “Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha.” (Wide Sargasso Sea 135)
Another demonstration of Rochester’s authority is closely connected with the symbols of rooms and mirrors. As Savory states in her study on Jean Rhys, “in Rhys's texts both mirrors and rooms offer critical reflections of psychological states in a female protagonist” (Savory 138). By removing both, the doors to her room and the looking-glasses, in his English house, Rochester takes her privacy and identity from his wife. However, it is not his first attempt to break Antoinette’s heart through changing the environment she lives in and she loves. For instance, her bedroom in Granbois is furnished with a large mirror; it has a window and a door. It is Antoinette’s territory and her husband knows how important it is to her. When things deteriorate between them, he moves to the neighbouring room which is divided only by a thin partition from the Antoinette’s one. He chooses this room intentionally to sleep in with Amelie, his wife’s servant, in order Antoinette could hear them making love. “In this way he violates not only her trust, but a house she has loved from childhood, and which now, as a result of the marriage, legally belongs to the man who has betrayed her” (Savory 138).
In fact, as Victoria Marie Gregg writes, many West Indian Creole girls who married the Englishmen faced the same fate as Antoinette. At that time, there was no married woman’s property act and everything the wife had devolved on her husband after entering to the marriage. Thus plenty of young men grasped the opportunity to do well for themselves quite easily. They married a Creole girl, usurped her money and took her to England – a strange unwelcoming place, where she usually became ill or insane. Due to these life stories a legend of a mad Caribbean woman was established, which was reflected in the character of Mr Rochester’s wife in Brontë’s Jane Eyre (Gregg 83-84).
The key black female character is represented by Christophine, Annette’s former slave, later servant and the life-long support for both, Antoinette and her mother. According to Caroline Rody “white heroines in the literature of Empire tend to depend on the black women who serve them for the major emotional support of their lives” (Rody 141). The close relationship follows also from the fact that Christophine is an outsider in the black community of Jamaica, because she comes from Martinique, as well as Annette and her daughter in the community of whites (Savory 140-141). The intense dependency between Christophine and her former mistress, Annette, seems to be quite complicated (Gregg 85-86). When Antoinette asks if Christophine has always been with them, her mother answers: “Christophine stayed with me because she wanted to stay. She had her own very good reasons you may be sure. I dare say we would have died if she'd turned against us and that would have been a better fate” (Wide Sargasso Sea 21). Although Annette thinks that “[the former slaves] stayed… because they wanted somewhere to sleep and something to eat. … Godfrey is a rascal. These new ones [white planters and merchants who came after the abolition of slavery] aren’t too kind to old people and he knows it. That's why he stays” (ibid. 22), in her heart she feels that without Christophine’s strength and support, she would hardly survive. It was the Emancipation Act from 1833 what caused the shift in power from the former slave-owners to the newly rich whites and therefore Annette’s social descent and misery. However, for black people the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean did not produce such a radical change as it would seem (Wilson 72). For Christophine, it is even a source of bitter amusement. It could even appear that she would prefer slavery to newly gained illusory freedom: “No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse that old ones – more cunning, that’s all’ (Wide Sargasso Sea 26).” The fact is that although slavery was abolished, it was not that easy to change the thinking of society. “Slavery as a legal institution had gone; but the society shaped by slavery remained with its criteria of whiteness, wealth, and education” (qtd. in Wilson 73).
As for Antoinette, Christophine holds the role of mother in her life. During Antoinette’s childhood, she offers her maternal warning from her culture, as her mother shows no interest in her child’s activities. In her essay on Caribbean fiction Caroline Rody says that the paradoxical authority of servant/mother, which is represented by Christophine in Rhys’s novel, is considered the paradigmatic black female role in white women's fictions (140). When having troubles in marriage, it is again Christophine who she turns to. Nevertheless, once she asks for Christophine’s opinion at the time of her most severe marital crisis, she cannot follow her advice and leave Rochester. Though the Englishman hates his wife, she seems unable to offer any resistance. Reality is exactly the same as the dream Antoinette had several years ago: “I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen” (Wide Sargasso Sea 60-61). Besides the fact that Antoinette has no own money (as everything she ever had belongs to Rochester according the English law), it is now the free-thinking Creole girl in her soul who struggle with her racist, imperialist ‘me’ that she adopted from her husband and stepfather: “I stared at her, thinking, ‘but how can she know the best thing for me to do, this ignorant, obstinate old negro woman, who is not certain if there is such a place as England’ (Wide Sargasso Sea 112).” Yet passivity of the young heroine, which was considered one of the virtues of an ideal Victorian woman and which made Christophine angry (“Get up, girl, and dress yourself. Woman must have spunks to live in this wicked world.” (Wide Sargasso Sea 101)), is finally broken. Unfortunately, as Lucy Wilson states in her work, the suicide she chooses as the only way out from her English prison seems to be the only independent decision she makes during her whole life (69).
Antoinette’s love sometimes mixed with displeasure towards Christophine might originate in certain envy – envy of resiliency which the black women have and the white lack (Wilson 67). For women as Antoinette “the warmth and vibrant energy of the West Indies is epitomized in the lives of the black inhabitants of the islands” (ibid. 68). The black islanders had far more freedom, particularly sexual, than the white ones who had to, at least partly, conform to the English law (ibid. 69). Christophine, though a servant, is incomparably more independent, resistant and open than Antoinette and she also becomes “the voice of the text's refusal of the authority [Rochester] cruelly wields over” (Rody 140) his wife. No wonder that Antoinette, who is forced to live in a powerless position, partly caused by her own passivity, wishes to live the way black women do. The strong ties the young woman has with all the black people in her life become evident again when she is lying mad and lonely in her English room and all she recalls are the faces of her black friends – Sandi, Tia and Christophine. As Caroline Rody states: “Racism's flip side, the psychosexual desire of whites for blacks or natives profoundly informs the structure of this and many other colonial narratives. In a white colonial daughter's text like Antoinette's, this desire also suggests an impossible wish to heal the awful division in one's social world, to live in relationships free of exploitation” (Rody 141).
Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea clearly demonstrates the position Caribbean women, both black and white, had in the nineteenth-century society. As the Caribbean society was a mixture of several different races and nationalities, it was quite difficult for many women to find their place in the world and their identity. The Emancipation Act, which abolished slavery, fundamentally changed the social structure of the West Indies. However, the black women seemed to accept the new organization of their world more easily, mainly due to their free spirits, than their white counterparts. Though Creoles, the majority of white women in the Caribbean were tied up by Victorian morality and prejudice.