Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason and Grace Poole

And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
 
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
 
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

I’ve always been captivated by archetypes of the feminine pariah.
These are the vixens about which cautionary yarns are spun to bridle man’s lust by fomenting a distrust of his opposite sex. They especially served to poison the power of woman, particularly when it was derived from her sexuality.

Can it be coincidence that the promulgators of these literary tales were often gay?

Keats fleshed out a famous Circe of the middle ages, a woman who without mercy would seduce a knight to his death in the woods.

There are sirens of course, and la grande dame Delilah, and all forms of emasculating succubi. Another variant has been haunting me from gothic images in black and white which I remember from my youth, of the film Jane Eyre.

Do you remember poor Rochester? He was not free to love Jane owing to an entanglement kept secret, his wife, become mad, kept for her own safety locked on an upper floor. Her sudden offscreen cackle was one of the most haunting sounds ever.

I remember warning myself to avoid Rochester’s fate, that of caretaker to a self-destructive, utterly irrational woman, in the character of Bertha Mason.

Actually, I believe the mad woman is at the core of every romantic villainess. Why would a mate wish her suitor harm were she not insane? Excepting the entrepreneurial black widow, a woman can be sympathetic and maternal, like your mother, or she can be a femme fatale leading you to self destruction.

Charlotte Bronte humanized the cautionary stereotype, but externalized two malevolent wild cards — multiple personality and drink. I’d forgotten these elements until reacquainting myself with the plot just now. There was a second woman, Grace Poole, charged with looking after the mad wife. Grace however, was prone to drunken bouts. Bertha seized those opportunities to escape and wreak destruction.

Even when Bertha set the castle alight, Rochester fought through the fire to save her, losing his hand and his sight in the attempt. Whether you attributed her actions to insanity, or metaphysically to Rochester’s due for having lived the life of a rake, blame ultimately did not lie with Bertha, nor with careless Grace, herself a victim of a vice.

Would Rochester have been so honor bound to Bertha if her homicidal lunges had been ignited by her own intemperance? I wonder.

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