It was a few months ago when I read two books within a few days of each other: Henry James’ Washington Square (published 1881) and Jean Rhys Wide Sargasso Sea (published 1966). You wouldn’t know it by the two titles, but both novels are about women — women defined by their space and place. Catherine Sloper, daughter of Dr. Austin Sloper, lives with her father and aunt in their home which is located in the Washington Square district of New York City circa 1840-1850. Antoinette Cosway lives in Jamaica, on a rundown estate and her story takes place circa 1840. The “Wide Sargasso Sea” refers to the sea between Antoinette’s Caribbean homeland and England, the homeland of her husband Rochester. That same Rochester of Jane Eyre. Antoinette is called Bertha by Rochester. She’s the crazy woman in the attic. The forward to my Penguin version of Wide Sargasso Sea tells of how author Jean Rhys was incensed at Bertha being sidelined and dismissed as a “Creole woman” who has gone mad. Rhys was Creole and from the Caribbean, and she wanted to tell Bertha’s story so she wasn’t some minor character.
The idea of women being minor players on the grand stage of life is perhaps one the reasons that I feel the pull to intertwine Catherine’s and Antoinette’s story together. Catherine is considered plain and dull in looks and personality, and so the chances of her finding a suitable match to marry her are supposedly diminished. But she has a healthy inheritance from her mother, who died shortly after she gave birth to Catherine. Also, Catherine will get an even larger inheritance from her father when he dies. This dowry makes her supposedly more marriageable.
Antoinette is considered to be odd and eccentric, like her mother. Her mother is described as beautiful, but she goes mad after her son dies. Antoinette is not described as the beauty that her mother is, but her looks are not what make her a prize offering for a future husband. Like Catherine, Antoinette has an inheritance. Rochester agrees to marry Antoinette knowing he will get her inheritance. What he doesn’t know is the woman he’s marrying. He doesn’t know that when she was a young girl, her insane mother rejected her and she was sent to live with her aunt. That same aunt then moved to England and left Antoinette behind in a boarding school. Antoinette is a motherless daughter. She’s been rejected, abandoned, and then sold as if an item for commerce by her stepfather in the arranged marriage to Rochester. This is the same woman who becomes unstable and finally mad as she realizes that she has no way out from her predicament of being married to a man who doesn’t love her, whom she doesn’t love, and who owns her and her inheritance. Not only is Antoinette owned by her husband, he takes away her name calling her Bertha instead, and he takes away her freedom by locking her up in his attic.
Catherine, like Antoinette, is also a motherless daughter. Her father has his widowed sister move in with him to help with Catherine. Her aunt is a romantic, a gossipy meddlesome one, but still she wants to see her niece married. Catherine’s father, however, is a stern respected doctor who looks at Catherine as if he were diagnosing one of his patients and sees her as unmarriageable material. But, Catherine, like Antoinette, has her own desires that she wishes to fulfill, especially when it comes to one particular suitor who woos Catherine with what she believes is sincere love. Her father sees anything but sincerity in the gold digger. To confirm his opposition to this union, he takes away Catherine’s inheritance if she marries him.
If it seems that I’m telling the plots of both stories, I am. But the plots aren’t what make these two slim novels such great reads. It’s the women. I never thought Washington Square could be such a page turner, but it was; I wanted to see what Catherine would do. She starts off plain and dull but she grows into a woman who has a backbone which makes her all the more attractive. Antoinette seems to be a child with a wild imagination who believes that things like cups and saucers talk to her. At least I call it imagination; others may not see it that way and consider it a sign of lunacy, and thus a foreshadowing of what is to come. I see Antoinette as being a free-spirited child who grows up to be a woman who wishes to be free-spirited but feels hemmed in by the conditions of her life.
The conditions of both Antoinette’s and Catherine’s lives appear radically different in that one lives in the Jamaican country and the other lives in the parameters of New York City, but the locales are simply window dressings for these women. The essential elemental facts of life are the same for both of these women during their time: they are considered property of the men they marry, and just as they belong to their respective husbands, so does the women’s property now belong to their husbands. They have no free will except not to marry, which is the choice that Catherine makes. And Antoinette is not even given the choice to not marry Rochester. It’s forced upon her by her stepfather for his own personal agenda.
That these women do not shrivel to suit the size of the compressed space that they are stuffed into would stifle many, but instead these two expand in their own ways to go beyond seeming limitations. Yet it does all depend on the lenses through which we see them. At the end of Washington Square, we see Catherine, never married, sitting by herself, doing needle work. At the end of The Wide Sargasso Sea, we see Antoinette as she escapes from her attic prison and descends downstairs, candle in hand, determined to set the house on fire. The freedom of such a doomed escape might be the best that Antoinette feels she can hope for. The freedom to pursue the life of a happy spinster is perhaps the best that Catherine feels she can hope for. We really don’t know what goes on in the hearts and heads of these fictional women, only their actions and consequences. How true that is for real women as well.
I will remind myself of Catherine, Antionette, and many other women, real and fictional, when I find myself judging others for the choices they’ve made. I will no longer be deceived by what appears to be. I will remember that each person has a story inside of them that I do not know about. Sometimes our story is one of overcoming a seeming tribulation, or it may be the story of “poor me,” or it may be the story of “I am here to do some good.” Whatever our story is that we have inside of us, that makes us tick, we can always change it – once we have acknowledged it. This is the power of paying attention to what stories we tell ourselves, noticing the narrative that runs over and over again in the mind. Once we know what it is that we are thinking about ourselves and others, we can be clear when making choices, including the choice not to judge others, real and fictional.