Bertha Mason; The Woman With The Candle
Another perspective on Charlotte Bronte’s famous mad woman in the attic
The wood on the walls is so old it has turned black, smooth with three hundred years of hands breaking the white dust from the grain. Nothing was so old as this in Jamaica, and I wonder how many spirits can inhabit one room, one house, one time. The English maids have filled this hall with a thousand candles, making the walls darker still with smoke. The women are white like paper, powdered, and they are gaunt and sallow in the light. They all watch me, as a specimen bug in a book. Thornfield Hall has become a cabinet of curiosity, and I am the main exhibit.
“She’s very dark, isn’t she?” One woman with yellow hair whispers to a spider thin companion. “Do you think that is the sun or the negro in her?” Their eyes fix on my face, amused at the freak show foreign bride in front of them. “Savage, I hear. It’s in the blood, Mary, sauvagerie. Can’t corset or manner it out of them.” They flutter behind their fans, unwanted moths in my husband’s house. I know he had heard, but he does nothing.
“It’s not negro in her, it’s spanish blood.” The spider old woman replies. “Makes them hot tempered, mad.” She sniffs, eyeing up the master. “He only married her for her money. But money doesn’t clean the blood. Bad brides, the spaniard girls. They have madness in them.” The yellow haired girl squints again at me, not bothering to keep her voice down.
“I tell you, Mary, she’s too dark for a spaniard. She’s a savage.”
“All the same to me. Whatever she is, she’s richer than one of their galleons.”
“She’d have to be. For him to marry that!”
Richard is watching me now, I can feel his eyes on my waist. He looks handsome, still dark from the sun in Jamaica, alive in a sea of dead faces. But his expression haunts me. He has listened to the white women and I am aware of my colour. I raise my profile, my thin features, hoping to avert him from his doubt. He nods in acknowledgment, turning back to a fat man with a pocket watch. No one speaks to me, leaving me to my thoughts. I’m reminded of an old french-creole song.
Elle est blanche, comme la neige.
Mais quelle est la couleur de l’âme de la fille?
De la suie, parce qu’elle est méchante.
Les filles noires avec amour m’enchantent…
I had sung it to Richard back on the island under the trees and he had laughed and said it was poor French. He disliked the patois of any Jamaican tongue, called it primitive. I had asked him if he thought primitive people could be smart enough to create their own tongues. He had laughed and said I was not like any woman back home.
Home. England would never be home. Here the people were cold as they are white, the earth is frozen and the birds sing in monotone. To the English I am exotic, a painting to gossip over or fable to their own superiority. I have learnt to hold my tongue, blend away into their dark homes and white gossip.
My thoughts are interupted by a messenger boy, striding into the hall with a white letter with red wax. Wax red like blood, the kind these people use to seal rumours to hang men and slice their throats. Richard takes it, leaves. The ice of the people intensifies as they all turn to wonder what is so important as for a man to leave his wedding party. The letter is about me, I know it, but no one bothers to consult me.
“Why are you in white?” A drunk man in a blue cravat asks, waving his wine at me so it runs down his hand. “It makes you look even darker. You can’t be a virgin. All Spanish girls are whores.” I want to slap at him but I know I will only play into the English myth that I am savage, angry, barbaric. I run after my husband, my dress catching on my feet. I stumble, and the white moth women laugh.
He has his back to me in his study. He has creased the letter up in his fist. Back home, we have a monster that stalks the night with hunched arms for beke children. In my anxiety, he frightens me, looming in unspoken rage. “Richard?” I ask, softly.
“You black bitch.” He spits, smashing his letter filled fist against his desk so hard that I hear his knuckles click. “You lying, filthy bitch.” I stare at him, numb. He turns to me, his eyes wide like a mare, so I can see the red line of his sockets. He looks mad, ugly, distorted, monstrous. I turn, but he moves fast and slams the door behind me, his palms on either side of my head, huge and heaving. “You aren’t Mason’s daughter. Are you? Are you Bertha?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Richard,” I say, weakly, trying to hide the shake in my voice. I can’t get angry. I can’t fill his imagination of what his dark bride is with images of white fables. He punches the door next to my head.
“You are Creole, not Spanish,” He hisses. “Disgusting mixed blood. You tricked me.” He grabs my jaw with a strength I’ve never seen before. “You lying bitch!” I stare at him, unsure of what to do. I don’t recognise him. This isn’t the man who proposed to me tenderly by the church in Spanish Town.
“I’m still the woman you love,” I say eventually. My voice falters, sounding so far away I barely recognise it. He stares at me. I owe him the truth. “My family kept me out of the sun before you came. But everything else is true. Mason looks at me as his daughter. He is my Mama’s husband.” I try to touch his cheek. “I’m still Bertha-”
“No, you are a black whore!” He roars, so loud this time that I fall to my knees. “How could I ever love an unclean, creole bitch like you? For all of your money and white ways?”
“I’m still Bertha Mason!” I plead. “Look at me, look at me, Richard-”
“No.” He says coldly. “You are nothing to me. Bertha is dead.” I watch as all the love, passion and gentleness he had felt for me crumble like the wax of the candles. “My wife is dead.” He straightens his cravat, staring at me with a disgusted coldness that I saw in the eyes of the moths of the hall. He pushes past me, past the door, repulsed by touching me. Desperately, I fling myself after him, grabbing his chest with my arms.
“Richard, I beg you-”
He slaps me hard, and I dig my nails down into his face to avoid the blow. I don’t stop, desperate to stop his fist from hitting my own flesh. He screams, and I realise I have drawn blood. He staggers back, looking at me with sheer hatred and shock. “You’re mad.” He says. “Insane savage woman.” He feels the blood and I see white faces crowd around in horror. “She’s mad!”
Someone holds a candle up to the red trickle on his brow. “Dear God,” he says. “The woman is mad.”