Have you ever wondered what happened to all the other women in songs, novels and films? You know – the ones who didn’t end up with the main characters, the ones who are portrayed as villains, witches and supposed home-wreckers, and social climbers. the ones in the songs with whom the guys cheated with. In Taylor Swift’s song Betty, she sang about the unnamed girl Betty’s supposed boyfriend slept with. The song is written for the guy, James and throughout the song, he kept saying he misses her but that he slept with the other girl and every time they did all he could think of was her. I love the song (I love the entire album – it’s her best album yet!) but I couldn’t help but think James is a nincompoop and he is an utterly awful boy. I’d like to tell Betty to not take him back but I digress. What’s more important is that I want to talk to the other girl. The one James slept with all summer long while thinking about Betty. For him, it was just a summer thing. For her, it was the summer of her life it seems. She must have liked him so much to ask him to get in his car and spend her summer with him. Ahh… the other woman isn’t so evil anymore when you look at things from her perspective right? Anyway, her song got me thinking about one of my favourite books I read many years ago. So let’s talk about one of the best stories ever told for the other woman by another woman in a book written by another woman who was forced to take the pseudonym of a man to prevent negative public reception when it was first published.
In Jane Eyre, Mr Rochester’s first wife was repeatedly described as a violent, mad, demonic and hysterical woman in the attic, by Charlotte Brontë. Without Bertha, it would simply be a peachy love story of an intelligent orphan girl falling in love with a rich man. A classic damsel in distress rescued by a man of higher social standing. Without her, there would be no arc. There would be no testament to show the devotion Jane Eyre has for Mr Rochester. Yet in the entire novel, this woman was always described through Mr Rochester or Jane Eyre – she was voiceless. Despite her being called violent, she was never really violent (other than her burning down the manor that is). When she was standing over Jane Eyre and her wedding gown, she didn’t want to hurt Jane Eyre. She wanted to destroy their wedding gown – the symbol of male patriarchy in those times. (Women couldn’t own property – marriage was a necessity if you didn’t want to end up in the pig sty.) Yet she became the mad woman in the attic and remained so.
Fast forward to 119 years later when British-Dominican author Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea and boy- did she show us the voice, the tragic story of Antoinette who was caught in the oppressive patriarchal society and then taken away from the home she knew, and the one person who loved her. I must admit, after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, re-reading Jane Eyre was not so enjoyable anymore. Even if I take the best part of the novels, how love bloomed between Mr Rochester and Jane Eyre seemed pale and gloomy in comparison to that of Antoinette. But Antoinette’s entire being was tragic from the beginning. She never really had a choice – she was always a pawn in the patriarchal word’s chess game and if anyone deserved to be this mad – mad enough to burn down a castle, then she deserves to be handed the torch with a crown. Mr Rochester couldn’t stomach her and he even changed her name when he took her from Jamaica to England and she became Bertha, the man woman in the attic.
This book is not very well-known among most popular culture readers unless they’re into anti-colonial, feminist writings. But this book spoke volumes to me and many other and most importantly to the feminist movement – the mad woman in the attic and the reason why she was driven to madness and how madness is sometimes the only power you can have. You take what you can in a life born in tragedy and circumstances which were never made in your favour. So with this post, I make a tribute to all women and girls who were dubbed the other women in their lives. You are important. You might be the silent evil person in other people’s stories, but I hear you and so do many of us. Remember, we’re always going to be the bad guy in someone else’s stories. If you want a song to go with this post, please listen to Illicit Affairs from the Folklore album.