- 1 C. Brontë, Jane Eyre, M. Smith (ed.), Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics,  1998. Parenthetic re (...)
- 2 E. von Arnim, Vera, London: Virago,  1989;R. Lehmann, The Weather in the Streets, London: Vi (...)
1It is almost impossible to overstate the popularity of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre1, and the influence it has exerted on our culture through its multiple transformations, each revealing the particular ideological agenda of its author and its age. In this essay, I want to look at four novels of the inter-war period in England which echo the situation of Jane Eyre—its young isolated heroine, older hero with a mysterious past, and the bad, mad wife—but make changes to its tone and outcome which are significant for the new social context. These novels are Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921), The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann (1936), South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936) and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)2.
- 3 I. Brown, ‘Preface’, in H. Jerome, Jane Eyre, A Drama of Passion in Three Acts ... dramatised from (...)
2By the 1930s, when most of these novels were written, the story of Jane Eyre circulated as a general currency which could be called upon as a framework for new writing in the same way as stories from the Bible or the Greek myths. Despite the changes in women’s lives during the century since the publication of Jane Eyre, one critic of the period brackets Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen as “writers almost canonised by their faithful. Year after year, decade after decade, they continue to hold the intense devotion of many readers”3. We may guess that many of these devotees were women. By this time, most Victorian legal wrongs had been righted. Women even looked different, with short hair and more practical clothes; they were entitled to free state education, were much more likely to undertake paid work and they had the vote. Both legal and social constraints, however, prevented most married women from working, and large numbers of unmarried daughters were still living a life which Winifred Holtby, in 1924, described as one of desperate vacuity. Despite apparent improvements in the position of women, therefore, it is clear that the relationship of power between men and women had changed little, so that a novel like Jane Eyre which dealt with gender-relations in 1847 was still highly relevant in this period.
- 4 S. Freud, ‘Femininity’, in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin, [1 (...)
3The continued interest in Jane Eyre might be explained in Freudian terms. The little heroine’s desire for the love of the strong hero represents what Freud defines as “normal” femininity: the process in which women recognise their own inferiority and choose to attach themselves to a powerful male figure modelled on the father4. If you read Jane Eyre in this way, the figure of the mad wife becomes a warning of what happens to women who are “abnormal”—“intemperate and unchaste” in Rochester’s description (JE, 323). Charlotte Brontë’s presentation of gendered subject-positions is, however, more complicated than this; one reason why the novel continues to fascinate readers, illustrators, playwrights and film-makers is that its meanings are unstable and ambiguous. WhenCharlotte Brontë’s experience in nineteenth-century society convinced her that she could not wield masculine power in the real world, her response was divided. In part she had no choice but to write as Jane Eyre, poor, obscure and dependent, and to take as her goal a strong, masculine lover, thus conforming to what Freud would identify as “normal” behaviour for a woman. As well as these “normal” desires, however, Jane shows symptoms of what Freud would have called a “masculinity complex”; rather than attaching herself to a powerful male, she at least partly wants to wield that power herself. She defends herself against those who mistreat her as a child, and argues that “when we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard” (JE, 60). She is restless with her calm life as a governess in a country house and longs for more of life and experience than she had there (JE, 114). She resents Mr Rochester’s attempts to attach her to himself like a possession and imagines herself as a revolutionary liberator of harem slaves (JE, 282). At the same time, however, she wants to be Mr Rochester, whose experience was “quickened with all of incident, life, fire, feeling, that [Jane] desired and had not in [her] actual existence” (JE, 114).
- 5 See C. Alexander, The Early Writings of Charlotte Brontë, Oxford: Blackwell, 1983, 118; 182; 238.
4Mr Rochester is in many ways like the heroes of the early writings, especially Charlotte’s central character, the Duke of Zamorna. He has freedom of action and movement; he is decisive and authoritative; he has wealth and independence; he has experience of multiple relationships, and retains the right to autonomous action such as his attempt at bigamous marriage. Like Zamorna, Rochester has a fiery horse and his drawing room at Thornfield is crimson, which in the juvenilia represents Zamorna’s decadence; in Volume II Chapter ix, like Zamorna, he is likened to a Sultan with his seraglio5. Rochester is, however, different from Zamorna in two significant ways as a result of being seen from Jane’s point of view. In the first place, Zamorna’s military and political power has shrunk to Rochester’s management of a country estate and a spirited horse, which represent masculine power in forms most likely to be encountered by nineteenth-century women. Secondly, because Jane is the object and not the subject of Rochester’s power, that power appears threatening as well as invigorating: the country house is a place of confinement as well as of safety, and the horse a potential threat—“I was mortally afraid of its trampling fore-feet”, Jane confesses (JE, 121).
- 6 S. Gilbert & S. Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Lite (...)
- 7 P. Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. G. Wall, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, [196 (...)
5If Jane Eyre is ambiguous in her response to masculine power, Bertha Mason has been seen as expressing more directly the rage and frustration experienced by a woman who felt herself to be a combination of Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington, yet who had to live the life of a lady in a country house. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), take the figure of Bertha Mason as representative of the nineteenth-century female imagination, forced to divide itself between a compromising heroine like Jane Eyre, and an outrageous figure like Bertha Mason, who by her very presence in the text registers the anger which is also experienced by the heroine6. There are, therefore, a number of different emphases which can be placed even on the basic triangle of Jane Eyre (Jane-Rochester-Bertha). Within the carefully circumscribed world of the country house, Charlotte Brontë attempts a Utopia in which “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine” (JE, 475), but the pact between Jane and Rochester has the “precariousness” which Pierre Macherey sees as characteristic of all such “fictive resolution[s] of ideological conflicts7”. Because Jane Eyre provides such striking emblems of shifting gender-balance, however, it became a uniquely fruitful “site of the struggle for meaning” in the first half of this century, in which women tested their ability—and their desire—to move from private to public worlds.
- 8 T. Modleski, Loving With A Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasy for Women, London: Routledge, 1982, 69 (...)
- 9 Ibid., 60.
- 10 Ibid., 81.
6Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera (1921) concentrates on the penalties, especially for the women. Vera does not refer explicitly to Jane Eyre, but implicitly evokes its triangular structure. Like the later Rebecca, Vera takes its name from the dead wife whose place our heroine now inhabits, and its macabre atmosphere rises from Lucy’s “uncanny sensation that the past is repeating itself through her”. This phrase is taken from Tania Modleski’s discussion of modern “female Gothic”, in which she distinguishes Gothic from romance fiction8. Whereas, she says, the feelings of the romance heroine “undergo a transformation from fear to love, [...] for the Gothic heroine, the transformation is from love into fear9”. Because “the structure of the Western family, with its unequal distribution of power, almost inevitably generates [...] feminine conflicts and anxieties”, we can see “Gothics [as] expressions of the “normal” feminine paranoid personality, just as [romance fictions] are in some ways expressions of the “normal” feminine hysterical character10”. Jane Eyre is widely accepted as a paradigmatic romance, but the madwoman in the attic introduces into the novel suggestions of female suffering and injustice at male hands, while the parallels between her and Jane are sufficiently plain for some later readers to reproduce the text as Gothic. Vera conforms to Modleski’s picture of the modern Gothic, rather than to Gilbert and Gubar’s nineteenth-century madwoman, as Modleski demonstrates:
There are some striking differences between the typical popular Gothic plot and the plot which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar take to be the “paradigmatic female story”. For Gilbert and Gubar, this is the story of the imprisoned madwoman whose anger and rebelliousness represents [sic] the heroine’s own repressed rage and whose forced confinement functions paradoxically both as a metaphor for the restrictions of the feminine role and as a warning against stepping outside [it...]. The imprisoned woman in our stories, by contrast, is presented not as a rebel, but almost wholly as a victim [...] and it is against assuming the victim’s role that the heroine desperately struggles11.
7Lucy Entwhistle, the heroine of Vera, does not in fact even “struggle”, but her story is presented in such a way that anger is provoked in the reader. Lucy, left desolate at the age of twenty-two by the death of her father, accidentally meets Everard Wemyss, left desolate at the age of forty-five by the death of his wife, Vera. In the circumstances, they become very close very quickly, are married and return to the house where Vera met her death by falling from her window in the third story. At first afraid of Vera’s memory and clinging to her husband, Lucy soon finds that it is he who is the source of her unhappiness. In a series of blackly comic scenes, Wemyss is revealed as a domestic tyrant of the most petty and egotistical kind. For Lucy, Vera’s room becomes a refuge and Vera’s books a way of understanding her mind. The triangular plot, superficially reminiscent of Jane Eyre, rapidly undermines the expected angel/monster division to yield us an alliance of the two women (whose names mean “Truth” and “Light”). With faint echoes of Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, Lucy thinks of her own portrait: “How very odd it would be if she were hung up next to Vera...” (Vera, 164). Echoes of the Brontë novels are also faint but telling:
Early in their engagement, Wemyss had expounded his theory to Lucy that there should be the most perfect frankness between lovers, while as for husband and wife there oughtn’t to be a corner anywhere about either of them, mind, body, or soul, which couldn’t be revealed to the other one.
“You can talk about everything to your Everard”, he assured her. “Tell him your innermost thoughts, whatever they may be. You need no more be ashamed of telling him than of thinking them by yourself. He is you. You and he are one in mind and soul now, and when he is your husband you and he will become perfect and complete by being one in body as well” (139).
- 12 E. Brontë, Wuthering Heights, Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics,  2008, 73.
- 13 See R. Strachey, The Cause, London: Virago,  1978, 15.
8His words, deriving from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, also recall both Jane Eyre’s paraphrase of the Solemnization of Matrimony (“bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh” (JE, 475)) and Catherine Earnshaw’s more radical “I am Heathcliff12”, yet with alarming ease he assimilates the idea of “oneness” to existing power-structures. When he discovers Lucy reading Wuthering Heights in Vera’s room, he is displeased: “he hadn’t read it, but he fancied he had heard of it as a morbid story” (Vera,210). We may guess that Vera read it, like her collection of Baedekers and travel books, for its contrast with her actual imprisonment, but we must also feel that its message is not a helpful one in her situation, since in Wemyss’s mouth it becomes “my wife and I are one, and I am he.13” Von Arnim’s novel, in fact, reverses the romance paradigm offered by the Brontë texts; the hero proves to be not the mirror but the enemy of the vulnerable heroine, and his house not a haven but a prison.
9Vera, moreover, unlike modern Gothics, does not have a happy ending. Lucy’s intrepid Aunt Dot, who tries to warn Wemyss that Lucy will last much less than Vera’s fifteen years, is simply put out of the house, and the book ends with Lucy turning placatingly to the man who is her real enemy. Modleski draws on a study of the paranoid process to explain why the female victim of such domestic situations does not easily rebel:
- 14 T. Modleski, op. cit., 66.
since an imbalance in the power structure—with the male dominant—is considered the ideal familial situation in our culture, and since the aim of our socialization process is to get the child to identify with the parent of the same sex, the female is more likely than the male to retain the (feminine) “victim” introject and to deny (project) feelings of aggression and anger. At this point, we can see how Gothics, like [romances], perform the function of giving expression to women’s hostility towards men while simultaneously allowing them to repudiate it. Because the male appears to be the outrageous persecutor, the reader can allow herself a measure of anger against him; yet at the same time she can identify with the heroine who is entirely without malice and innocent of any wrongdoing.14
- 15 V. Blain et al. (eds.), The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, London: Batsford, 1990, 1 (...)
10In the popular Gothics which Modleski refers to, the “outrageous persecutor” often proves to be wrongly suspected; in Vera, however, although Lucy remains free of “malice”, Wemyss does not change his ways. The effect of the story for the reader, therefore, is extremely chilling, since we recognise a dangerous syndrome without being able to help its immediate victim. Elizabeth von Arnim, who was first cousin to Katherine Mansfield, based her story partly on her experiences as the wife of Francis, Lord Russell (Bertrand Russell’s elder brother). She was well known in literary circles and, unlike Vera and Lucy, she had the courage to leave her husband. Her story, which was praised by Rebecca West for its “rare success in the macabre”15, forms the first link in a chain of Jane Eyre derivatives including Rebecca (1938) and Elizabeth Taylor’s Palladian (1946), suggesting that the hysterical text of the nineteenth century was giving way, among more thoughtful women, to the paranoid text of the twentieth.
11Writing in 1938, Virginia Woolf is sure that the most significant advance in women’s lives since the First World War has been
- 16 V. Woolf, Three Guineas , Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977, 19.
the right to earn one’s living [...] conferred upon us less than twenty years ago, in the year 1919, by an Act which unbarred the professions. The door of the private house was thrown open [...] in imagination perhaps we can see the educated man’s daughter, as she issues from the shadow of the private house, and stands on the bridge which lies between the old world and the new, and asks [...] “What shall I do with it? What do I see with it?16“.
12In the decades following women’s suffrage and the unbarring of higher education and the professions, there was intense debate about “what they would do with it”.
13One novel which addresses this question is Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (1936), which deals notably with “the woman on the bridge”. Many readers have noticed that The Weather in the Streets repeats the Jane Eyre plot insofar as its heroine, Olivia Curtis, falls in love with an older, richer man, Rollo Spencer, whose invalid wife spends much of her time in her room. Lehmann’s novel is, however, a painfully modern book. Olivia, an “educated man’s daughter”, has assumed some of the new freedom, but is still asking, “What shall I do with it?“. Despite the legal advances in the position of women, she has access to no satisfying or lucrative work, and exists on the fringes of a bohemian group, sharing a London flat with her cousin Etty. Her acquiescence in this aimless life has a bleak futility which makes even Jane Eyre’s decision to seek a “new servitude” seem crisp and purposeful:
the book taken up, the book laid down, aghast, because of the traffic’s sadness, which was time, lamenting and pouring away down all the streets for ever; because of the lives passing up and down outside with steps and voices of futile purpose and forlorn commotion: draining out my life, out of the window, in their echoing wake, leaving me dry, stranded, sterile, bound solitary to the room’s minute respectability, the gas-fire, the cigarette, the awaited bell... (The Weather in the Streets, 77).
14In this context, the “big house” existence of the Spencer family, despite its decay, has the attraction of a foundation in time, of structures of kinship, of social rituals. Like Mrs Ramsay, Lady Spencer knows how to draw her guests towards her, then “to relinquish them with care and set them in motion towards one another. For the millionth time in this drawing-room, by such a fire, effortlessly, she was designing the social process” (The Weather in the Streets,70). Olivia, however, draws no sense of identity from either the private house or the public world, and drifts through life as if eternally condemned to sit in the window-seat. Without a strong sense of self, she acquiesces in Rollo’s definition of their affair as the conventional triangle of modern domestic drama. Whereas in Jane Eyre, the unseen wife is clearly the abjected “other” to Jane’s rational and virtuous identity, in The Weather in the Streets it is unclear who the “other” is. Olivia is our centre of consciousness, and in the pattern provided by Jane Eyre, Nicola occupies the place of the “madwoman”. Socially, however, it is Olivia who is the “other woman”; legitimacy and fecundity still belong to Nicola. In this novel, moreover, Olivia cannot make common cause with her predecessor, as Lucy does in Vera, because Nicola is still alive and in possession of her place; the women are forced into the antagonism which Freud saw as part of the Œdipal process. More sadly, The Weather in the Streets exposes the rewards of love, even when consummated, as etiolated by deception and all but destroyed by its own physical consequences. This novel was the first in English to show without evasion the experience of pregnancy and abortion for a single woman; it makes Jane Eyre’s determination “to keep the law [...] sanctioned by man” (JE, 321) seem less arbitrary. Most haunting, however, is the erosion of Olivia’s sense of connection with the world. At Thornfield, Jane is forced to live at a mental distance from her love, but her consciousness of difference and of categories sharpens her sense of identity and provokes her into drawing her own portrait (JE, 163). Olivia, absorbed into the life of her lover, finds herself in a time
when there wasn’t any time. The journey was in the dark, going on without end or beginning, without landmarks, bearings lost...
Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog...
In this time there was no sequence, no development. Each time was new, was different, existing without relation to before and after; all the times were one and the same (The Weather in the Streets, 144-5).
15If Jane Eyre, with its sharp dichotomies and its articulate heroine, is the hysterical text of a woman forced to participate in a discourse which separates her from her “other”, then The Weather in the Streets is a text in which the heroine, no longer excluded from knowledge of her own condition, is nevertheless confronted with the symbolic realities of a public world which she is powerless to change.
16Olivia, as we have seen, has a private yearning to return to the “big house” of the Spencers; in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, however, Jane’s miseries are ended by the simultaneous destruction of Thornfield Hall and the first Mrs Rochester, and many transformations of Jane Eyre in the 1930s focus on the country house as an outdated symbol of woman’s domestic imprisonment. Two best-selling novels which are almost contemporaneous with The Weather in the Streets share this focus on the house, while producing very different meanings from the textual “site of struggle”. These are Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938).
17Because the plot of Rebecca so clearly echoes that of Jane Eyre, the later novel seems to be looking back and asking what has changed. The young heroine (who has no name until she marries Maxim de Winter) is like Jane Eyre in being an orphan, “humble, shy and diffident” (Rebecca, 78) and her occupation, as companion to a rich lady, is similar in status to that of a Victorian governess. The hero, Maxim de Winter, is like Mr Rochester in being rich and independent, the owner of a country house, and in having an unhappy secret which makes him moody and inward-looking. The two secrets are also similar—both have had first wives who were brilliant but immoral, and both have attempted to rid themselves of their wives by illegal means. In both cases the country house becomes oppressive to its owner because of its association with the mad, bad wife. Rochester, after the encounter with Richard Mason, already feels the house to be “a mere dungeon”; after the failed wedding, his language becomes extreme:
this accursed place—this tent of Achan—this insolent vault, offering the ghastliness of living death to the light of the open sky—this narrow stone hell, with its one real fiend, worse than a legion of such as we imagine (JE, 316).
18In Rebecca, Maxim’s feelings are suggested by contrast with the speaker’s naive suppositions: “’I’m told it’s like fairyland [...] it looks perfectly enchanting [...] I wonder you can ever bear to leave it’. His silence was now painful” (Rebecca, 19). In spite of being haunted and oppressed, however, by the houses which contain evidence of disastrous first marriages, both Mr Rochester and Maxim de Winter, like Everard Wemyss in Vera, try to establish their new, young wives in the same houses and the same domestic roles. In all these novels there is a strong sense of past events shaping the present, creating an uncanny inevitability. When Lucy approaches “The Willows”, she can feel Vera “waiting for her” (Vera, 145, 148), and the role of wife becomes horrific by association with its dead occupant. When the young heroine of Rebecca first speaks the words, “your wife”, she feels as if she had said “something heinous and appalling” (Rebecca, 42), just as Mr Rochester makes the word sound like an insult when he points to Bertha and says, “That is my wife” (JE, 308). The repetition of words, both within and between texts, implies that the suffering in these stories comes, not from individual actions, but from social structures—the institution of marriage as it is lived in the country house which allots to men and women separate spheres and imposes on both, but especially the women, the duty to repeat the lives of previous generations.
- 17 V. Woolf, Women and Writing, Michèle Barrett (ed.), London: The Women’s Press, 1979, 60.
19Du Maurier’s novel links past, present and future only to suggest that nothing really changes. Its title, Rebecca, is the name of a woman who is dead, and yet seems alive because her habits and her belongings are still preserved in the house; the young heroine finds herself wearing Rebecca’s clothes, sitting in Rebecca’s chair, following Rebecca’s routine. As soon as she takes on the name of “wife”, of “Mrs de Winter” —a name that has belonged to someone else before her—and occupies the house, Manderley, she becomes nothing but a function, the “mistress of the house”. In her essay, “Professions for Women” (1931), Virginia Woolf argues that a professional woman in the nineteen-thirties “had to do battle with a certain phantom” which she calls, after Coventry Patmore’s poem, “the Angel in the House”. Rebecca was no angel, but she does haunt Manderley with the spectre of woman’s domestic role. Virginia Woolf claims that “Killing the Angel in the House” is “part of the occupation” of a professional woman, and, she adds, “it is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality17”.
20The second wives in these stories have no option but to repeat the roles their husbands impose on them. The reason why the men return to the scene of their former errors, however, is that the country house is more than a place to live. In Vera, it is a middle-class status symbol, a retreat from work in the city, but Thornfield and Manderley are, for their masters, places of work, the administrative centres of large estates. Jane Eyre comments on the difference between Thornfield Hall before Mr Rochester’s arrival, when it was “silent as a church”, and after, when “a rill from the outer world was flowing through it” (JE, 123-4). This separation of masculine and feminine spheres is repeated in Rebecca, where the young heroine is dismayed to discover how much business her husband has to attend to (Rebecca, 73, 84). The first Mrs de Winter, however, refuses to accept a passive role. Her desk has labelled compartments, like that of a man of business, and she makes her position as mistress of Manderley into a kind of public office, with house-parties and the famous fancy-dress dance. Like Rochester, she controls spirited horses; she claims the right to her own private life and, like him, has many lovers; she plants blood-red rhododendrons whose sensual colour recalls Zamorna’s and Rochester’s crimson furnishings, and there is a kind of splendid defiance in the way she brings about her own death. She is selfish and cruel, but all her actions can be seen as a defiant response to being the mistress of a house, a role which Maxim and Manderley impose on her.
21Despite the lapse of time between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, in some ways the first and second Mrs de Winters are more polarised than the two Mrs Rochesters. The young heroine of Rebecca is even worse prepared for life than Jane, because she has “no qualifications of any kind”, and is less independent in spirit. She is almost effaced by Rebecca; when someone asks for “Mrs de Winter”, she replies, “Mrs de Winter has been dead for over a year” (Rebecca, 91). Many recent readers respond to Rebecca, in fact, as a revision of Jane Eyre which makes us feel primarily the energetic and attractive force of the first Mrs de Winter, who was beautiful and efficient, and who felt the desperate vacuity of domestic life but instead of sinking into madness asserted herself to make something of her role of “mistress of the house”.
22In 1847 there was little real alternative to marriage for women, and the best that Charlotte Brontë could imagine was a companionate marriage which would wipe out the memory of the madwoman in the attic. In 1938, as Virginia Woolf points out, the door of the private house had opened, and we might expect, in Rebecca, to see the young heroine emerge from its shadow. In fact she seems less able to do so than Jane Eyre herself. Although Rebecca begins with a description of Manderley as a ruin, the young heroine is ruled by her memory, where Manderley still exists because “it is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality”. She still lacks what Virginia Woolf sees as the weapons for killing the angel in the house—education and the right to earn her own living.
- 18 Three Guineas, op. cit., 42.
- 19 Ibid., 71.
- 20 Ibid., 72.
23Both Thornfield Hall and Manderley are destroyed by fire. In Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf also imagines a fire which would destroy the system that sends men to universities, and keeps women in private houses. She encourages “the daughters of educated men [to] dance around the fire [...] And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry ‘Let it blaze! Let it blaze!’ ”18. She then imagines a procession of professional men wearing the hats, badges, wigs and gowns which are the signs of their professions, and says, “We who have looked so long at the pageant in books [...] need look passively no longer. We too can leave the house, can mount those steps, pass in and out of those doors”19. Woolf, however, reminds us that “We are here, on the bridge, to ask ourselves certain questions ... do we wish to join that procession [...]? Above all, where is it leading us, the procession of educated men?”20. She concludes
that we, daughters of educated men, are between the devil and the deep sea. Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed. The one shuts us up like slaves in a harem; the other forces us to circle, like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property. It is a choice of evils. Each is bad. Had we not better plunge off the bridge into the river; give up the game, declare that the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it?21
- 22 The English county of Yorkshire was divided into North, East and West Ridings (originally ‘thirdin (...)
24Rebecca ends with both husband and wife still dithering on the bridge; they are together, but they have left the private house without entering the public procession. South Riding, on the other hand, is able to leave the bridge because it redefines the public world22.
25Like Rebecca,South Riding makes deliberate references to Jane Eyre which invite us to compare and contrast. Its heroine, Sarah Burton, is like Jane in being, again, an orphan, obscure, plain and little, but the novel, unlike Rebecca, emphasises the social changes which have given women access to higher education. Sarah has an Oxford degree—granted to women in 1920—and has taught at a fictional version of the North London Collegiate School for Girls, a landmark institution in women’s education, founded in 1850 by Mary Buss. She has thus the means of earning her own living not at subsistence level, in a position of degrading dependence, like a governess, nor in the enclosed atmosphere of a private school, but with some style and a good deal of social benefit as the headmistress of a County High School.
26Robert Carne, the central male character, is like Mr Rochester in being a landed gentleman, his status symbolised by his management of horses. Carne’s horsemanship represents a cluster of qualities to do with “big house” management which the text presents for a scrutiny in which intertextual strategies are explicitly used. When Sarah, out for a walk on a snowy day, meets Carne on his “big, dark horse”, the effect is quite as dramatic as Rochester’s appearance on Mesrour:
So startled was she that for a moment she could say nothing, aware only of the tossing black neck of the horse, flecked by white foam, its white, rolling eyeballs, its black, gleaming, powerful flanks, and the dark eyes challenging her from the white face of the rider. It was as though some romantic sinister aspect of the snow-scene had taken heroic shape. [...] Into Sarah’s irreverent and well-educated mind flashed the memory of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester (South Riding,119-20).
27The encounter is as inconclusive as that in Hay Lane, but the explicit reference to Jane Eyre does not, as it might in Rebecca, imply a compulsion to repeat. Sarah has already demonstrated her ability to subvert culturally encoded meanings: on her arrival in Kiplington she promises herself (anticipating Mary Daly by half a century), “I was born to be a spinster, and by God, I’m going to spin” (South Riding,49). The reference to Jane Eyre, therefore, is ironic rather than uncanny. This is not a plot in which “we know what happens next”.
28Carne is certainly like Rochester: he owns a country estate, he is older than the heroine, and he has a mad wife. Unlike Maxim de Winter, however, Carne is subject to real historical forces. His estate is burdened with debts and the cost of keeping his wife in an expensive nursing-home is crippling. Whereas Manderley is a flourishing symbol of patriarchal power, Maythorpe (in a novel written two years earlier than Rebecca) is already perceived as “crumbling to pieces” (South Riding,8). In 1932, Winifred Holtby published a book on Virginia Woolf, and a passage in South Riding vividly recalls, even in the cadence of its sentences, the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse (1927). In To the Lighthouse the decay of the holiday house takes the foreground during time in which the war happens and people die; South Riding is similarly permeated with the aftermath of war, in which the crumbling of Maythorpe has much larger resonances:
The neglected lawns grew tall as a watered meadow. The unpruned roses straggled across the paths and dripped from the leaning archways. Apples rotted as they fell below the orchard trees. No callers came, but as human life receded from the old house it seemed to take to itself its own non-human populace. Mice scratched and whimpered under the bedroom floors; bats hung in the attic; earwigs and spiders ran up the window curtains (South Riding,302).
29In a text which works extensively through intertextual reference, from Milton to “Tipperary”, the ruin of Maythorpe, described in the style of Woolf, declares itself historically situated, different from the adventitious ruin of Thornfield or Manderley.
30As in Rebecca, the characters of South Riding do recall the past splendours of Maythorpe and of its mistress, Muriel, and her room, like Rebecca’s, is kept ready. South Riding, however, does not endorse this nostalgia. Rebecca’s room is preserved as if it could live again:
I had expected to see chairs and tables swathed in dust-sheets, and dust-sheets too over the great double bed against the wall. Nothing was covered up. There were brushes and combs on the dressing-table, scent, and powder. The bed was made up. [...] There were flowers. [...] A satin dressing-gown lay on a chair, and a pair of bedroom slippers beneath. For one desperate moment I thought that something had happened to my brain, that I was seeing back into Time, and looking upon the room as it used to be, before she died [...]. In a minute Rebecca herself would come back into the room (Rebecca, 172-3).
31Muriel’s room also lies “awaiting her return”:
The curtains were drawn; their green taffeta, faded and rotting at the folds, left only a whispering light. [...] On the dressing-table, the creams cracked in their jars, and the nail polish crumbled to powder, the scents evaporated from cut-glass bottles among the rusting files and pins and scissors. In the wardrobes hung Mrs Carne’s deserted dresses (South Riding, 18).
32In South Riding time does not pass without effect. Mrs Carne is seen, like the house, as an extravagant left-over from a pre-war age, and Maythorpe, stricken by the Depression, cannot support a Mrs Danvers to preserve her kingdom or transmit her legend.
- 23 T. Modleski, op. cit., 33.
33As in Vera, so in Rebecca, one result of the heroine’s “uncanny sensation that the past is repeating itself through her” is the collapsing together of categories of femininity which were expected to be opposed23. Jane Eyre itself maintains the conventional opposition: Jane contrasts her own portrait with that of Blanche Ingram, who somewhat resembles the first Mrs Rochester (JE, 169-70), and after her engagement she resists Rochester’s taste in clothes, which would have effaced this difference (281). Both Rebecca and South Riding also use visual episodes to suggest parallels between apparently opposed types of womanhood, as well as uncanny “hauntings” from one generation to the next. In Rebecca the new wife appears dressed in Rebecca’s costume, which is itself copied from an earlier Mrs de Winter. Just as Jane fails to recognise herself when dressed as a bride (JE, 300), so the second Mrs de Winter in the costume of the first “did not recognise the face that stared at [her] in the glass” (Rebecca, 221). Jane’s reflection, however, shows her someone who “w[ill] not be born till tomorrow” (JE, 288), whereas the second Mrs de Winter is the only person at the ball who does not recognise her as a facsimile of the first. In South Riding, Muriel’s clothes and “lovely terrifying portrait” (South Riding, 14) similarly threaten to impose a pattern both on Sarah and on her own daughter, Midge. We first see Midge trying to “bring back to Maythorpe its legendary happiness” by assuming her mother’s clothes.
“For Christ’s sake! For Christ’s sake! For Christ’s sake!“ she screamed, on her feet, beating away from her in maniacal horror her father who stood, seeing his wife, in 1918, frenzied, in her gallant highwayman’s costume, beating him off in the outburst of hysteria with which she accompanied her announcement that she was going to bear his child (South Riding,21).
34Sarah, after birthing the calf with Carne, is similarly confronted by the portrait of “Miss Sedgmire. A hunting beauty. Shut away, insane” (South Riding, 167). In the 1937 film of South Riding, the echoed clothes are changed to evening dress, which allows Sarah (who does not ride) also to take her place in the chain of women attached to Carne—a suggestion followed through in the “happy ending” to this film, which unites Sarah and Carne. In the novel, when Sarah meets Carne in Manchester, her reaction, made uncharacteristic by desire, is defined by parallels both inside and outside the text:
Big and black and white, Carne stood before her, solid as a cliff. Into her mind flashed that vision of him in the snow on his big black horse. [...] Perhaps, she thought, if he hardly notices me he’ll think I’m Muriel (South Riding,347).
35The implication is that women who place themselves primarily in relation to a man are defined by that relationship, and become “haunted” by previous incarnations of wives and daughters.
36South Riding confronts the problem of sexual love for a woman who is not content to repeat old patterns, yet the novel cannot present us with a solution to this problem; Sarah would have become Carne’s mistress if he had not been taken ill. Eventually he dies, symbolically from a fall from his horse, and Maythorpe is demolished to make way for an institution for mentally defective children. Sarah remains alone, but the novel has none of the ghostliness of Rebecca. It contains an element entirely missing from Jane Eyre and Rebecca which means that Maythorpe is really dead and the future is really a future, not a pale version of the past.
37The new element is the public world—not the “pageant” imagined by Virginia Woolf, but the less ceremonial world of education and local government. South Riding also contains a new character. In place of Mrs Danvers, the professional housekeeper who “worshipped Rebecca”, South Riding gives us Mrs Beddows, a character based on Holtby’s own mother, a wife and mother who is also an alderman, a woman who sits in council and on committees, who makes decisions and is effective in the public world. This world represents Sarah’s future, and it is significant that South Riding ends with a public occasion which includes the girls from her school, “the citizens of the future” (South Riding,488), who assemble with the rest of the town for King George V’s jubilee celebrations. The celebration, unlike Charlotte Brontë’s early writings, is not to do with councils of war or political intrigue. On the other hand, it is not entirely enclosed within the school. It shows us the corporate spirit of a small town where local government is, as Winifred Holtby puts it, “the first-line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies— poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, mental derangement and social maladjustment” (South Riding,xi). And for the first time, women were taking their place in this struggle. Instead of Virginia Woolf’s procession of wigs and gowns, Sarah Burton looks back on “a procession of generations submitting patiently to all the old evils of the world”, and in place of Emily Brontë’s plea for “courage to endure”, she wants “courage, not so much to endure, as to act” (South Riding,189). While Charlotte Brontë’s model for public assemblies was something like John Martin’s painting of Satan addressing the Council of Hell—grandiose and exclusively masculine—Sarah’s public world is symbolised by Mrs Beddows, with “gaiety, [...] kindliness [and] valour of the spirit, beckoning her on from a serene old age” (South Riding,492). Where Rebecca and Muriel Carne tried to imitate masculine power by whipping their horses, Sarah takes possession of new technology, driving her own car and surveying her “kingdom” from a plane.
38Because the heroine in Rebecca has no public role, the structure of that novel repeats the Jane Eyre triangle (Jane-Rochester-Bertha) as if nothing had changed in the meantime, though the changed circumstances introduce a muted note into the ending. South Riding is also tempted by the triangle and abandons it with pain, but its conclusion is more like that hoped for by Woolf: Sarah and Mrs Beddows share a committee room. Where Jane Eyre and Rebecca make room for their heroines by destroying Mr Rochester’s first wife, South Riding’s more painful solution is to destroy Mr Rochester.