In a Room Without a Window by Rebecca Lazure
“They tell me I am in England but I don't believe them.
We lost our way to England (...)
This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.” (Rhys 117)
During the 19th century,
England was facing a peculiar problematic – single women outnumbered single
men. Mainly explained by the massive emigration of men to the colonies, this
fact would cause major troubles in the Victorian society. In 1851, three years
after "Jane Eyre"'s publication, there were 365 000 women in search of a
way to survive. There were exceptional cases such as that of Florence
Nightingale, but single women could not live alone and expect to lead a
comfortable and rewarding life. Married women's fortune and inheritance became
their husband's, whom they would have to obey and serve for the rest of their
lives. Legally, the wife was her husband's property. In "Wide Sargasso Sea",
Antoinette - or Bertha- had to follow that rule too, just like any women of
Marriage was the women's
trade, their work. As men were raised to be lawyers, doctors or to take over the
family business, women were expected to learn how to be a good mother and wife,
in order to earn their living. Following the English law, “however brutal a
tyrant [a woman] may unfortunately be chained to, [her husband] can claim from
her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the
instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (Mill in
Corvisy and Molinari 36). In other words, husbands had the right to beat their
wives, to lock them away and to force them into unwanted sexual intercourses.
The “unlucky” unmarried ones would have to find shelter in a workhouse,
where women worked hard and earned half of what a man would earn. Many poor
women would resort to prostitution just to get enough money to pay for basic
needs. Moreover, a lot of those struggling women would have to provide for their
mother or another aging relative in need.
In 1864, the "Contagious
Diseases Act" was enforced and gave policemen the right to arrest any woman
suspected of carrying a sexually transmitted disease, and this, on simple
allegations. Those women would find themselves in hospitals or worst, in asylums
such as the Magdalen Asylums. Those “shelters” were not only populated by
the mentally ill, but would also house prostitutes, old women no longer able to
make a living, and physically sick people. In France, in a asylum build around
1840 called "La Salpêtrière", 80 % of the people it sheltered were put
there by the local law force, in order to cleanse the streets. Those
places were crowded and sicknesses would spread. Sane people, being mixed with
psychiatric cases, would have to endure much in addition to work very hard to
earn their stay. People issued from wealthy families could also found themselves
in asylums, either placed there at their request or at the request of their
family. But those hospitals were rather called rest houses. They offered
large premises, green lawns to roam about. But still, just as Rochester did, a
large part of the bourgeois' families would decide to care for their mentally
ill family members, at home.
put aside, doctors in asylums and rest houses were experimenting a lot with
miracle cures for the inmates left to their care. For instance, the hydrotherapy,
consisted in suddenly placing a patient in water or bathing a person up to ten
hours in a row. In order to cure hysterical women, illness which was believed to
come from the uterus or the ovaries, there were cases of ablation of the
clitoris – one time without any anaesthesia by a certain Dr. Robert, in 1847.
have leaved a happier life in one of those rest houses? She was a woman from a
very different context. In the Caribbeans, life was not the same as it was in
England. As it happens, Antoinette, uprooted from her very loved lush island to
Rochester's gray manor in England, was not left in a rest house but rather
locked up “in a room without a window” (Brontë 316) -- or one where
“there (was) one window high up – you (could not) see out of it” (Rhys
116). Though Rochester would have the legal right to put her into the hands of
he preferred to leave her alone in that room. In a way, this was worse than any
rest house in a way because she did not even understand that she was in England.
Like a caged bird that would no longer sing, she kept dreaming of the smells and
sounds of her home.
Did those women in
asylums and rest houses also think that the life they were living was untrue?
Did they think, like a poor
seamstress living in 1849 and having to resort to prostitution in order
to survive and support her mother as well, that “life (was) a curse to (them)”?
(Mayhew in Corvisy and Molinari 255). Many feminist movements appeared following
the "Contagious Diseases Act". To protest this violation of human rights
suffragette's movements rose in the years after and women condition changed,
slowly. At the turn of the 20th century, the elaboration of medication, such as
Veronal, and Freud's psychoanalysis would change the way mental illnesses were
treated and viewed, for better or for worse.
term for psychiatrist. Origin 19th century: from French aliéniste,
based on Latin alienus. (Concise Oxford Dictionary. 2008.)
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L'Harmattan. Paris. 2008.
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21 november 2011.
Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. Ed. Penguin Student Edition. Canada.
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http://www.historyofwomen.org/cohabcuttings.html and http://www.historyofwomen.org/cohabitation.html
Consulted on 21 November 2011.
Wojtczak, Helena. Women's Status in Mid 19th-Century England – A Brief Overview. http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/19/overview.htm
Consulted on 21 November 2011.