Women in Rooms in the literature of the 1960s

Women have always had a conflictive relation with physical space. This is mainly due to the fact that conflict arises more from that which we lack than from that which we possess. And usually possession gives rise to conflict and anxiety because of the fact that it is possible to stop possessing, that is, we might lose what we possess, or we might be mistaken and not really possess at all. Space, and hence locations, are, as Lennard J. Davis put it, “intertwined with ideological explanations for the possession of property.” And he adds, “Novelistic space … is involved in a series of more or less hidden, ideological presuppositions about the nature of property and lands, foreign and domestic.” Margaret R. Higonnet has furthered, “Space is a challenging topic for feminist analysis. Feminist thinkers have called attention to physical images such as “the angel in the house” that imply the domestic confinement of women. They have asked why women have not been able to hold property, to travel freely, to define the shape of a nation, or to enter certain social arenas outside the home. In response to Woolf –“In fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country”- one may ask how many women have historically had full citizenship in any country at all? “A place on the map,” as Adrienne Rich has written, “is also a place in history” where writers, women and men, stand in the fullness of their identities and create texts”.

My aim with this paper is to analyse how the female protagonists of a series of highly significant literary texts have been made to live out the importance of a space in their lives, what the meaning if this space was, how some women have reacted to the eventual acquisition of these spaces, how others have had these spaces imposed upon them, how some have succumbed quietly, how others have fired in rage within its borders, how some have skilfully survived there while others have made the most of it to their own advantage.

Directly linked to the problem of space and its property are the problem of owning oneself and the issue of identity, topics that feminism has dealt with since its beginnings.

Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931

The texts I pretend to scan in this particular light, that of the weight of the issue of space and identity in them, were curiously all written in the 1960s, the time of second wave feminism, that centred not only on official legal inequalities but on unofficial ones, as well as addressing many other secondary but no less significant issues such as literature and artistic creation:

Lady Lazarus, 1962, by Sylvia Plath.

To Room Nineteen, 1963, by Doris Lessing.

Wide Sargasso Sea, 1966, by Jean Rhys.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1969, by John Fowles.

Other texts I will also consider are outside this decade, and are:.

Wherever I hang, 1989, by Grace Nichols.

The Hours, 1999, by Michael Cunningham, and the film adaptation of this text, directed by Stephen Daldry in 2002, whose script was written by David Hare..

These as to the texts directly related to this course, English Literature III..

Others which are just indirectly related, but are previous readings of English Literature, are:.

The Wife’s Lament, 10th c, anonymous.

As You Like It, 1599, by William Shakespeare.

Pride and prejudice, 1813, by Jane Austen.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë.

A Room of One’s Own, 1934, by Virginia Woolf.

And one which has nothing to do with the course but, again, belongs to the 1960s, is:.

The Wall, 1962, by Marlen Haushofer.

All of them have to do with the issue of women in rooms, women in space, and their identity; all of them stand as if on each others shoulders, conquering further than the text before, reaching far up, far in (as Lessing said in the Epigraph to Briefing for a Descent into Hell : “For there is never anywhere to go but in”) for ultimate freedom, trying to escape even from the last resort. And this is a process that has been going on since the beginning of literature, since even before, up to the present day.

 

It all began long ago, when Woman was held responsible for the loss of the Garden of Eden, in the primeval mists of Man’s imagination. Woman, who was no else that Man’s property as she had been made to ensue from his rib. Woman who from the very beginning was not given Eden, for that was given to Man, but who was herself given to Man. Of course, God, creator of the whole situation, could not be blamed for this loss and of the only two other possible scapegoats, Adam and Eve, the blame was put on Eve, who was made to play the part of rebel in the story. “Put the blame on Mame, boy” goes the song in Gilda.

Centuries later we find woman living in the wild: ”My lord commanded me to stay in this place…I was told to live in an earth-cave beneath an oak tree amid the forest”. It is the woman in “The Wife’s Lament”, from the Book of Exeter, an Anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry dated between 960 and 990, and the extraordinary weight of this command lies both in its source, man, now a parallel of God as far as woman is concerned, for her destiny is in his hands, as in the space provided, a cave in the forest. Woman banished from the community, supposedly because she was a peace-maker and peace did not work out, is made to inhabit a shelter amid nature, where she laments her doom as outcast. Indeed there is historic bias in her voice, and most probably the text was written by a man, but it is her dim voice after all –Woman’s “little voice”, as Lessing has said- , maybe woman’s first voice in English literature. And her sin is there beside her, the fact she did not fulfil her role.

A woman, a role, a sin, and a refuge.

More time has to pass before we hear of woman inhabiting another kind of natural place, a garden, though this one a wholly human one and back inside the community. Elisabeth A. Augspach describes the garden as becoming woman’s space in the 12th and 13th century medieval literature, and the opposing values of gardens linked to the Virgin Mary and those controlled by unnatural fairylike women who threaten the social order. The garden may represent woman as intact virgin or a bazaar of sensual pleasures, as virtue personified or sin incarnate. A good example of this is to be found in Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene  in 1590.

So women by now have conquered a garden, though if they are not absolutely virginal, which is after all a Renaissance male imaginary representation of an ideal, they are categorized as sinful or unnatural. It seems as if our first woman, the failed peace-maker, has after all survived in the wild and come to haunt the forests.

 However, in 1599 we find Shakespeare making a very different use of a domesticated forest, nearly a garden, in As You Like It, whose heroine, Rosalind, transforms it into the arena in which to display her feminine powers of seduction without having to be termed negatively for this. Of her Harold Bloom has said (and I apologize for quoting in Spanish, as this is the only copy I have had access to) “Creo que Shakespeare debe haber estado muy apegado a esta obra…. Ha sido tan sutil y tan cuidadoso al escribir el papel de Rosalinda, que nunca nos despertamos del todo para ver lo única que es entre todos sus ingenios heroicos (o los de toda la literatura). Conciencia normativa, armoniosamente equilibrada y bellamente cuerda, es la antecesora indudable de Elisabeth Bennet en Orgullo y Prejuicio, aunque tiene una libertad social que va más allá de las cuidadosas limitaciones de Jane Austen.”

Rosalind has conquered both a whole forest and the man she wants, perhaps even some women as well along the way. She enjoys unbounded powers in her Forest of Arden, she is, in her turn, a successful peace-maker, but this role of hers in the forest is only temporary, just a game. Having won, she comes back to the community and, restored into her house and as soon as she puts on her skirts again, she falls back into her traditional woman role. However, the power of subversion she has exerted cannot be easily forgotten. At the same time, she seems to have exhausted the motif of the forest, and it will be a long time, not until postcolonial literature, before women will be found inhabiting such natural spaces again.

And to Bloom’s Jane Austen I will jump, though not to her character Elisabeth Bennet but to Elisabeth’s friend, Charlotte, who explains to Elisabeth why she has accepted Mr.Collins marriage proposal, a proposal Elisabeth herself had recently rejected. ““I see what you are feeling,” replied Charlotte, “you must be surprised, very much surprised, so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’ character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” Elisabeth quietly answered “Undoubtedly;” and after an awkward pause, they returned to the rest of the family.”” In the film adaptation of this novel we find Charlotte introducing Elisabeth to her small private parlour saying “We shall not be disturbed here. This parlour is for my own particular use”, perhaps a wink of Deborah Moggach, the writer of the screenplay, to the whole lot of private rooms to be claimed and conquered by women in the 20th century. Charlotte seems to have enough with that. But of course, women at the beginning of the 19th century were supposed to take it that way, whether their husbands were to their liking or not, as was Charlotte’s case. In their nook they lived their nooked in lives, their nooked in identities.

Charlotte conquers a house, by means of conquering a man. And in this house she takes the parlour for herself. As to all the other characters, and Elisabeth in particular, Isabel Soto has said “Austen invariably links money and the question of social status to the marriage institution, all three potential goals (individual or simultaneous) for women at the time”. Indeed, the problem now has become more complex and ambitious: it is not only to get yourself a place, a room, a whole set of rooms, where you can be yourself, but to climb up the social scale, equivalent to the economical scale of welfare. Except one of Elisabeth’s sisters, all the other female characters are shown to be more or less struggling for, or keenly fending others away from, property. Which, in spite of this, remains no more than a nook.

 Probably skipping on the way other significant texts, I will now enter the 20th century.

In her essay A Room of One’s Own, 1934, Virginia Woolf stated quite straightforwardly that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”, adding, especially, “a room with a lock on the door”. The room, now, is again problematized, though in fact only a little detail has been added here to Charlotte’s room: the lock (as the room is understood to be in the family house, and the source of the income is wisely eluded). Plus the fact that the room is needed if the woman is supposed to be a writer able to compete with men in terms of equality in the field of art. Woolf’s feminist landmark looks into the social and material conditions for the writing of literature. Though Woolf shows great insight to the problem of woman’s artistic identity, the problem has, somehow, become more sophisticated, as the common woman, she who does not desire to write or create, is not addressed. In addition, and according to Chia-hsing Chen, “Woolf’ spatial concept and strategy designed for the female writer need to some extend revision”. She then draws on Jean Guiguet’s work Virginia Woolf and her Works quoting Guiguet when he said that Woolf’s room was “the symbol of her autonomy, not only the protecting shell which will allow her to be herself, but her very substance, born of the fusion of her being with the outside world. This room, in fact, is…a closed room yet an open one at the same time. Attainable only by universal consent…” (Again my apologies, I have not been able to access Jean Guiguet’s work directly). And Chen adds this room is “closed because of its insisting on women’s privacy; open, because of its guaranteeing their participation in social lives, either inside or outside of the domestic field”. This further view does apply to the woman who does not write as well as to the one who does. It applies to the universal woman.

We now find the need to conquer a room in the house and locking it to internal –familiar- interferences, while keeping it open to the outside world. Women are not any more to try and conquer a single space but all the space available, as is their due, though from their room. This conquest, then, has to be an abstract, metaphoric, symbolic one.

In 1963, only 29 years later, we find Susan, the protagonist of Doris Lessing’s To Room Nineteen, having access to money –though not her own- and getting herself a room in order to allow the survival of the person she has intimately discovered she can be. Several instances lead Susan to admit she has wearied of her traditional female role, but she still holds on to her marriage, her children, her house, her garden, and her social identity, until she finds out about her husband’s infidelity. This triggers her loss of faith in love, the only reason she had found able to justify her life of weariness, of “hidden resentments and deprivations of the woman who has lived her own life –and, above all, has earned her own living- and is now dependent on a husband for outside interests and money.” For this is a detail to consider: Susan has had a life of her own before, and has surrendered it to this marriage, these children, this house and this garden that now represent the tombstone under which she lays buried.

And it is precisely in the garden where she starts feeling a presence that scares her. ”Susan was more and more often threatened by emptiness. (It was usually in the garden that she was invaded by this feeling: she was coming to avoid the garden, unless the children or Matthew were there with her)” And further on “…into the garden. There she sat on a bench and tried to clam herself, looking at trees, at a brown glimpse of the river. But she was filled with tension, like a panic: as if an enemy was in the garden with her.” Then “…an enemy waiting to invade me”, and “On the fourth day …she found she was storming with anger at the twins.” This is the clue to who this enemy is. It is herself, that part of her which did not compromise into a marriage and all that it involved but that served as a last resort where her true whole self was kept in waiting. As Rula Quawas has said, “the enemy…represents, quite simply, her introverted, conditioned, weaknesses and her strongest feelings or impulses of restlessness, rage, irritation and resentment that she projects or externalizes”. And this other “she” materializes in the garden, in the space women used to inhabit in the form of demons or virgins. We have been told that “the essential Susan (was) in abeyance, as if she were in cold storage” but the fire that allows life to glow had not died out, was still embers, and these embers slowly come to life and blaze against the life Susan leads. She repeatedly calls this fire “demons” until she personifies it in the figure of a man: “She imagined him, or it, as a youngish man, or perhaps a middle-aged man pretending to be young. Or a man young-looking for immaturity? At any rate, she saw the young-looking face which, when she drew closer, had dry lines about mouth and eyes. He was thinnish, meagre in build. And he had a reddish complexion, and ginger hair. That was he –a gingery, energetic man, and he wore a reddish hairy jacket, unpleasant to the touch. Well, one day she saw him. She was standing at the bottom of the garden, watching the river ebb past, when she raised her eyes and saw this person, or being, sitting on the white stone bench. He was looking at her and grinning….. She recognized the man around whom her terrors had crystallized. As she did so, he vanished….. She went back to the house thinking: Right, then, so I’ve seen him with my own eyes, so I’m not crazy after all – there is a danger because I’ve seen him. He is lurking in the garden and sometimes even in the house, and he wants to get into me and take me over. She dreamed of having a room or a place, anywhere, where she could go and sit, by herself, no one knowing where she was.”

The room, to which a lock had been added, now also has to be a secret room, where the demon cannot find her. But if we have concluded that the demon is a part of herself, that part which claims a right to exist, which is a man because men have not had to make that claim ever, that rages at emptiness with unabiding hunger, that is red, violent and terrifying, how can she escape from them? Can she escape from them? Lessing tells us that the demons are appeased while the secrecy of the room is unviolated, while she can be there undisturbed. But when her husband finds her out the demons return. Where to? To the room where she is most herself: “Instead of the soft dark that had been the room’s air, were now waiting for her demons”. They are not in her home at all “The devils that had haunted the house, the garden, were not there; but she knew it was because her soul was in Room 19 in Fred’s Hotel; she was not here at all”.

Always resisting the demons, always resistant to the fury and the rage of her despair, of her disappointment with life such as it has been given to her, such as she herself has chosen, fighting to hold on to the peace and quiet that shuts her off from life instead of fighting to hold her ground, she comes back to the room. With a purpose. Because of this purpose, she finds “The demons were not there. They had gone forever, because she was buying her freedom from them. She was slipping already into the dark fructifying dream that seemed to caress her inwardly, like the movement of her blood…” Finally, “she drifted off into the dark river.”

This “dark river” may have been the same river Virginia Woolf drowned in, despite having a room of herself, but it is certainly not the same river Sylvia Plath let herself slip into, though in strikingly similar circumstances to Susan’s: in a room and with gas.

For earlier that same year that Lessing wrote To Room Nineteen another woman, a real woman, Sylvia Plath, author of the disturbing Lady Lazarus, got herself a room to commit suicide in, employing the same method as Susan. But it was not after three years, in 1966, that Lady Lazarus saw the light, so Lessing could not know there was a red demon in that poem too, though very different from the one that haunted Susan. However, the red demon in Lady Lazarus is perfectly integrated into the persona of the poem, as it is herself resurrected, born anew as a female version of the Bible’s Lazarus, come back to do what Plath could not do, or did not allow herself to do, in life: take vengeance on men, “eat men like air”. Plath retires into a room in order to die and suffer this phoenix-like transformation “out of the ash / I rise with my red hair” For die she must, if she is to come back to life empowered. And she warns God and Devil alike as one: “Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware” of her coming, a more powerful being, a human, a woman.

In their respective rooms, ready to face death, Susan and Sylvia, take seemingly opposite paths. Rula Quawas says of Lessing, “Buildings and rooms have a special meaning for Doris Lessing… these offer women an opportunity and a space to explore possibilities for growth within and beyond the perimeters of their social identity. For Lessing, a room can be a sanctuary or a place of love and visionary experience or the site of a mystical journey as well as a prison.” And particularly referring to Susan, Quawas says “…room nineteen, unlike the spare room in her house which represents limits, acts as a buffer, a place of refuge against the traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood that are characterized by Judith Gardiner as in themselves ‘existentially dead and death-creating’” It could be said that both attitudes to death, Susan’s and Plath’s take, as I said before, completely different tones, are expressed with totally opposing voices. But Quawas adds, “Susan’s self-willed death is not a defeat…(she) has reached psychic maturity, and her death is a transcendence, a liberating form of self-assertion … Susan’s silence, one might add, is not a silence of absence, of emptiness or of passivity. It is a silence of presence and fullness. Feminine silence is described in absence because one notices only the surface of a gesture, a look or a text, and fails to attend to the language of the interior. One must listen very closely for both the richness and the barrenness of silence, since what appears to be a whisper may be the echo of a laugh, or a scream transformed”. Are not in this Susan’s silence and Plath’s poetic scream the same thing?

Still, one has to wonder what would have happened if Plath’s and Susan’s husbands had not been unfaithful to them. For in both Plath’s real life as in Susan’s fictitious one it is that circumstance that triggers everything. On the other hand, it was not this that triggered Woolf’s race to death, but another factor with which women have had, and still have, a conflictive, if not ambiguous, relation with: mental balance.

For the problem of women’s quest for identity has, in addition, to suffer the consequences of a secondary blight: the charge of madness. Susan repeatedly refers to the impulse that draws her away from her family in this light, and both Woolf and Plath were known to have suffered from several severe mental breakdowns that eventually were held responsible for their suicides, which they had attempted more than once before effectively succeeding in taking their own lives. However, in their works, in their artistic discourse, we see that all of them, Woolf, Susan and Plath approach suicide as a rational act, clear-mindedly and willingly assumed, that does not suggest madness at all. I believe this issue must, accordingly, be revised, and to do so, I will draw on two sources: another literary text that, in my opinion, is closely connected to the texts explored so far: Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, and the reinterpretation of Susan and Virginia Woolf made by Michael Cunningham in his 1999 novel The Hours, and David Hare’s adaptation of the text into a script for Stephen Daldry’s film of the same title, released in 2002.

 To look into Wide Sargasso Sea requires to look at least into some aspects of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre first, for Rhys said in an interview with Elisabeth Vreeland, “When I read Jane Eyre as a child, I thought, why should –Charlotte Brontë- think Creole women are lunatics and all that? What a shame to make Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the awful madwoman, and I immediately thought I’d write the story as it might really have been. She seemed such a poor ghost. I thought I’d try to write her life.” And she did. That is the story told in Wide Sargasso Sea. As Isabel Medrano has said, “the Brontë’s were deeply concerned with the ‘condition of women’ question, and they challenged many traditional assumptions about the social position of women….their novels are full of dreams of feminine power.” On the other hand, criticism has become aware that while this was effectively applied to the character of Jane, her mirrowing alter ego Bertha had to be sacrificed to help Jane rise.  Benita Parry’s approach to Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea makes an interesting comment of this, referring to Spivak’s analysis: “Spivak argues that because of the construction of an English cultural identity was inseparable from othering the narrative as its object, the articulation of the female subject within the emerging norm of feminist individualism during the age of imperialism necessarily excluded the native female, who was positioned on the boundary between human and animal as the object of imperialism’s social mission of soul–making. Spivak assigns to Antoinette/Bertha, daughter of slave owners and heiress to a post-emancipation fortune, the role of the native female sacrificed in the cause of the subject constitution of the European female individualist”.

It is this sacrifice which I believe makes Bertha mad. A sacrifice similar to the one Susan and lady Lazarus resist making to their male counterparts as well as to the paramount idea of how Woman should be according to society. The difference is that while Susan and Lady Lazarus eventually sacrificed themselves victoriously, Bertha/Antoinette was sacrificed against her will. While Susan relinquished the ownership she had over her life –we must remember she owned it before her marriage- Antoinette is bereft of it. For she it had all, she was an heiress, but also the object of commercial transaction by the men around her, Mr Richard Mason, and Rochester. In this case property –that is owning a room, owning space- becomes a trap as it is a lure to those men who lack it. Indeed, Rhys does not illuminate Rochester with such crude light; she rather seems to pity him in his circumstances for being a younger son. As Spivak says, “Critics have remarked that Wide Sargasso Sea treats the Rochester figure with understanding and sympathy. Indeed, he narrates the entire middle section of the book. Rhys makes it clear that he is a victim of the patriarchal inheritance law of entailment rather than of a father’s natural preference for the firstborn: in Wide Sargasso Sea , Rochester’s situation is clearly that of a younger son dispatched to the colonies to buy an heiress”. Doing so ends up being expensive to him. As to Bertha, being bought seems to result in madness. The issue of madness is in Jane Eyre merely considered to be running in the family. In Wide Sargasso Sea we see that what runs in the family is women victimization, women owning rooms, women owning whole estates, being run down by men who lust them, the estates and the women who own them. But in the time of oppressive colonial society the text is set in, women were helpless. As helpless as the whites run down by the black revolts that destroy Coulibri. Antoinette resists this situation. Coco the parrot, who in his death symbolizes and prefigures Antoinette’s death, trying to fly out of the burning house with his wings cut short by Mr. Mason, wrapped in flames, is just an animal but his effort to escape entrapment and fire, his effort to avert death, would not be considered madness but survival. That is how we should look on Antoinette. From the moment she stops being Bertha, though this happens in her dream, she simply tries to survive. The first thing to be done –and she tells herself, on wakening, she must remember it, for it is wise, it is reasonable- is to destroy the cause of her entrapment: property, the bunch of rooms Rochester was after. Then, try to escape from the fire. The reason she cannot escape is that her wings were also cut short, in this case not only by Mr. Mason, who sold her, but also by Rochester, who bought her and, in addition, did not love her. If only he had, her wings would not have been cut short. We know this because for the time he seems to do so, she flourishes. Accordingly, death cannot be avoided, and Antoinette seems to fall into the model initially designed for her by Brontë. However, and thanks to Rhys, and in Spivak’s words, “At least Rhys sees to it that the woman from the colonies is not sacrificed as an insane animal for her sister’s consolidation”.

And why this insistence in cutting women’s wings short, in calling them mad? Rochester becomes growingly distrustful, in fact afraid, of his wife when he sees her flourish. In most of the second part of the novel, told from Rochester’s viewpoint, it is Antoinette who is in control for several reasons: because Rochester has been ill and is only slowly recovering, because they are travelling to and eventually arrive at Granbois, Antoinette’s estate, because he is in her terrain. Antoinette describes the place :”This is my place and everything is on our side”. And for a while we think that he will not take it so badly, as in the scene when they are having dinner together there comes a moth and falls into the flame of a candle, an image that parallels the previous death of the parrot and the future death of Antoinette in Thornfield Hall. Rochester says “I took the beautiful creature up in my handkerchief and put it on the railing. For a moment it was still and by the dim candlelight I could see the soft brilliant colours, the intricate pattern on the wings. I shook the handkerchief gently and it flew away”. However this state of things does not last. Rochester comments “I was young then. A short youth mine was”. Soon he is to acknowledge the deeper, truer feelings he has for her: “I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did”. The fact is he does not want to know her. When she wants to tell him about her life, to answer to the accusation of madness, he tries to elude her. She answers “I might never be able to tell you in any other place or at any other time. No other time, now. You frightened?” In fact, he is so frightened that whatever she tells him will be to no avail, so when she finishes speaking she has to add “I have said all I want to say. I have tried to make you understand. But nothing has changed. She laughed. Don’t laugh like that, Bertha. My name is not Bertha; why do you call me Bertha? Because it is a name I’m particularly fond of. I think of you as Bertha.” It is in this precise moment that Rochester’s fear of Antoinette makes him transform her into Bertha, gaining control over the situation. Bertha, who is not a menacing being, accepts this destiny, has, in fact, no way to avert it. Antoinette dies exactly now. But Elisabeth R. Baer says “Antoinette, as we have seen, dies. But the very fact that she narrates Part Three, that she again revives her voice, is an act of assertion, a rebirth, a return”. And this reborn Antoinette is not mad, whatever Rochester thinks of her.

This is also true of Susan’s husband, who growingly comes to think Susan is not well. Only that she also thinks so, until she discovers that only in going away and dying can she ever be all right again. So she is not mad.

Having discarded the issue of madness in both Susan and Antoinette (I dare not comment on the mental health of Woolf or Plath, of which I do not know enough) I will return to the issue of space.

In Wide Sargasso Sea Jamaica is described with the lush and beauty of another Eden. So is Granbois, which means “great forest”. Antoinette grows and flourishes in this place, to the rising disgust and horror of her husband. Both Antoinette’s first and second foreboding dreams take place in forests, the second one considered by Elisabeth R. Baer as “a hortus conclusus or ‘enclosed garden’ –Rhys uses this name- a Romance rewriting of the narcissus topos as the place of encounter with Love. In the enclosed garden, Antoinette encounters not Love but a strange threatening voice that merely says ‘in here’, inviting her into a prison which masquerades as the legalization of love”. This prison will eventually become the secluded room in the tower of Thornfield Hall. In Antoinette’s dreams return, evolve and are vilified  both the Garden and the Room, spaces where we have seen Woman exerting her powers. The presence of Man seems to foul these spaces, make them malignant and destructive to the women who attempt to occupy them.

So in 1966 we find that owning a secret room with a lock will be of no avail, and neither will a garden, if man roams about in search of a possession for himself. Is Man’s connivance then required for Woman to own space or identity?

There is, however, a space in Wide Sargasso Sea that belongs to Antoinette alone, a space much like the slim edge of a knife, and as dangerous, but wholly hers. It is the space of her dreams. In her dreams Antoinette lives a parallel life of which Elisabeth R. Baer has said, “ Rochester refuses to call his wife by her given name and instead provides her with a stout English name, Bertha. .. She experiences a growing division –Antoinette/Bertha, dead/ alive (previously Baer has explained that “Antoinette, having lost her parents, her money, her identity, her autonomy, is in a sense dead already) – which Rhys deftly mirrors in the two texts. Bertha emerges in the surface text; Antoinette keeps her identity alive only in her dreams”.  I will now mention here the third of Antoinette’s dreams, for I find that here is where Wide Sargasso Sea most closely connects with Susan from To Room Nineteen and Plath’s Lady Lazarus. This dream is prompted by the sight of a red dress, red beibg the colour that symbolizes her real self (much in the way the red devil in To Room Nineteen represents Susan and in Lady Lazarus it represents the resurrected Plath). Rhys says, “I took the red dress down and put it against myself. ‘Does it make me look intemperate and unchaste? That man told me so…. I held the dress in my hand wondering if they had done the last and worst thing. If they had changed it when I wasn’t looking… I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire….. I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now”. This passage is followed by Antoinette’s third and last dream, that in Baer’s words “prophetic dream in which she fantasizes/foresees the end. The dream begins in the tower in which Antoinette had implicitly been confined at the end of her last dream, the tower in which she is actually imprisoned now.”

It is a dream of death and rebirth for, as Baer explains “Earlier in the novel, she saw the real Antoinette drift out of a window and she became Bertha, the identity Rochester imposed upon her. Now, she sees the ghost (‘who they say haunts this place’) in a mirror; by exteriorising the image imposed upon her, she reclaims herself”. Further on Baer adds, “Her third dream is the dream of return. And it is a dream of escape. For finally, Antoinette refuses to live out her life, confined to a tower, labelled insane. She will not be Bertha.”

The madness that Woolf suffered, that Plath fell into, that Susan feared herself to be experiencing, is here counteracted by Rhys. The fact that in her dream Antoinette jumps back into a past that is gone, that of the Coulibri pool and Tia, her childhood friend, and that this jump is in fact a jump into death, down to the “hard stone” of Thornfield Hall’s courtyard, is quite secondary to Antoinette. Death now is not as important as recovering herself. Death is a means of recovering herself. Death wrapped in flames, in a red dress of flames, with flaming red hair. This is Susan; this is also Lady Lazarus.

Death, red, a room in a house, in a hotel, in a tower. Relinquishing space in order to be; horribly being in space. Woman also relinquishing, in a way, the Garden of Eden she was deprived of, freeing herself from the weight of the responsibility for its loss. 

But how to be free and live at the same time? It seems Woman must leave the room.

And leave she does, but not until 1999.

In 1999 Michael Cunningham in his novel The Hours put his three main protagonists, Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan in three rooms with three different male companions. Virginia is in her country house together with her loving, caring husband Leonard in the mid twenties, when she was writing Mrs. Dalloway, 16 years before her suicide. Laura is living her married life in 1949, with a young child and awaiting another. She has a loving and caring husband.  Clarissa is preparing a party for her friend Richard, a poet dying of AIDS who lives in his own apartment. She is loving and caring with him. Despite all this love and care Virginia, Laura and Richard are intensely suffering from madness, discontent and a physically destructive illness respectively. The result is three different but closely interconnected outcomes, in which we see the three characters escaping from all this love and care: Virginia and Richard commit suicide because they feel they cannot drag their husband and friend into the pit of their inevitable deaths. And Laura… Laura is a different matter altogether. 

Stephen Daldry, director of the film adaptation of The Hours in 2002, or better said David Hare, playwright and responsible for the film script, gave Susan’s story another turn of the screw by making Laura, in a way Susan’s counterpart, leave the room and live. As Laura’s story is closely linked with the process of creation of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway we are led to understand that Laura lives because eventually Woolf decided Clarissa Dalloway would not die. The visionary would do so instead. And the visionary is Richard, Clarissa Vaugham’s dying friend, who is no other than Laura’s son. But as the relation of Laura to Susan is quite clear, though never explicit, I believe it was Hare’s intention to give Laura a way out of the room she had been nooked in by society and by her own need to be. He partly relies upon the fact that she is pregnant, for a pregnant woman committing suicide would probably have been too difficult to digest, even for the most radical feminist. But he makes her wait until her child is born and then leave. Curiously, Laura’s desire to escape is not prompted by her husband’s infidelity, something we should thank Hare for, as indeed, Woman should not need such a reason to desire her identity restored to her. I intimately like Hare’s idea that love is not enough to keep Woman assuaged. However, the consequences of her act, which eventually are one of the factors leading her son Richard to his death, are not averted. In relation to this, it is striking to acknowledge that Sylvia Plath’s son Nicholas also ended up killing himself. This happened only last year, in 2009, a fact that strangely adds retrospective irony to Richard’s death in The Hours.

This film also adds another factor I really appreciate in relation to the stories, real or not, it feeds upon. Natalie Wilson Clift has said in her review of this film that ”each of the three narratives still manages to highlight the literary… both in terms of the stories we live our daily lives by (whether as author, housewife, or New York socialite), and in terms of the wider narratives that sustain our collective consciousness (whether in relation to war, love and loss, sanity, illness, or death).” Particularly in relation to Laura, Wilson Clift says, “…the book (referring to Mrs. Dalloway) rests on her chest, summoning her to escape into the more bearable world of fiction. Then, in a striking dream sequence, Laura metaphorically drowns in her unhappiness as an imagined flood engulfs her hotel bed.” This is a direct allusion to Woolf’s suicide in the river and an indirect one to Antoinette dreaming her death and then enacting it in reality. Given these two antecedents, Laura dreams her death and then does not have to die any more, she is liberated from it, and empowered to live instead. Wilson Clift says “…the scenes with Laura Brown indicate the curative powers of art”. How true I feel this to be.

Helped by literature, Woman leaves the room, in the company of Philip Glass’s wonderful minimalistic musical score which so accurately underlines the presence of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the pulse of life. 

But before leaving the room I would like to turn to another two options women had in the 1960s.

In the first place we find Sarah Woodruff from John Fowler’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, making the most of the rooms where she meets her male counterpart, Charles. Sarah can altogether be many things, for if there is something we can say about her without being mistaken is that she is a mystery not even Fowles was able to unriddle. Her tricky nature is subtly highlighted in one of the first descriptions we get of her, when Charles finds her sleeping near the cliffs. Charles describes her hair, saying, “On the Cobb it had seemed to him a dark brown, now he saw that it had red tints, a rich warmth”. Here is the colour red again. In the last chapter of the book Fowles says “From the first she had manipulated him. She would do so till the end”, adding further on “You may think that she was right: that her battle for territory was a legitimate uprising of the invaded against the perennial invader”. Here, the issue of space, possession and identity. For what Sarah undoubtedly turns out to be is a great manipulator of settings, mainly of rooms. From the first we see her occupying a room in Mrs. Poulteney’s house which she does not desire for herself, but acknowledges will have to make do for a while, in her hour of need. Cunningly she makes Mrs. Poulteney dismiss her from the room as soon as she gets to know Charles, and turns to him for help. He gets her a hotel room in Exeter were she seduces him, after which she disappears. Finally Charles finds her again, this time occupying rooms with the Rossettis. There he must eventually acknowledge that she rejects him, a fact he analyses in the following light “’But you cannot reject the purpose for which woman was brought into creation. And for what? I say nothing against Mr…’ he gestured at the painting on the easel ‘…and his circle. But you cannot place serving them above the natural law’”. I should deeply go into the significance of the fact that Sarah has chosen to live with Dante Gabriel Rossetti (who was obsessed, after his wife’s death, with depicting red-haired, dreamlike women, much in the line of Sarah, who even mentions she has sometimes served as model for him) and his family, a group which represents the very controversial world of sensuality and eroticism, even morbidity, rejected by most of the Victorian society to which Charles belongs. But I will not do so here, except to mention that Sarah represents the early New Woman, a woman that resisted categorization, who will not be understood by men. Sarah says “You do not understand. It is not your fault. You are very kind. But I am not to be understood … even by myself. And I can’t tell you why, but I believe my happiness depends on my not understanding”. “This is absurdity”, Charles says. And Sarah adds, “I refuse, as I refused the other gentleman, because you cannot understand that to me it is not an absurdity”. Thwarting that which till then was the “natural law”, maybe not yet fully understanding her wish not to be ever entrapped, nooked in, Sarah has jumped from room to room until she has found a place she can occupy without being objected to in her intimate nature and identity. An she is not to be understood by men, such as men did not understand Susan or Antoinette, hence their need to transform them into something they could understand. Rochester transforms Antoinette into Bertha. Susan’s husband transforms her -with Susan’s help- into an adultress.

I cannot but remark, however, that Sarah remains in many aspects unexplained, no matter how many different endings are offered her by Fowles. And that most of Saras’ lure and power lies precisely in her inexplicability. I wonder if the reason for this is that, after all, the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a man, though this could be a too simplistic reasoning.

In Marlen Haushofer’s apocalyptic fable, The wall, we find an extraordinary account of a woman unexplainably trapped not in a room but in a whole valley by an invisible wall outside of which everything has perished. She is there alone. But not quite. Animals are there with her and allow her to develop into a powerful, nurturing force. Woman grows to unexpected dimensions. A positive force, a life force, experiencing death too, as some of her animals die, as she has to kill animals in order to eat and survive. But nevertheless powerfully positive. At the end of the novel a man appears, unknown, out of nowhere, justified as another being having been caught in the trap of the wall. He kills her bull, he kills her dog. He kills. She has no doubt and kills him in her turn. Without any questions, without any intercourse or words between them. She never gives him any chance at all. She understands him through and through from the first and does not let him entrap her. What would be another trap inside the trap of the invisible wall.

Of course, she never leaves the valley, the room, the garden. There is nowhere else to go. But she does not seem to be too troubled by her destiny, living alone there, having killed man, awaiting her death. A death that comes near when she runs out of paper and ink to write her story with. But as we never see her die, she might be living there forever. She could be living there still.

Helped by literature, Woman needs not leave the room, as she has overpowered Man.

 Having left the 1960s behind, I will now make a short and final epilogue by turning to the 1980s. Grace Nichols in Wherever I hang, forsakes the Caribbean –“I leave me people, me land, me home”-for a room in England –“And come to this place called England / At first I feeling like a dream- / De misty greyness / I touching de walls to see if they real / They solid to de seam”. Echoes of Antoinette’s dreamlike arrival to England, of Christophine saying “England, you think there is such a place?”, of Haushofer’s invisible but effective wall, are all in this poem. But the reality of immigration is here overpowering. As Juan Francisco Elices Agudo has said, it is “a profoundly traumatic experience”. And the Woman we find suffering this experience is deeply transformed by it, must resignedly acknowledge she has been uprooted and lost herself –“To tell you the truth / I don’t know really where I belaang / Divided to the bone”. However, she does have a solution, a last option, a last resort. Becoming something completely new so far. “Wherever I hang me knickers – that’s my home”.

Forsaking the room for ever, Woman becomes the inhabitant of the whole world. And this reminds us of Woolf’s denial: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country”. Nothing but the whole world will suffice.

Bibligraphy: 

Anonymous, The Wife’s Lament, Book of Exeter, manuscript copied about the year 975. Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume I, 2000

Augspach, Elisabeth A., The Garden as Woman’s Pace in Twelfth and Thirteenth Century Literature

Bloom, Harold, Shakespeare. La Invención de lo Humano

Chen, Chia-hsing, A Room of One’s Own? On the Feminist Spatial Concept and Strategy, 2001, Hsiuping Journal of Humanities and Social sciences, Vol.2

Cunningham, Michael, Las Horas, Quinteto, 2003

Davis, Lennard J., Resisting Novels. Ideology and Fiction. Methuen, 1987.

Elices Agudo, Juan Francisco, Nuevas Literaturas en lengua Inglesa, Guía Didáctica, UNED, 2004

Fowles, John, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Triad/Panther Books, 1985

Guiguet, Jean. Virginia Woolf and her Works. New York, 1965

Haushofer, Marlene, El Muro,

Higonnet, Margaret R, Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Exploration of Literary Space. The University of Massachusetts Press, 1994

Lessing, Doris, To Room Nineteen, 1963, Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume II, 2000

Nichols, Grace, Wherever I Hang, The Heinemann Book of Caribbean poetry, 1992

Plasa, Carl, Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, 2001 Palgrave Macmillan

Plath, Sylvia, Lady Lazarus, Norton Anthology of American Literature, 1999

Quawas, Rula. Lessing’s ‘To Room Nineteen’: Susan’s Voyage into the Inner Space of ‘Elsewhere’. 2007 Atlantis, University of Jordan, Amman

Rhys, Jean, Wide Sargasso Sea, Penguin Classics, 1997

Soto, Isabel, Literature Inglesa II, Guía Didáctica, UNED, 2003

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, The Production of Colonial discourse: A Marxixt-Feminist Reading. 1983

Vreeland, Elisabeth, Jean Rhys: The Art of Fiction LXIV (interview with Jean Rhys). 1979, Paris Review, 76

Wilson Clift, Natalie, The Hours, Film Review, 2004

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume II, 2000

The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, screenplay by David Hare, 2000

Pride and prejudice, directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Deborah Moggach, 2005

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