LOOKING FOR ROCHESTER
I’m writing this essay on a glorious day in July—Independence Day, actually—and I’m here to discuss looking for my own independence, which is not to say, loneliness or even solitude which I gratefully have and enjoy. Guests come and go, are marvelous company while they’re here, but it’s hard to deny that having the space again to balloon up your own ego, and things such as the nail on which to hold your own red potholders, is nice. To shower when you like, and, yes, to be a little lonely. But under the cover of darkness, as they say, it would be nice to have some learned man to discuss the finer things of life. And he wouldn’t have to go blind like Rochester, nor have his mansion burn down, but like Rochester he DOES have to have cleared all the “ghosts” out of his attic, and maybe that Jane (me) won’t have to go away and come back and find him ghost-cleared, clear sighted (seeing or no), and ready to understand who had been right next to him, and who had kept him very good company.
Total fantasy? I’m not sure. A handful of men (and a woman or two) have met those requirements, and my name was not Jane Eyre. Neither was I Jane Austen or Djuna Barnes (to leap forward 300 years), nor was I the Janes in all those other English novels. I am I suppose a Plain Jane, and if you ask my brothers (inebriated or silent or dead) if I was Jane the Pain, they’d say Yes. And so would Annie, my sister who once really looked up to me. Now, she sends me beautiful pictures of nature scenes, and we talk about nothing less pleasant.
Alright, I’ve had my share of partners—some horror stories and some successes, but of the two successes, both were married, and we were, in one case platonic, and in another, not, but with the intention and success of not being a wedge in his happy marriage. But that was the Seventies, when AIDS and herpes were unheard of, and the nuclear family (not as in Iran) was said to be an unfair burden on women. Well, they were right, and now we read stories about how you can’t, as a woman, have it all. And now househusbands have burnout too. Welcome to equality and a regime that is uninterested in child care.
They were all fine people—and incidentally, all Irish and a couple of the men Irish and Italian, which was nice, because I like dark men. And as for those Irish wives, they were tall and blond. But they all had to have brown eyes, as blue ones look like sewed on buttons, or so clear they look like lakes. Not dark and moody and black iris’ed like brown eyes. OK, all my family has brown eyes, and a blue-eyed man, might as well be incurably insane.
Rochester. I liked how he talked to Jane as if she had a brain (no rhyme intended). He opened up subjects, he joked, he was witty, and that was nice because so was she. A little bit, I hope, like I can be sometimes.
Rochester had lots of problems. And the timing was off. And Jane would ride horseback on the moors, like I rode my blond Appaloosa Taffy along the sea, and let my hair blow, and stir the tourists to imagine moonlight meetings, the clop of horse hooves, the delight of a rendezvous with a seventeen-year-old. Riding a horse is a good way to thing. They rhythm gets your internal iambic English going, and ideas start to connect, and when they don’t, you toss them into the wind and they fall into the ocean, where, by the time they get to Japan, they have dissolved and are biodegradable.
What was his problem? Jane thinks (that is, Charlotte Bronte) that if you read all day you deserve a friend who also reads all day (so to speak). She did not discuss puddings, but French verbs, and the novels of X and Y, the ones I had also read after I phased out of my Zane Grey stage, in which the heroines also rode horses and thought as they rode along.
The problem with Rochester was that…. I’ll have to look it up. I always forget, remembering the terrible girl’s home where Jane had lived, the hideously cruel headmistress, the families that didn’t appreciate her, not her cooking (Could she cook?), nor her witty conversation, and not her French though her accent was good, good enough for her to teach little…was it Rochester’s niece, come to live with him? His sister’s orphaned daughter? Someone dressed in pink, old enough to have come to know Paris, young enough to need an au pair, a nanny, a big sister, a comfort such as she found in Jane.
You can creep around a large dark mansion, as I have done from time to time, and come upon books you’ve read or wanted to read, or which sit on your own bookshelves without ever having been opened.. You can smell the book glue and book dust and bookshelf dust bunnies of other peoples’ liberties, and you can even go to public libraries, where—as my first one did—the wood was stained dark and varnished, and the floor thin pine boards, who squeaked as I snuck up and down the stacks, looking for a good book — the way I’m now looking for Rochester.
And Rochester is a loaded word for me. My dear grandmother live there, in New York. My parents went to college there, mother a cello and piano student at Eastman School of Music, and my father—having graduated from the mini Ivy college, Hamilton, was now in the U.of R. Medical School. Having met at a Presbyterian Church dance, they dated for a couple of years, and then the handsome, witty doctor married the talented brown-haired, brown-eyed girl, whose Bach on the cello was divine, and who had played even once in Einstein’s Long Island string quartet when they were short a cello.
And then I was born, named for my mother, Barbara Jane, in Brooklyn, where my father, now in the U.S. Navy, was a Naval lieutenant at Brooklyn Navy Yard, where I was born to the tune of 18 canons. Had I been a boy I would have gotten 21. Then he went to war and we went up to Rochester, to stay with Mary Maiden-name Barnes Hall, who did drafting for the war effort and loved it, and whose husband was Leonard of the four newspaper-day, rocking chair, pipe-smoking type. And I think they loved each other, each in a second marriage…but not as her first in which my father said he saw them never to touch and so had no idea of what marital bliss could be, or if it even if it existed.
But my parents were passionate with each other, to the exclusion of their first born—me—and as a three-year-old, my doctor father would come home smelling of tweed, fog and ether, and hug my round short mother, whose day included several dirty diapers, and an untidy house, a screaming baby, and too many chores, most of which she blocked out by playing exquisite Schubert in her pale blue quilted-nylon bathrobe on the baby Grand dragged from Rochester to this odd seaside place not unlike her own seaside home, but with no amenities like having New York City within a few hours’ distance, no eight aunts to get help from, but no grandmother to get between her and her husband, when really it was work that consumed him, tonsillectomy, C sections, difficult births, hand and feet sawings off, drownings, embedded and invected fish-hook arms, and the weight of the world on him when someone died he could not save.
But we he did save, or attempted to. Whatever clothes and sports equipment and luxury he did not have as an minister’s sun, he gave to us, and since it was continual, we took it in stride, a little bored, really, to have all the clothes we wanted, all of the ice cream (15 flavors in 5-gallon vats), all the books (well, that part was, justifiable) and subscriptions to 20 magazines ranging from Field and Stream to the Eastman Alumnae Gazette, with a nod to the Reader’s Digest, a nice small size and full of dumb jokes which we read first, as I now read in The New Yorker, which was begun in 1925, and until I turned about 18, I had never laid eyes on. And much later, when I was a poor starving artist, I would buy the latest issue and put it on whatever box was serving as my coffee table, and consider my house well-appointed…
So my father, Scots, with curly lips and a square face and even dark eyes, was witty as are the Celts, with a yen for puns and plays on language, and with which I grew up, giving our own baby jokes to him as a reverse allowance. No joke.
So what about Rochester, “up-State” with its icy winters and blazing summers?
It was not a college town with blizzards and an Azalea Garden and Festival, and rows of large, old Victorian houses….it was this man in this book with what can only be called, an amusing man who appreciated a woman’s mind as well as her figure. Why, some 300 years later, is he still hard to find? Or am I not looking in the right places? I met one of those historical examples of a Rochester of mine, one at an early music recital, the next through a swinging ad in the East Village Other, and the fourth in… I can’t remember, and the last one in the rooms of recovery. Joe, Paul, Andy, and Liz (the female version) —but these are pseudonyms. Let sleeping Rochesters lie.
And call me (and Jane Eyre) sapiosexuals, for it is the brain that excites us first, the quick tongue, the fine sense of irony and the non sequitur thinking, and the bandiage [the French have a word for everything] only then, the second, those brown eyes. And I happen to love both men and women; but you’ve gathered that.
ROCHESTER, WHERE ARE YOU?
You have a big house, a big library and a little niece who needs a chaperone (but then, who will chaperone the chaperone?) A teacher who will improve the niece’s French accent, and teach her how to ride a horse. For this intellectual Jane must ride a horse in a long cape, with her long hair streaming out, so she can stand in for Emotion.
And that wasn’t everything to her, but for Rochester…well….
He was frozen.
(Here we pause for the ABC News. An earthquake in Los Angeles. Tanks and flags on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the President with the worst mind and language skills of any we’ve ever had, even the presidents who croaked weeks after their Inaugurations, or succumbed to drugs or crook-like behavior.)
So the whole idea was simply that Jane wanted an equal. And what did Rochester have to do, or accidentally be forced to do, to achieve equality with Jane? Because for a long time he was her inferior, morally speaking—and I don’t often speak that way. He had to do the following difficult things:
- Lose his mansion and his wealth
- Give up his secrets, his past (wife in the attic)
- Go blind (if temporarily)
- Be able to see Jane for her true worth: a worthy “opponent”, one of an equal pair.
It helped, of course, that Jane came into some money, that she refused the “hand” of the rational and totally mismatched man who wanted to take her to the Continent (ugh). It was handy that she had HER sight, and that she didn’t require a mansion to live well. Once he had been thoroughly transformed—for this was a transformation—he was worthy of our Jane, and we hope they still kept up their (equal) repartee, their puns and quips and playful ironies, for she needed a mate who could play with language the way she did (and the way Charlotte Bronte did) and make that part and parcel of the jousting verbal debate they—and I—so enjoy.
So I rustled around and looked up the Wikipedia Jane, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, and of course that wonderful tome, THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC. I got out my Jean Rhys’ WIDE SARGASSO SEA (a prequel to JANE EYRE, written in 1966) of a Miss Mason in Jamaica, long before the psychosis set in. If it was schizophrenia —and I’m no judge, having only bipolar hypomania— it kicks in in the early twenties, and may show no indication before that, except in the genetic connection of relatives who may also have it, one or two. I’ll check in SARGASSO for that fact. Invented, or not?
The secret that you have another wife trapped in an unpleasant attic is a big one, and we’ll leave it to the literary critics to discuss the other, more literary aspects of that, but it’s not good to have a crazy wife (ask my early partners), which some suggest was Jane Eyre’s doppleganger, alternate side, where we’re all crazy who live intensely, even if on a lonely moor, with a dearth of romantic possibilities. Of course Bronte got to Belgium and fell for a smart professor, but that didn’t work out, and then she died, at 31 (I’m THREE times that age!) from … maybe TB “consumption” or typhus or maybe even heartbreak, because a broken heart is nothing to go on living with.
So if Charlotte didn’t find HER Rochester—or did, and it didn’t work out—at least her character could find some happiness, an emotion which stops all novels dead, because there’s no news after happiness, it grinds on in its calm, cheerful way, finds its station and its habits and there is nothing more to wager or to cause conflict.
We’re resigned to closing the book and to go looking after our own Rochester, who may be our boss, or a professor, or someone we “run into” without knowing it (for a few seconds). It’s going to have to be someone whose been to the bad side (their own equivalent of terrible orphanages, cruel supervisors and teachers, of dependence on entities and people who are MOST LIKELY terrible and cruel and wielding great power over us.
One power only do we search for: the power of love to make us interested in more than ourselves. To bring the world into a quiet parlez-vous, which is private and distinctly a requirement for happiness more than a fortune or a cute little house—though they help.
But, you may ask, Was Rochester justified in hiding Mason away in the attic? After all, as a young man in the West Indies, he didn’t know about her (possible) schizophrenia, nor of the madness in her own family. He could have sent her out to an asylum, but in those times there was not much help or hope for the insane. Oh, if she had psych meds, then what?
In Jean Rhys’ WIDE SARGASSO SEA –the critical text–there is an article by Mona Fayad that references Elizabeth Abels’ Women and Schizophrenia, IN CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE 20, (1979) and remembering my own poetry therapy work in the early Nineties in a day program, some schizophrenics WERE helped (?) by Klonopin and 1/5 of those who were prescribed it had almost total remission of their symptoms. I am no medical professional, but a bipolar hypomanic sufferer myself, and this is virtually undetectable if lithium (which has side effects to the liver, for one) or psychotropic drugs are administered. I am a case in point.
Switching gears, I’ve been reading THE MADWOMAN IN THE ATTIC, by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, which first came out in 1979. In a chapter, PLAIN JANE’S PROGRESS, they –a terrific team of literary feminists– suggest that Mason is the mirror image of the calm Jane Eyre, the symbol of her underlying rage, “rage even to madness.” They note the newfangled style which has Jane address her readers: Jane Eyre was pissed off! (Dear Reader, that’s what I scribbled in the margin.) Ayre, air, ire…. And her ardent curiosity and feisty spirit… indeed, her ardent feelings… come as a shock to those readers who usually weren’t privy to the contrary feelings Jane struggled with. It is restlessness and passion which govern Jane’s emotional “household,” these in particular kept locked in an attic.
So their first meeting comes when Rochester falls off his horse, and Jane helps him. She is his equal, and he knows it. The biggest secret of all, is (to quote Gilbert/Gubar) the secret of inequality. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the “condition” of marriage. Emily Dickinson, in love in her early twenties with Susan Gilbert (no relation) who later married her brother and lived next door to Emily, cooled in their love affair (we have their ardent (sic) love letters, now published), also expressed her rage at the impossibility of marriage… with Susan …as Jane with Rochester, because he is already married. She goes away, considers becoming a missionary with St. John, but it is a cold connection, even more unequal than that proposed by Rochester (to steal G/G’s line).
In the end, blind Rochester can truly “see” Jane. He can hold her hand with the one he has left. They must equally depend on each other. Jane receives an inheritance, and even their bank accounts can be presumed to be equal. This is a happy ending, not as the result of the princess winning her man, but more like the prince becoming a commoner and sacrificing to the good of both.
His life was burned down, it seems, and hers rescued from the flames of her anger.
And you, Dear Reader, may recognize in all women that “thing” that enrages us most: we despise being treated unequally. It drives us crazy, and you, Dear Male Reader, will suffer the consequences of an unequal world, in which half of the inhabitants are….(still)… pissed.
Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been bipolar, of course, all my life. Sewing seven men’s shirts for a high school skit, cleaning a five-bedroom house, writing and typing my poems, I was always industrious. I did a lot, and quickly. It wasn’t until I was sober eight years and at 44, went to The Meadows, a great rehab in Arizona, that I learned I was bipolar, and started taking lithium. It was like 22 radios being turned off at once. It surely made staying sober easier.
Since then I’ve been mostly “balanced,” with various psychotropic meds. All this time I wrote poems, stories, novellas and a novel or two. I rarely got writers’ block. The result is, that at 75, I have 32 works or manuscripts. All along I explored my sexual preference, coming out as lesbian in 1976 with a poem in my own literary magazine. In 1985, seeing that I had a boyfriend, I came out again as bisexual, and that’s where I am today. And I am 38 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.
So my identity is comprised of four things: I’m a writer, a bi woman, I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I’m bipolar hypomanic. AA saved my life, and giving breath to my writing and my bi identity has been crucial and necessary. The habits I have from being somewhat manic (which hasn’t happened in 13 years) make me productive, energetic, and probably a little impulsive. But writing always calms me down, and if I’m feeling at a loss to have a challenging project, I sit down at my Mac and write. Maybe the writer in me is first. But I’m all these other defining things.
Virginia Woolf is one of my idols (another is the French writer genius Colette) and she too was bipolar and bisexual. In her writing one sees the long sweep of her sentences, the rush of descriptive prose, and the style that in my case comes, I think, from my mania. Thanks to good people around her, she had help in her depressions and manias. I, it seems, developed a rush of language when I got my first Macintosh and discovered lines which wrap around to the next line automatically.
So I wrote what I realized later were prose poems that had a rush of detail and an extended arc. I don’t claim to write anything like Woolf, but I think my style was favorably affected by my bipolar state. And many women writers have been like me, but had no good psych wards, medicines, understanding, AA, or understanding friends to help them. How many women writers were alcoholic, and “crazy” writers, and bi? Here the cat is out of the bag and I’m proud of who I am–of the four “I ams” that… I am.
Jane Barnes is working on a third poetry collection called “Deceptive Cadence: Poems 2007-2017.” Her previous ms.–250 poems, “The Inbetween: Poems 1982-2007”–was compiled in 2007. Her first poetry collection, “Extremes: Poems 1971-1981” is out of print. Jane’s short story, “Counterpoint,” is carved on a granite pillar at Copley Place in Back Bay, Boston. Her poems have been published in the Mass. Review, Ploughshares, River Styx, Hanging Loose and the Harvard Magazine, as well as in Bi Women Quarterly. Her stories have appeared in a dozen magazines and she has received three story awards, one of them involving a story carved on a granite pillar at Copley Place, Boston. Several novellas are complete or in progress. Her poems have been set to music by New York composer Gordon Beeferman. A full-time writer now, she has taught privately and at Medgar Evers College (CUNY), City College, and NYU. She works as a writing coach and ghostwriter and lives in New York City. At 44 she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and is also in recovery. For three decades she lived in Boston, where she and others edited Dark Horse, a literary magazine. She received an M.A. in poetry and fiction from The Writing Program at Boston University.