Friday, 28 October 2016

Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London

I am delighted to announce the publication of my 5th book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London (Seagull Books/Chicago University Press), which is the result of my outreach work with asylum seekers, refugees and undocumented people in the capital and includes their testimonies alongside my own account. The publisher's page is here and the Amazon UK page is here.

For Books' Sake have already given Asylum and Exile an attentive and very generous 5 star review which can be read here and there has also been some great press in Nose In A Book, a long interview in Asian Culture Vulture and another in The Heroine Collective. I've covered the project in a recent Guardian article headlined I want to give asylum seekers in Britain a chance to tell their own story; two pieces for Wasafiri called Militarising Against Refugees and Shouting Down The Facts; and two essays for the Free Word's Briefing Notes series, called Psychogeography of trauma: inside a UK detention centre and The reality of asylum and refuge in modern Britain. I've also discussed the issues in my introduction to Big Writing for A Small World (Scribd copy of English PEN publication) and the articles Rape, refusal, denial, detention: refugees dancing at the edge of the world and Asylum: no woman should be missed out. English PEN have written up the debate at one of my events on this issue in a wonderful piece here and The Nation have written an article on my work called 'I came to you for help and you treated me like a prisoner'.

In-depth TV and audio interviews:

Asylum and Exile follows the publication, in May 2012, of my fourth book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine. An extensive selection of 2012 and 2013 interviews and press can be found here and a March 2014 interview by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore can be found here. There's a full press release just below this video of me giving some readings from the book. I come in at 57:58

press release
I see books like Asylum and Exile as evidence of a deep seated refusal to tolerate the divisive politics that extend right across the political divide. Well done for speaking up and bearing witness. We must never stop telling the stories of those we consign to the margins.

Maurice Wren, Chief Executive, The Refugee Council

It’s a little book, but in its 150-odd pages it manages to be wide in scope yet intimate, funny, warm, sad and horrifying. ...Asylum and Exile is a 4 star read, with an additional star because it’s so fundamentally important. 
Jennie Gillions, For Books' Sake

The result of Bidisha’s outreach work with refugees and asylum seekers since 2012, Asylum and Exile goes behind the stereotypes and scare stories to reveal the humanity, tragedy and bravery – and frequently the humour – of the individuals who’ve left everything behind to seek sanctuary from violence.

The men and women Bidisha worked with were of all ages from 19 to their late 60s. All had fled war, persecution, extreme poverty and civil unrest in countries as diverse as Cameroon, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Malawi, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. Some had been in the UK for months, others for more than a decade. All spoke at least two languages. Among them were mathematicians and criminologists, soldiers, students and teachers: the man who had lectured in Persian music at Tehran university and now works in the freezer room of a sandwich factory; the woman who had been a teacher but was asked, when she arrived in England, if she knew how to turn on a light switch; the woman who became a manager in an English company only to be pulled out by police in front of her colleagues and imprisoned, who loves her red dancing shoes above all her other possessions.

In England, with no money, no access to public funds and no papers authorising them to work they labour illegally as cleaners, factory workers, dishwashers, care assistants and in other unstable, unseen, underpaid and gruelling roles. Many have bounced between prison and detention centres. Their London life is one of trying to survive on five pounds a day, of interminable bus journeys across the capital, appointments with legal aid workers and reliance on near strangers to get a foothold on life in the city with little or no support. Despite this, their unerring vivacity, talent and will to survive are a testament to the strength of the human spirit. 

Asylum and Exile comes out at a time when immigration is one of the most passionately debated issues around, with a rise in anti-immigration, anti-asylum rhetoric both in the UK and elsewhere, particularly in western Europe and Australia. Asylum seekers and refugees are being argued over, demonised, scapegoated and disbelieved – or patronised and advocated for in heart-wrenching yet generalised terms – but are almost never given a chance to speak in their own words about their own lives. Bidisha gives space to their testimonies, which are by turns shocking, moving and hilarious. She gained rare access and was met with such trust and frankness that Asylum and Exile stands as a unique document|: an accessible, uplifting and humane book whose stories are as buoyant, noisy, confrontational and diverse as Bidisha’s classroom itself.

Poster greeting arrivals at Praxis
The outreach sessions were co-ordinated by the literary and human rights charity English PEN with the Migrants Resource Centre in Victoria and Praxis in Bethnal Green. Asylum and Exile began in the unheated rooms of severely underfunded charities in London. Yet its narratives and characters cross the globe, reflecting the consequences of some of the world’s most violent conflicts and fragile states. Stereotypes and generalisations disintegrate and what emerge are the stoical spirits, vital personalities, inner strength and defiant intelligence of the individuals themselves. The book is not an academic tract or a fierce polemic but a humane account based on personal stories expressed in idiosyncratic voices, not clichés from a newspaper. Asylum and Exile is a tribute to the honesty of raw experience, the power of personal testimony and the ability of the spoken word of truth to transform both the teller and the listener.

    "A Dangerous Woman Is Truth Incarnate"

    This essay was commissioned for The University of Edinburgh's Dangerous Women project which released 365 pieces of new work between International Women's Day 2016 and 2017. More details here.

    We live in a dangerous world, and that danger comes from male violence. It is hardly radical to point this out, as it’s a fact: governments know it, the police know it, crime reporters know it, judges know it and victim support workers know it. Statistically, this violence is perpetrated by men and boys against women, girls, other men and other boys. Statistically, it is males who rape, traffic, terrorise, buy and sell and rent, harass, exploit, use and abuse females and sometimes other males. Statistically, it is men who physically beat and brutalise women and other men.

    This abuse is supported by an inescapable network of macho social and cultural misogyny in which male authority figures with money and power head up every area, be it politics or the arts, finance or the charity sector, medicine or academia, law or engineering. Meanwhile, but for some few exceptions, women are kept in the lower echelons of each organisation and often paid less for the same work as men, discriminated against, sexually harassed, dismissed through ageism, punished for becoming mothers and overlooked for promotions.

    In a patriarchal society like this, women are punished through comparison with negative stereotypes, impossible ideals and hypocritical double standards which sexist men invent and reinforce among themselves to ensure their own dominance (although many women have absorbed and internalised the same values): an assertive woman is shrill while her male counterpart is assertive; a friendly woman is a tease who deserves what is done to her by any men who abuse her while a friendly man has easy charm; a child-free woman is a selfish careerist while a new mother is a matronly sap who can’t be trusted to concentrate at work, whereas a man with kids is a ‘family man’ even if he does no actual parenting and leaves the childcare labour to the mother or a female nanny. And so on.

    In culture and in the mass media women are ignored, sidelined or under-represented as writers, directors, artists, experts, architects, designers, photographers, composers, conductors, panel speakers, whatever it is. If it involves money, influence, self-expression, the power to influence images and narratives, to create great spectacles and show the world our creative vision, we are kept out, whether that’s making films or getting on best-of lists or prize shortlists or receiving big commissions and exciting work trips as DJs, as scientists, as academics, as poets, or whatever it might be. Those who are not ‘lucky’ to be treated like this in full-time, middle class professional employment are struggling as exploited workers in ‘flexible’ jobs which offer no pension, no stability, no progression and no safeguards.

    At the same time, in the home, many men still use women’s labour as cleaners, cooks, child-raisers, sexual service providers, family admin organisers and parent-carers. And yet providing all of these free services for a man who does far less than 50% of all the work does not mean that a woman will not be beaten, raped, bullied, controlled, deceived or betrayed by him; two women a week are killed by their male partner or ex partner. And when a woman is abused, and she speaks about it, she will be told she is lying.  Women are cornered and trapped in their lives by severe funding cuts which have affected domestic violence, rape, legal aid, housing, early years education and elderly care charities. Women are bearing the brunt of a macho government’s sadistic ‘austerity’, where those at the bottom of society – always women, and in particular women of colour – are punished again and again and sometimes kept in abusive situations through lack of a way out, because the Chancellor doesn’t what to tax rich white chaps like himself.

    Yet it is not we who are the liars. Narratives and images about women in mass culture from films to music videos to adverts do not derive from reality but are chock full of malicious lies and patronising, belittling insults. So often, the stories we ingest as part of our daily entertainment are full of slanders against women, and give us a pantheon of females who represent everything that sexist men really think about us. At the very best we can hope to be sexually objectified as a ‘hot’ body to be used and then discarded or a crying and desperate kidnap victim to be saved. We can be turned into pornography and masturbated over, or rented and used by the hour to give a man sexual gratification and a feeling of power and control. We can be patronised as an infantile and endlessly supportive love interest or pityingly leered over as a murdered prostitute on a mortuary slab. There is the useless frump, the nagging wife, the interfering mother in law, the hard-faced police detective, the petty fusspot, the pathetic yet predatory ‘cougar’. We are either stupid bimbos to be used then ignored or scheming, dried-up witches to be mocked then ignored.  When our very youthful beauty fades the true hatred and derision felt for us is revealed.

    And at the very worst, we are represented as dangerous women who will destroy the world out of our irrational malice if we are not stopped. The succubus, the ugly hag, the sinister crone, the cold bitch who can’t take a joke, the demonic castrator, the shrill feminist who overreacts to every tiny thing, the dried-up spinster aunt, the baby-hungry obsessed woman, the demanding high-maintenance girlfriend, the shallow high-maintenance wife, the ‘psycho’ ex wife, the scheming harridan, the un-maternal career woman ‘ballbreaker’, the embittered former beauty queen, the vengeful stalker who’s mad, sad and bad and lives to emasculate men. 

    These images bleed out of the arts and culture and are used to judge and attack all women in public life, especially in politics and business leadership. Women who aim for power of any kind, in any area, are represented as ravenously ambitious, selfish, inhuman witches who want to take something away from men. Actually forget about trying to get power; when a woman wants justice, basic justice in law, against a man who has harmed her, and is strong enough to go to the police and even through a court to get it, it is she who is put on trial, said to be lying, psychologically exposed, cross-examined and destroyed in front of strangers.

    There are many dangers for a woman who dares to claim more than what is offered to her. More than a life of drudgery and abuse, of being objectified or belittled or ignored or exploited or undermined or treated as stupid. More than a world in which women are only tolerated when we can be used, and where we encounter verbal violence, structural violence or physical violence when we test the limits set down for us.  

    But what does it mean to be a truly dangerous woman, in this dangerous world? Forget about film and TV myths for a moment. In a womanhating, woman-exploiting, woman-abusing, perpetrator-excusing world, a dangerous woman is one who points out the obvious. A dangerous woman is a woman who is made, like all of us, to go through the gauntlet of misogyny all day every day, who sees perpetrators lionised as pillars of society and victims tortured and punished, and like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, shouts out that something isn’t quite right and wonders why everyone is colluding with the illusion. The sheer amount of slander directed at women who do this is simply a way of deflecting attention from the obvious truth about the perpetrators of virtually all the violence and abuse in the world. The slander and resistance are themselves a form of abuse.

    You wouldn’t think that words alone could make you a dangerous woman. In a militarised, violent, capitalistic world individuals are considered dangerous if they have ammunition of a literal or metaphorical kind: if they are carrying a gun or have a lot of economic or political power, or if they have a record of hurting others. Yet if I were to put this article up on my own site I would immediately receive emails and Tweets from abusive men enraged by my claims about abusive men. I am only pointing out what is obvious and ubiquitous and endemic – what is, indeed, on the front pages of news sites every single day – and yet simply to say it causes them such blistering panic that they immediately lose their minds and confirm exactly what I am saying. I have become, in their eyes, a dangerous woman who must be shut up and hounded out, just for using language to express the truth.

    At the very best they would call me mentally stupid or physically hideous. At medium they would say I am mad, which is sexist men’s most malicious and longest-standing insult against women. And at worst I would receive threats of rape and death; these are clever threats, given that men’s raping of women is endemic and perpetrated with impunity in societies all over the world, from war zones to university campuses.

    That is all it takes to become a dangerous woman. When women tell the truth about what they have experienced and witnessed, from casual workplace misogyny to gang rape, men (not all men; just enough for every single woman commentator on the planet to have experienced it countless times) say that we are mad. I am certainly mad, as in very angry. And that anger gives me energy and immense, anarchic power.

    You become a dangerous woman when you decide that you’ve had it, when your anger pushes you out of your silence, out of your head, out of your room and into the world to express your fury and woe and to begin changing things. A woman becomes dangerous when she threatens the status quo.

    A woman makes herself dangerous, and gains power, when she throws off the shackles of propriety, feminine decorum and modest silence – all of which protect perpetrators – and instead opens her mouth and speaks frankly about what she has gone through, what she’s seen, what she thinks and what she feels. A woman becomes dangerous when she talks about her mother’s life, her sister’s life, her daughter’s life. A woman is dangerous when she points out what is hiding in plain sight. She is dangerous when she speaks the simple truth about what she has survived. And she is dangerous when she stands with other women in her words and in her deeds, against abusive men and against the macho misogyny which oppresses us and makes us feel afraid, with just cause, even when we are taking the ten minute walk home from the station to our house.

    To continue with that image, despite the dangers a woman senses on that walk home, sometimes a woman is herself considered dangerous simply for going from A to B. To be out in the world is to claim space and a woman is dangerous when she claims space. A woman is considered dangerous when she dares to occupy the workplace, public transport and the street. In all three of these places sexual harassment by men, insulting casual misogyny by men and intimidation by men (such as following, hissing, sexual noises, baiting and outright assault) are endemic. The perpetrators harass us not because they admire our beauty and long to be friends with us but because they gain a sadistic enjoyment from our confusion, fear or fury  and because, ultimately, they want to drive us out of these places and back into the home where we supposedly belong, cleaning up men’s dirt and bringing up men’s babies for free.

    A woman is dangerous when she challenges what patriarchal culture says about us and about other women. A few years back I wrote an essay called Emotional Violence and Social Power. It described in horrific psychological detail how an industry peer, a feminist, socialist man well-known and well-liked by many, groomed and sexually exploited me. Ten thousand people have read that article and many other victims and witnesses got in touch with me; all the witnesses and many of the other victims are well-known in their fields. I learned that he is a compulsive abuser with a long history.

    Writing the piece, which was the absolute truth, felt like slashing a line straight through the female silence and male cronyism that protected the perpetrator. The piece – just a piece of writing – felt as though had power in itself, because it was true. It was dangerous, the truth was dangerous, to a terrifyingly two-faced perpetrator. It was so dangerous that he teamed up with a male lawyer and together, nightmarishly, they threatened me. There is nothing more horrific than receiving a scathingly aggressive and sexually detailed letter from a male stranger in the law profession, in which he stands shoulder to shoulder with the man who abused you, in full fraternal support and belief and power and money and misogyny, as if they are longtime friends. They threatened me because they said I had damaged the perpetrator – because I had told the truth about him and the truth about him was terrible and damning and caused decades-long scars. For his victims. It is a mark of the cowardice and self-pity of narcissistic abusive men that what they fear most is one of their own victims showing them a mirror; the most dangerous thing they can envisage is simply the truth about themselves becoming known.

    A woman is dangerous when her desire to express her rage and pain begins to outweigh all other reservations. It is men, not women, who get hysterical when women tell the truth. Yet there are so many of us, writing articles like this, that the same old arguments which used to be deployed shut us up no longer work: the claims that we are mad, or malicious, or mistaken, or exaggerating.

    A dangerous woman holds something in her hands which does not cost anything but is priceless. When she reveals it openly, the world shakes subtly on its axis, even though she may not think it has and even if she is destroyed in the process.

    Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

    Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a visceral riposte to Charlotte Bronte’s treatment of Mr Rochester’s ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha, in her classic Victorian novel Jane Eyre. Rhys reveals the horrifying reality that might lie behind a man’s claim that a woman is mad and humanises Bronte’s grotesquely caricatured invention, the now-archetypal and heavily symbolic ‘madwoman in the attic’. The novel is a vindicatory howl of rage and injustice that leaves the reader thrilled yet rattled. It is a scathing indictment of Rochester, a skin-flaying revelation of sadism that is all the more horrifying for its intricacy and realism.

    Wide Sargasso Sea is also a valuable historical work, written in the 1960s but set in the 1800s, which explores Victorian paternalism, sexualised racism and the complex social and political history of the West Indies. Rhys vividly imagines Rochester’s time there when he met Bertha, who is a Creole – a naturalised West Indian of European descent. The Emancipation Act freeing slaves but compensating slave owners for their ‘loss’ has been passed, England and France are the dominating and competing colonisers while Spanish colonial exploration is a past influence and many formerly profitable estates are in decline because of the absence of exploited labour and a slump in the sugar market.

    The novel is alternately narrated by Antoinette (Bertha’s much more elegant real name) and Rochester, with scalding frankness. The novel has three settings: Antoinette’s crumbling family estate, Coulibri; an unnamed honeymoon house on an estate called Granbois on a different island; and finally the attic room in which Antoinette is imprisoned in Thornfield Hall in England. In the West Indian settings Rhys skilfully evokes the seething impulses of anger, trauma, fear, mockery and suspicion between, amongst, towards and from former slaves originally from Africa, black West Indian servants who are the children of slaves, mixed race illegitimate children of white plantation owners who impregnated female slaves, non-white naturalised Creoles, former slave-owners, house masters, newly impoverished plantation owners, colonial interlopers and prospecting entrepreneurs wanting to buy derelict estates.

    Within the home, Antoinette is horribly aware of her mother Annette’s aversion to her and of the danger her formerly rich family are in, on an isolated estate whose ex slaves have fled although they still surround it, seeking justice. Annette feels “marooned”, an image which evokes isolation, peril, the loss of possessions and the erasure of public identity and social context. Sneered at as a poor, rough “white nigger” by black, mixed race and white English and French people alike, very early on the young Antoinette “got used to a solitary life”.

    Antoinette is a lonely, intelligent, brooding individual. Yet she is also a product of a racist society and historically one of its beneficiaries, saying carelessly that she doesn’t always understand the “patois songs” of her beloved maid, ex-slave Christophine. She has absorbed the cultural values of white colonisers, loading her shelves with Englishmen’s books, by Byron, Thomas de Quincy and Walter Scott. When ex slaves burn down her family home, the Coulibri estate, she thinks they “all looked the same” and likens them to animals, “brute beasts”. She characterises “the blacker folk” as being so superstitious that they can only be controlled by religious threats of “eternal fire”. She finds the smell of a black girl’s “daubed” hair oil “sickening”, yet her own hair isn’t smooth and her prettier schoolmate is “too polite to say the obvious thing”. The hierarchy of racial difference is finely demarcated and noticed by everyone. In a place where race is such a battleground and also so hard to ascertain, those who have the most to gain from exploiting doubts will cause the most damage.

    Antoinette’s feelings of unworthiness affect her at both a personal and a cultural level. She yearns for a mother figure (and finds one in the straight-talking Christophine), yet the reasons for Annette’s rejection of her are never made clear; throughout the novel, slanderous lies fill the space of ignorance and doubt. Antoinette is desperate for affection but is “pushed…away, not roughly but calmly, coldly, without a word”. Her fear and self-questioning as a daughter are exacerbated by being surrounded by hatred outside the home, leading to an obsession with being “safe from strangers”. Antoinette is uncomfortable with her own identity as a person who is physically white, European by racial heredity yet culturally West Indian, a Creole whose parents owned slaves but are now stripped of their status: “I often wonder who I am and where is my country and where do I belong…” This anxiety goes beyond race and touches upon mortality itself: “…and why was I ever born at all.”

    There is a morbid death drive throughout Wide Sargasso Sea, which is thickly planted with intimations of Antoinette’s fate: her childhood fear of not being “safe from strangers” comes true and she is ultimately destroyed by a stranger. Death is represented as liberation from torment and worry, “to die and be forgotten and at peace”. Yet 20th and 21st century readers know that after her death, as described in Jane Eyre, she is neither forgotten nor at peace. Antoinette-as-Bertha goes on to become a legend just like the suffering women martyrs she is taught about at her convent school: a complex symbol of man’s inhumanity to woman; of repressed sexuality in the Victorian age; of women’s unvoiced but powerful anger; of the ugly truth about colonialism; and of a family secret which is hidden away to preserve the appearance of decorum.

    Wide Sargasso Sea has an unnerving atmosphere of decay and perpetual danger, as if Antoinette’s longed-for sensation of “feeling safe in bed” is either irrevocably gone or never existed. We learn that “road repairing is a thing of the past”, the water wheel at the sugar works has “not turned for years” and the estate has “gone to bush.” Antoinette’s mother Annette Cosway is “beautiful” and “ferocious” in the Scarlett O’Hara mould, but as a widowed former slave owner who has lost her standing, she is in an endangered position. For Antoinette, poverty and fear are all she has ever known: “I did not remember the place when it was prosperous.” Physical and social structures have gone to seed and what is left is a formless, vigilante society. Despite the ending of slavery, the story is far from over: violent justice, a raw fight for survival and the possibility of yet more waves of exploitation are still to come.

    Rhys is excellent at conveying the idea that certain things – like slavery – are so traumatic that they are unsayable and that deliberate forgetting is a trauma response but also a survival mechanism. When Rochester asks about a place called Massacre – a rare instance when the violence of local history is conveyed explicitly – he is told vaguely, “Something must have happened a long time ago. Nobody remembers now.” When he finds the remains of a road he is told, “No road.”

    Willed forgetfulness, feigned deafness, self-censorship, denial and obfuscation are both a means of avoiding painful realities and a form of resistance in an unequal situation. Annette is frustrated knowing that an intransigent servant “isn’t deaf – he doesn’t want to hear.” When Annette’s horse is poisoned by ex slaves, Antoinette says, “I thought if I told no-one it might not be true.” Later, “I forgot, or told myself I had forgotten.” Annette wants “not to know that one is abandoned, lied about, helpless.” Discarded, slandered and vulnerable: Antoinette’s experience is exactly the same as her mother’s experience. She learns young that something is considered true if one says it is true, and this seals her fate. She is accepted as mad because Rochester says she’s mad; he ‘believes’ she is mad because he tells himself so. The novel traces a repetitive, incestuous history with concise intensity, as if laying down a curse.

    In Annette the reader sees immediately where Antoinette’s depth of feeling comes from. Annette is agonised when taunted by local people, feeling so wounded that her frown is as deep as if it was “cut with a knife.” Emotional wounds damage as deeply as physical wounds. Throughout this novel, Annette’s experiences and feelings are a terrible indication of what her daughter will go through, and the type of abuse (emotional and psychological, rather than physical), she will be subjected to and ultimately destroyed by.

    Wide Sargasso Sea describes a heavily patriarchal society. Annette is subject to judgemental gossip by other white women, who somehow hold her responsible for her first husband Mr Cosway’s failings and abuses. Cosway is a drunk, his sugar estate has suffered because of the economic slump and the freeing of his slaves, described carelessly by the gossips as “Emancipation troubles”. The rape of slave women by their white male owners like Cosway and the women’s forced pregnancy and child-bearing are written off indulgently as “old customs” while judgement falls on “all those women” and “the bastards” they bore. Cosway attracts tacit excusal, his powerless female victims are pilloried and Annette is slandered because she “encouraged” him. In this unsubstantiated speculation by background characters we find many of the themes of the novel overall: the insidious power of slanderous gossip; men’s sexual exploitation of women; a community’s collusion in protecting perpetrators; a horror of racial mixing and an ever-present anxiety about race, colour, status and legitimacy.

    Women’s beauty appears to rival men’s financial power and offer a way out of their oppression, but this is an illusion. As with the beauty of the island itself, surface allure conceals the brutal power plays of a numbingly repetitive society in which properties and wedding rings are swiftly exchanged, always to women’s detriment. Annette is her first husband Mr Cosway’s second wife; Mr Mason is her second husband; Mr Mason has another marriage which gives Antoinette her half-brother Richard Mason; later in the novel a man appears calling himself Daniel Cosway and claiming to be Antoinette’s illegitimate half-brother on her father’s side. Women’s names and identities – not to mention their fates – change with the men they are married by: Antoinette’s surname is “Mason, née Cosway” according to her mother’s marital status, as if she and her mother (who have the same first name too, Antoinette and Annette) are one and the same. Indeed, they are treated exactly the same by their respective husbands. The reader also knows what lies in the future: Antoinette is the legendary first Mrs Rochester, of two, in Jane Eyre; her husband also changes her first name.

    Annette’s second husband Mr Mason is a cliché of pure English, Victorian, male arrogance and colonial greed, physically white like Annette and Antoinette but culturally alien, “so sure of himself, so without a doubt English.” He marries Annette for her property which is “going cheap”. By contrast, and in markedly similar language, Annette is “so without a doubt not English, but no white nigger either”. Despite looking like Mason, she is “without a doubt” nothing like him in outlook and culture.

    Mr Mason and later Mr Rochester are exploiters wanting “to make money as they all do”, in the maid Christophine’s words. Mr Mason (and then Rochester) does not just take his wife’s money and land, he also aggressively imposes his own values, including the ludicrous convention of bringing English recipes to this tropical landscape, so as a child Antoinette has to eat “beef and mutton, pies and puddings” in the raging heat. Mr Mason also colonises the family’s attitudes, making Antoinette ashamed about her “coloured” (mixed race) relatives on Cosway’s side, illegitimate or otherwise. When she encounters the nice and attractive Sandi Cosway, she deliberately stops herself from referring to him as her cousin. Even as a child, Antoinette has learned to pull racial rank. Linguistically, the theme of mixing and miscegenation is compounded by phrases containing opposite or contrasting factors: a sky is “hot and blue” and simultaneously “has a very black look”; of people who could harm the estate, says Annette, the ones who laugh will be the worst. Early on, in this novel full of premonitions and portents, we are introduced to the idea that malicious people can arrive laughing or wearing a mask of civility; during Mr Mason’s first visit to Annette there is “loud laughter” from his male friends.

    Annette is used by Mr Mason for her money and referred to as “a clever man’s gain”, a thing to be skilfully exploited to enrich men. In Mr Mason the outright violence and exploitation of Mr Cosway’s slave-using has mutated into a blind derision which is no less inhumane. For Mr Mason, black people are “like children” and yet also pathetically slothful, “too lazy to be dangerous.” Just like Cosway before him and Rochester after him, Mr Mason does not see black people as human beings of equal complexity and worth to himself; Rhys is giving us a tri-generational portrait of intractable, basic racism. Annette warns Mr Mason that the black people on the island are “dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand”, hinting that trauma and pain will always be expressed in some way. Mr Mason agrees that he doesn’t understand but makes no attempt to challenge his own ignorance and clings even more aggressively to his self-righteousness.

    The story of Mr Mason and Annette gives a quick and nasty preview of what is about to happen with Rochester and Antoinette. From the earliest days of their marriage Mr Mason dismisses everything Annette says, including her correct assertion that Coulibri is not safe and that the family should leave. Exactly as she warned, ex slaves set fire to Coulibri, Annette’s son Pierre dies in the attack and Annette is traumatised by this and angered by the fact that her warnings were ignored. She shouts that Mason “sneered” at her like a “grinning hypocrite” when she warned him. Mason takes the opportunity to call her mad and have her locked away and treated “as though she were dead, though she is living”. As any reader of Jane Eyre knows, this is exactly what is done to her daughter too.

    The fire that destroys Coulibri and kills Antoinette’s brother Pierre is itself a foreshadowing of the fire that destroys Rochester’s home at Thornfield Hall at the end of Jane Eyre – a fire started by Bertha/Antoinette, in which she herself dies. Both fires are expressions of the pain, anger, revenge and despair of the people who started them. Wide Sargasso Sea is chock full of fire images which give the reader an unpleasant frisson. In a heavily symbolic act which foreshadows what Rochester will do to Antoinette, Mr Mason clips Annette’s pet parrot’s wings and it dies in the fire at Coulibri, unable to fly away. When Annette carries Pierre’s body out of the blaze, she has “loose hair”, just as her daughter does when she holds a candle at the end of this novel and in the fatal fire towards the end of Jane Eyre. In the convent Antoinette embroiders her name in “fire red”; on the way home from an evening out the sky and sea are “on fire”, an image which repeats twice in the book, just as so many other experiences repeat or mirror each other.

    When Coulibri burns down, Antoinette’s black friend Tia (whom she has already called a “nigger”) throws a stone at her and Antoinette says looking at her is “as if I saw myself. Like in a looking glass.” Symbolically and prophetically this is true: Antoinette will become the disenfranchised female outsider, racially abused and sexually used, powerless and invisible, feeling vengeful against the owner of a great house who is her ex master. Literally this is not the case: Annette is white, Tia is black, “blood on my face, tears on hers.” Yet like the verbal mockery by traumatised locals which leaves a knife-deep frown on her mother’s face, words and wounds, blood and tears are one and the same. Anger, sorrow, hatred, fear, desire and pain are mixed together and melted down to form the scalding ore of this novel.

    The lives of the women in Wide Sargasso Sea are undone through men’s slander. Mr Mason’s misogyny is no different from Mr Rochester’s. Yet there is an additional racial and cultural element in which hypocritical English propriety (which is nothing but a sham) sets itself against what it sees as wanton, untrustworthily beautiful West Indian licentiousness and blunt expression. Annette’s sister Aunt Cora, the other straight-talking woman of good sense in the novel, is slandered by Mr Mason, who maliciously interrogates Antoinette about her. Aunt Cora’s English husband “hated the West Indies” just as Mr Mason and Rochester do (and all of them express their hatred by exploiting something rather than leaving it alone) and so won’t send any money to help her and Annette. When he dies, Aunt Cora returns to the West Indies because, as Antoinette bluntly points out, “She wasn’t rich.” Under English law, all the money was considered to be her husband’s. Yet Mr Mason doesn’t believe what she says. He doesn’t “approve” of Aunt Cora says Aunt Cora’s “story” is “nonsense”, a word repeatedly used by the male characters to invalidate what the women say, and that she is “a frivolous woman.” In short, she’s a liar and a bimbo. Early in the novel, the themes of English racism, gender inequality written into law and male slander of women are alive and dangerous.

    There is an increasing tension as Antoinette comes of age. She senses, and the reader knows, that her life is going to take a permanent turn for the worse. When Mr Mason visits her at the convent and says “You can’t be hidden away all your life”, she thinks, “Why not?” and the reader feels terrible dread on her behalf. Just like her mother, Antoinette has accurate intimations of what is about to happen, experiencing an immediate “dismay, sadness, loss” which make her feel “choked”. Mr Mason says, deceitfully, that he wants her to be “happy…secure” and we know that Rochester will make her unhappy and insecure both financially and emotionally. Annette’s money and property have passed into male hands already and the next wave of selling-off of women has begun: Mr Mason is going to sell Antoinette to Mr Rochester.

    Antoinette’s intuition is even more heightened than her mother’s, her premonitions conveying a depth of malice in Rochester which undercuts Charlotte Bronte’s presentation of him as a caring husband saddled with a crazy ex. As a child, Antoinette dreams repeatedly that “someone who hated me was with me”, who acts “slyly” and whose face is “black with hatred”. Jean Rhys strips away the trite excuses which are used to condone men’s abuse of women and white colonials’ exploitation of ‘natives’. Her presentation of the men’s motives is unambiguous and goes well beyond questions of politics, culture or greed; Mason and Rochester are propelled by sadism, misogynist and racist malice and a desire to exploit, control and destroy the women they use, then collude to excuse their own abusiveness.

    As she grows older, Antoinette’s dreams begin directly to reference the events of Jane Eyre, as if Charlotte Bronte’s novel has already set down, like an immovable curse upon a living creature, what is to happen. Antoinette sees her own living death in Thornfield Hall where she is imprisoned “when I go up these steps. At the top.” She is “sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen.” She is propelled towards her conclusion, tormented by the repeating Freudian (and Dantean) dream images of leaving Coulibri and walking into a dark forest wearing a white dress which symbolises innocence and sacrifice yet also sounds an echoing note when we recall that Antoinette’s “mad” mother also liked to wear white. When she imagines being “cold and not belonging” in England, she has finally met her literary destiny: “I have slept there many times before, long ago”. This is one of many poignant references to Bronte’s novel, in which the monstrous Bertha was read about, feared and hated as an obstacle to Jane Eyre’s happiness, long before Rhys filled in the rest of the story a century later.

    Wide Sargasso Sea is incredibly brave in refusing to console the reader. The novel psychologically vindicates Antoinette and Annette, demonstrating their intelligence, powerful emotions, seriousness and correct instincts. But these traits are not enough to save them. Antoinette describes one of her premonitive dreams to a nun at her convent as like being “in Hell” and this, like everything she and her mother say, is not an exaggeration but a correct prediction of emotional reality. The nun accepts it at face value; she is one of two women in the novel, the other being Christophine, who is not subject to the patriarchal marriage market and can look on it with cynicism and jaundiced humour. The nun remarks that she doesn’t know “why the devil must have his little day.” That is a warning of the kind of novelistic context we are in: one in which evil, not good, is triumphant and even a bride of Christ does not think that virtue, faith and justice will prevail.

    In Wide Sargasso Sea the devil does indeed have his day. Rochester exploits Antoinette financially, uses her physically, manipulates her emotionally, betrays her sexually, tortures her psychologically and incarcerates her bodily until she commits violent suicide. Then he enjoys the sympathetic ministrations of his dear devoted servant-wife Jane Eyre for the rest of his life.

    Rochester arrives as part of the latest wave of white exploiters. He is not a slave master but a prospector who regards the exploitation of slaves with flippant mockery and parodic faux respect as he pretends to watch his language: “not nigger, not even negro, black people I must say.” He is infected by a sense of sexual and cultural superiority, insular ignorance and visceral racism, revolting against his new surroundings as if against a food he isn’t familiar with and so doesn’t like. Indeed, he does literally find the local food “too highly seasoned”, that is, too intense.

    While the newly married Antoinette proclaims happily, “This is my place and everything is on our side”, Rochester self-pityingly perceives the landscape as malevolent, although this is an expression of his own bigotry. He projects his own slyness onto nature: the sea moves “stealthily”, the rain increases his “discomfort and melancholy”, the place is “not only wild but menacing”, the green is not lush but “extreme”, birdsong is “a very lonely sound”, rain sounds “inexorable”, the smell of flowers is “overpoweringly strong” and the trees are a “green menace.”

    Whatever Rochester doesn’t understand, he dismisses as meaningless or ridiculous. He has particular derision for older non-white women, whom he describes in horrific terms. A former servant is “a gaudy old creature” and her patois is a “debased” form of language. Christophine has a “savage appearance” and is an “elderly woman” who “seemed insignificant” and “looks so lazy” – the same insult Mr Mason used. Of the older women at his wedding, “Thin or fat they all looked alike.” He jokes nastily, “Do their eyes get smaller as they grow older? Smaller, beadier, more inquisitive?” When Antoinette says that she loves Christophine and the other servant women and finds their smell “so warm and comforting”, Rochester “does not like it.” If he cannot imagine himself sexually or financially exploiting a woman, he hates her with an intense physical loathing.

    Yet it is the non-white characters who see through him. Christophine’s songs are cunning predictions about what is going to happen in the novel: they describe flowers that bloom for one day only, romantic desertion and family abandonment. She tells Rochester to his face, “you marry her for her money and you take it all. And then you want to break her up.” He dismisses this as “nonsense”, just as everything any woman in the novel says is dismissed as nonsense by the man they are talking to.

    At no point in the novel is Rochester the alluring, mercurial man he is in Jane Eyre. Rhys’s Rochester is a baiting abuser who looks for every opportunity to justify his sadistic treatment of his wife. The tenderness and solicitude Antoinette shows are not mutual but actually increase his desire to hurt her: “Her pleasing expression annoys me.” Hatred of women, uncomprehending mistrust of the West Indies, miserable physical discomfort, racism, class paranoia, horror of miscegenation and an obsession with his status in the eyes of other men combine into a single sadistic personality which takes pleasure in torturing Antoinette. From the beginning he “watched her critically” and gives full reign to his racial bigotry, deciding that “Creole of pure English descent she may be, but [her eyes] are not English or European either” but “long, sad, dark, alien”. To underline how absolutely ‘other’ it all seems – and unwittingly revealing his own superiority complex and lack of empathy – “alien” is the word he repeatedly uses to describe the landscape as well as the people.

    Despite Antoinette’s correct intuition about Rochester, she is bullied into marrying by him and Mr Mason’s son, her half-brother Richard Mason, who collude to pressure her with “arguments, threats…half-serious blandishments and promises.” She gives in “unwillingly” and Rochester gloats over her powerlessness: her “poor weapons” are only “silence and a blank face”. Rochester receives thirty thousand pounds for marrying Antoinette “without question or condition”, with no provision made for her, and she becomes wholly economically dependent on him. The joke is on women, and the sound of men’s mocking laughter at women arises again, like it did when Mr Mason married Annette; when Richard Mason steps in a generation later to pressure Antoinette, he and Rochester laugh together.

    Despite being a perpetrator, Rochester sees himself as a cornered victim who is in danger of being humiliated like “a fool” as a “rejected suitor jilted by this Creole girl.” As Antoinette says, “he hates scandal”, even when his own behaviour constitutes the scandal, and his greatest fear is of being laughed at by the only people he respects: English men. In an unsent letter to his father he vows “never to be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love.” Just like Antoinette – could Rochester but see it – he is the less-favoured sibling yearning for a parent’s affections. He promises to behave nobly towards these men, with no “furtive shabby manoeuvres” against them, although this is how he treats Antoinette. He accuses his father, “You have no love at all for me. Nor had my brother. Your plan succeeded because I was young…foolish, trusting…you were able to do this to me.” Antoinette could write exactly the same letter to Rochester about what he and Richard Mason have done to her, with equal truthfulness. Yet despite suffering under the patriarchal cosh just like Antoinette, Rochester doesn’t feel any human commonality with her. Because of her racial and sexual difference from him, he can’t see her as being in the same position, having the same human feelings as him, feeling an equally harsh grievance or deserving the same rights.

    Even though he is made rich by Antoinette he goads himself into malice against her, telling himself that she and the other islanders gloat at how she has “bought” him. This is a lie and Antoinette has no idea of his hostility. Sexual satisfaction has woken her from the loneliness and fear she grew up with, yet it also makes her vulnerable. Introduced to intimacy and physical abandon, she has let down her guard and is now open to being hurt. That is the risk we all take when we fall in love, but Antoinette has been tricked and Rochester is only pretending to be in love. She asks him, “Why did you make me want to live?” He revels in his power over her, replying, “Because I wished it.” In a loving couple, this would be playful pillow talk. In Rochester, it is a terrifying hint and a statement of intent.

    Antoinette’s doubts about marrying Rochester, and his own attempts to persuade her, are represented by him with sing-song mockery, “advance and retreat… doubts and hesitations. Everything finished, for better or of worse.” With a sickening mixture of sadism and self-pity he relishes thinking about how he “bowed, smiled, kissed her hand, danced with her” and “played the part I was expected to play” to get her to agree to marry him. He congratulates himself on his “faultless performance” and yet sees himself, petulantly, as deserving sympathy because deceiving Antoinette was “an effort of will” which “no one noticed.”

    Antoinette imagines England as a “cold dark dream” and, as always, she is correct. Her nightmares are true predictions of what will happen to her there. Rochester counters that her island is equally “unreal and like a dream” to him. He dismisses the island’s beauty as “nothing” and wants to violate it to uncover some secret which he thinks it’s cunningly concealing: “I want what it hides.” This is exactly what he attempts to do to Antoinette, too, and malicious men prey on his suspicions. Ultimately, what gets hidden is the truth of what Rochester, Mr Mason and Richard Mason have done to women. Rochester gloats that “those who know it cannot tell it”, the women are powerless to speak and be believed, and he will hold the secret, in the form of the traumatised Antoinette, “in a hidden place…hold it fast”. Rhys undercuts his confidence as the entire novel is a telling of the ugly truth.

    Rochester gaslights and manipulates Antoinette, whose instincts are correctly warning her off him. He says tauntingly, “I’ll trust you if you’ll trust me” even though she is trustworthy and he is not. He guilts, baits and emotionally blackmails her, saying, “You will make me very unhappy if you send me away without telling me what I have done to displease you.” When she tries to explain her foreboding, however, he dismisses it. His desire to destroy her is made explicit when, lying next to her, he “wonder[s] if she ever guessed how near she came to dying.”

    Throughout, women’s statements of reality are said by men to be the products of raving madness as the Cosway, Mason and Rochester men work together to exploit, abuse, destroy and dispose of Annette and Antoinette. Antoinette goes to Christophine for help and says correctly, “he does not love me, I think he hates me.” While characters like Aunt Cora and Christophine talk good sense, they cannot act against the men’s sadism because in this society men have power and women do not.

    The men protect and defend each other’s abuse, swearing blind in one another’s favour. When Aunt Cora intercedes on behalf of Antoinette, Richard Mason describes Rochester to her as “an honourable gentleman, not a rascal” whom he “would trust …with my life” and whom Antoinette is “damn lucky to get”. Antoinette’s interests are not protected by any lawyer’s settlement, but the men’s interests are protected by a gentlemen’s agreement in their own favour. When Cora tries to answer back, Richard Mason resorts to ageist sexism, macho aggression and accusations of madness or stupidity, shouting, “for God’s sake shut up you old fool.”

    The same thing happens when Christophine tries to talk to Rochester, suggesting that he let go of Antoinette so that she can marry someone else. “A pang of rage and jealousy” makes Rochester refuse, out of sadism. He laughs in Christophine’s face and calls her a “ridiculous old woman” who is “as mad as the other,” meaning Antoinette. Christophine is reputed to be an ‘obeah woman’: at worst a witch who can raise the dead and control the living; or alternatively a healer who can provide sagacity and solace. She has been jailed for her practices in the past and towards the end of the novel, local men revive their slander of her. Rochester threatens her with a specifically male violence, male authority and male allies who will cooperate to work against the women: “I’ll get the men to put you out…I will have the police up…. consult the Spanish Town doctors and her brother [Richard Mason].”

    All the male characters in the novel use underhand methods to encourage each other to hurt women. A sly letter from a local mixed race man calling himself Daniel Cosway alleges to Rochester that not only was Antoinette’s mother mad, her husband Mr Cosway was also “raving”, Antoinette has inherited both doses and Daniel Cosway is himself one of Mr Cosway’s many illegitimate mixed-race children. Just as Mr Mason slanders Aunt Cora as frivolous, Daniel Cosway slanders Annette as “worthless and spoilt”. Just like Rochester, Daniel Cosway is angry at his father; yet it is only the women who are hurt with these heated allegations of race and class intermixing, illegitimacy, madness, female slatternliness and female deceitfulness.

    Daniel Cosway plays on abusive men’s classic defence of their own sadism and sexual immorality, which is that they have been tricked by devious women: Rochester was “bewitch” by Antoinette the same way Mr Mason was “bewitch with her mother.” For Rochester, who is suspicious of the black islanders’ ‘obeah’ practices, this accusation of witchery has a fearful double impact. Daniel Cosway further inflates Rochester’s fears of racial and cultural otherness by hinting that madness is in “all these white Creoles” and not just confined to Antoinette’s family. He extends his slander to Christophine who is “a bad woman and she will lie to you worse than your wife” and presses on Rochester’s sensitivity about race and class with the suspicion that Antoinette is herself mixed race and simply another of Mr Cosway’s illegitimate slave-class children. At the same time, the men work together to uphold each other’s self image: Daniel Cosway tells Rochester his reputation is as a man with “a kind word for all, black, white, also coloured”, which is as far from the truth as could be possible.

    Rhys looks closely at the bitter mélange of racism, sexism, classism and personal sadism which drives Rochester. Rochester says openly that although he may lust after Antoinette – he is “thirsty” for her, a telling image of casual consumption – “that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her”. Because of her race and sex, he feels no connection to her as a human being: she is “a stranger” who “did not think or feel as I did”. For all its historical depth, the novel is at the same time a terrifying close portrait of intimate, day by day abusiveness. Rochester’s desire for Antoinette is “breathless and savage” but when he has “exhausted” himself upon her, “I turned away from her and slept…without a word or a caress”.

    At the end of the novel Rochester tortures his wife by sexually using a young maid called Amélie on the other side of a thin partition from Antoinette’s room. Just as with Antoinette, Rochester wants Amélie sexually while loathing her race (“little half-caste”), her class (“servant”) and personality (“lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps”). His sexual usage of her, as with his usage of Antoinette, is his revenge against imagined provocations: he thinks Amélie is sneering at him, “full of delighted malice, so intelligent, above all so intimate.” Yet this intimate, delighted malice is all his own. Just as with Antoinette, Rochester’s usage of Amélie only increases his racism; when he has finished with her “her skin was darker, her lips thicker than I had thought”.

    Wide Sargasso Sea is a horror novel, one where the source of horror lies in common ‘domestic’ cruelty. Rochester mentally torments Antoinette, telling her “I am most distressed about you, I am distraught” when in truth, “I was calm”. Antoinette says she is happy to answer any questions about her family and he says, “Only if you promise to be reasonable.” In his psychopathic self-pity, everything he has deliberately done to Antoinette, he pretends to believe she has done to him: “You deceived me, betrayed me.”

    Rochester’s malice makes him accept every lie he is told by men and dismiss every truth his is told by women. After finding out that Antoinette has the same name as her mother and conveniently believing that both women are mad and bad, he renames his wife just like a slave-owner, to assert his dominance, to distance himself from the taint of her (alleged) family madness and to distance her from herself. He has taken her money, her property, her sense of security, her emotional happiness, her sexual dignity and now, finally, her name. There is to be nothing left. Antoinette is not mad at all, in fact she is completely sane, and says “You are trying to make me into something else, calling me by another name” The more aggrieved she is, the colder he becomes, which understandably infuriates her. When she laughs disdainfully he calls it “a crazy laugh” which justifies, in his own delusion, his abuse of her.

    Despite his renaming of her at the end of the book it is interesting to note how rarely he has referred to her by name at all. Instead he calls her “my wife” and then “the woman”, “the girl”, steadily diminishing her until she is “a child…an obstinate one.” The more Antoinette suffers with the human pain he has caused, the less human he sees her as, until she is like “a doll… a marionette”, a plaything and object to be manipulated. It seems like her destruction is complete, but Antoinette can be reduced still further. Rochester sketches an English house where he will incarcerate her, rendering her as “a child’s scribble, a dot of a head, a larger one for the body.” From Antoinette to wife to woman to girl to child to doll to drawing, Rochester has steadily destroyed her. Then he goes one further. At the very end of the novel he describes her, with skin-crawling patronage, as if he were not the perpetrator of her destruction, as “only a ghost…nothing left but hopelessness.”

    In brief, jagged, sizzlingly frank and memorable flashes the novel shows nakedly and finally what Rochester really thinks of Antoinette, his cruelty, his twisted self-pity and his hysterical, self-serving lies: she is a “drunken lying lunatic – gone her mother’s way” who he is “tied to” for life unless he does something to her. The final third of the novel is breathtakingly disturbing. Everything Rochester has experienced of Antoinette, her love, kindness and sexuality, he uses against her: she is a slut who’ll “not care who she’s loving”; she behaves sexually “as no sane woman would – or could”; her joy, confidence and beauty are “so pleased, so satisfied.” Rochester gives himself permission to take “revenge” now that Antoinette has “played her games so often that the lowest shrug and jeer at her”. In reality, it is Rochester who has been game-playing and deceiving and the servants shrug and jeer at him, not her. At long last his true sadism is plainly revealed: “She said she loved this place. This is the last she’ll see of it.” And since, like all sadists, he enjoys torturing his victim, having pretended she is mad and done everything he can to mistreat her until she feels like she is indeed going mad, he makes sure she can never get away from him: “She’s mad but mine, mine…my lunatic. My mad girl.”

    This brief, brooding and unforgettable novel is a damning indictment of slavery and colonialism, the centuries of trauma and inequality they create and the racism that underpins them; and also of the most intricate womanhating abuse, sexist slander and patriarchal laws which make women dependent. Any woman on the planet who has survived an abusive ‘relationship’ in the 21st Century, let alone in the 20th Century when the book was written, or the 19th Century when the book is set, will recognise the sociopathic two-facedness of Mr Mason, Richard Mason, Daniel Cosway and Rochester and the way that their male cronies and even male strangers like lawyers and doctors collude to support their financial, sexual and emotional abuse of women.

    It is also an eerie ghost story in which the main character is haunted by her mother, her mother is haunted by the memory of what she has lost and the locality is haunted by the violence of slavery. Yet Antoinette is afraid of ghost stories herself, stopping Christophine, again with accurate foreboding, when she sings about something coming “tap tap tapping” at night. Antoinette feels an instinctive aversion to the image of an unseen thing making minute noises, which is exactly what she will become. Later, Rochester patronises her by rocking her “like a child” and singing a song in which she is “queen of the silent night” who “shine[s] bright…as [she] die[s].” This is exactly what happens at the end of Jane Eyre. Incarcerated in Thornfield Hall, Antoinette, now Bertha, hears rumours that the house is haunted. She is afraid of the ghost, yet of course she herself is the ghost of Thornfield Hall.

    That is where Wide Sargasso Sea ends. For a reader of this blistering masterpiece, it is devastating to know that with all this, the worst is still to come.

    This is a much extended version of a piece commissioned for the British Library's Discovering Literature archive of works on 20th Century literature in English. View the original here.

    The wolf tales in Angela Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber

    This essay examines the stories The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice in Carter's short story collection The Bloody Chamber. A shorter version was commissioned by the British Library for its Discovering Literature archive or critical essays. If you like this you may also like my essay on Susannah Clapp's biographical account, A Card From Angela Carter.

    Angela Carter’s 1979 collection of original fairytales, The Bloody Chamber, is rightly celebrated as a masterpiece of 20th Century fiction. Dazzlingly varied in tone and register, this masterful collection is cavalier, lushly romantic, chilling and ferociously entertaining. It combines postmodern self-awareness with the otherworldly glamour and unashamed intensity of classic horror and fantasy fiction. 

    The individual stories glance bullet-like off stock fairytales from Bluebeard (in the title story), Beauty and the Beast (in the stories The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride) and Little Red Riding Hood (in The Werewolf and The Company of Wolves) and shoot away in completely new directions which are highly inventive and intensely unnerving. Others, like The Lady of the House of Love and the last story, Wolf-Alice, explore vampire, zombie and other occult mythology. All hungrily circle and re-circle certain core themes including death, sexual attraction, survival in hard surroundings, romantic love, human sadism, human hypocrisy and the animal world, particularly animals’ innocent expression of physical hunger, threat, fear and tenderness. Throughout, the characters and their fates resist generalisation and retain their sharp otherness; they do not always comply with a sentimental reader’s desire for natural justice.

    In The Bloody Chamber, Carter replaces the simplistic morality of karmic balance, in which good and evil are easy to spot and rewarded or punished accordingly, with an alluring and unsettling complexity and a stewed atmosphere of amoral seediness like a rankly sexy perfume you can’t stop smelling. She understands the value of a good cheap thrill and deploys to brilliant effect the black PVC glamour and histrionic atmosphere of Hammer Horror films, the nocturnal shocks of rural Gothic melodrama and the sordid vampiric mingling of desire and decay. Yet at the same time there is an interesting human disdain to The Bloody Chamber. The stories create an environment in which all transformations and supernatural permutations are possible; yet always the very worst motivations, actions, self-justifications, cruelty and hypocrisy come from the plain humans, not the witches and not the wolves. 

    In this essay I look at the last three stories in The Bloody Chamber: The Werewolf, The Company of Wolves and Wolf-Alice. All three examine with infinitesimal subtlety and distinction the psychological, physical, sociological and moral differences between humans, wolves and werewolves, the natural world and human societies, natural cycles and human pathology. 

    The first story, The Werewolf, is told with abrupt, brittle relish. A short tale of not even three pages, it sketches a familiar Gothic pastoral scene in frighteningly flippant shorthand: we are in a “Northern country” of “cold weather”, “dark and smoky” interiors, “cold hearts” and “wild beasts in the forest”. Life is “harsh, brief, poor” and flowers don’t grow. The ghastly supernatural intermingles with the bleak natural: vampires are warded off with garlic, children are born with second sight. Interaction with the uncanny offers no thrill of contact but instead compounds local paranoia and misery. Human society is punitive, suspicious and credulous, its puritanical patriarchy shot through with a hypocritical sexualisation: women suspected of being witches are stripped before being stoned to death. The supernaturals seem to be having a far better time: the devil hosts witches’ bacchanals in the cemetery, which is a “bleak and touching township” where they exhume and consume corpses (a practice which comes up again in the final story, Wolf-Alice, where the perpetrator acts not with exultation but with misery). 

    The linking of death and consumption, corpses and food, is made explicit when we learn that mourners leave small loaves, not bouquets, at graves. Survival, if not peace, is maintained through mutual preying and consumption: the ‘little red riding hood’ character of the young girl protagonist who walks through the forest to visit her grandmother is the daughter of a hunter. Like him, she knows how to use a knife and, like all the town’s inhabitants, she is on guard both against animal predators like wolves and against naked men who are feared not because they might be sexual attackers but because they are werewolves. Teasingly, the child is dressed as wolf-prey, in victim drag: a “scabby coat of sheepskin”. 

    When a wolf does indeed attack the girl it has red eyes like the devil. However, in keeping with the sympathetic way wolves are described throughout these stories, Carter reminds us that the animals are “less brave than they seem”. It flees when the girl cuts off its paw and gives a “gulp, almost a sob”; it is “disconsolate” and “lollops off” like a cartoon character. 

    Halfway through the story snow falls, obscuring the past and wiping away the first part of the narrative like a white interval curtain. The little girl arrives at her grandmother’s home and the grandmother is “like a thing possessed” - indeed, it seems she is a werewolf, the same one who attacked the girl. In an unpleasant yet aptly misanthropic twist, the neighbours come in, see a wart on the grandmother’s severed hand, have her for a witch and stone her to death. The moral: being a werewolf won’t save you from sexism.

    The Werewolf is not a story about werewolves but about human meanness of spirit and the uniquely human appetite for judging others and then collectively enjoying seeing their punishment through to the death. The werewolf, meanwhile, flees when it encounters an opponent who can best it. This is not a world in which natural justice prevails but one in which whoever is left standing is the winner. The grandmother’s crime is not being a man-wolf but being a female witch and she is murdered not out of self-preservation but superstition. The social context allows no place for debating moral rights and wrongs and the story satisfies its characters while leaving the reader morally unmoored. It ends with a grim if (to us) unjust settling of the situation: the girl, apparently content with the cancelling out of both witch and werewolf threats, happily replaces her murdered grandmother, moves in and “prospered” in her house. 

    The next story, The Company of Wolves, is a macabre, luxuriantly disturbing horror. It is recounted in a wordy, cheesy B-movie voiceover where every blood-curdling, spine-chilling adjective progressively makes the audience less afraid of the “carnivore incarnate”, “as cunning as he is ferocious”, who is shortly to stalk the pages like a vaudeville pirate. The story’s shifts in tone are abrupt, like a badly cut film, and the description is one of cheap magicians’ tricks which give the scenes a dazzling effect – a “diabolic phosphorescence.” As in cardboard make-do stage sets, the pine trees at the edge of the forest are a “portal” to another world. The story is soaked in panstick, limelight, fake ice and plastic sequins and told as if accompanied by a church organ playing a tune of hysterical extremity. 

    Wolves are described with seductive, mesmerisingly shifting descriptions borrowing from theatre and amateur dramatics: their eyes are yellowish, reddish, unnatural green, likened to “candle flames” and “sequins”. Their howl is, again taking from stage and performance, an “aria of fear”, entertaining and beautiful even when expressing dread. Like film stars whose charisma is powerful yet hard to pin down, wolves are compared to elusive things, “shadows” and “wraiths”. In winter they are rendered “lean and famished” with “slavering jaws” and a “lolling tongue.” Carter always represents wolves sympathetically, either as great mythologised figures, as vulnerable creatures or as ordinary animals bearing the weight of humans’ projections and fears. 

    By contrast the humans in this story are denuded of charm and glamour. We are lumbering, immutable, noticeable by our “smell of meat”. Humans have none of the allure of the supernatural world; they are poor, tired, hungry and threatened, the local children are “grave-eyed” – that is, both somewhat serious and somewhat dead – and live on “acrid” milk and “rank, maggoty” cheese, food which is decaying like the dead. Just like the girl in the previous story, the children carry knives for self-defence. 

    Winter strikes and, like a long Halloween night, produces a bubbling-over of all the delicious horrors of the folkloric population: “all the teeming perils of the night…ghosts, hobgoblins, ogres…witches [like the one in Hansel and Gretel] that fatten their captives in cages.” This village, in which common fairytale characters and magical abilities manifest, is not a place of creativity and delight but one of isolation and vengeance. It is a place of loners like the “mad old man” religious maniac who lives in a hut and the jilted bride who, like the bad fairy in Sleeping Beauty, curses the rest of her wedding. The narrator projects tragic self-awareness onto wolves, who howl to express their “misery”. The wolves are represented as romantic souls, howling “as if their hearts would break” with “inherent sadness”, “vast melancholy”, “despair” and “ghastly sadness” “as if demented or deranged”, a revenant product of “the longest night.” All of these are of course human delusions, the sickest of which is the perversity of asserting that a wolf is so disgusted by itself that it wants to be killed and “half welcomes” it due to “his” own “irremediable appetites”. This reasoning is a hint of what is to come and indeed what features frequently in all the stories in this collection: sadistic humans’ justification for their own violence, the projection of their own sadism onto innocent others and the themes of masochism, shaming, judgement and punishment meted out to undeserving targets. 

    Apparently, the plain wolf is the “worst” of all the diabolical characters in the village, the narrator tells us – worse even than a human who tricks, kidnaps and murders children. The narrator in the story is not neutral or the voice of reason, but instead employs illogical exaggeration to reflect “our village” and its hysteria about wolves. Human motives are imputed to wolves in the description of the animals as cunning and “unkind”, when unkindness is a jarringly human trait. The hunter who traps a wolf does to it what no wolf would ever do to an animal it killed: he cuts off its head and paws “as a trophy”, to exult in his act, only to see it turn into a man. 

    As ever, the worst beasts a girl could encounter in the forest are men. The Company of Wolves features an anecdote thrown in early, almost as an aside, in which a woman marries a young man who flees to the forest and turns into a wolf. The woman remarries and has a son. The first husband returns, sees that his wife has slept with another man, calls her a “whore” and attacks her son. He turns back into a wolf, is murdered by the second husband and turns back into a man. When the woman sees his corpse and cries over it, the second husband beats her. Wolf man or full man, these husbands are exactly the same in their abuse of women, attacking their wife or her son to punish and hurt her. Just as in The Werewolf, in an environment in which all things are apparently possible, a woman still cannot escape patriarchal judgement and male violence. 

    As in The Werewolf a seasonal change – there a snowfall, here the winter solstice – ushers in the next act in the story. As the narrator says, with lugubrious self-awareness, the solstice is a “hinge” which lets in new narrative possibilities and thins the line between the mortal world and the supernatural world, enabling a time when “things do not fit together as well as they should.” The winter solstice is the night on which to practice dark magic, a portal to the occult. Later on in this creepy story the same image is used again, but even more ominously dishevelled: “the malign door of the solstice still swings upon its hinges” like a gate to the underworld. 

    The second part of the story looks at the set-up of the story of Little Red Riding Hood again, just as the tale of Beauty and the Beast is examined twice in the collection. Once again a “strong-minded child” sets off to visit her grandmother. Unlike the hard and wary girl in the previous story, this one is blithe and confident, “quite sure the wild beasts cannot harm her”. Whereas in the previous story, the child’s strength is a product of a tough life in which survival skills have been learnt by necessity, the child in this story has very different roots. Her strength comes from the sense of inner protection provided by happiness and emotional security: “she has been too much loved ever to feel scared.” Her innocence is her arrogance is her shield. Her virginity, she thinks, conveys a psychic protection like a spell, an “invisible pentacle”, “a magic space” which makes her “afraid of nothing.” The forest is “like a pair of jaws” yet such is her sense of being cared for by a benign world that these jaws do not eat her up but hold her protectively like Jonah inside the whale. 

    The previous little girl wore an ironic sheepskin even though she was the perpetrator, not the victim. The girl in this story is a victim who thinks she’s a protagonist, an object who thinks she’s an agent. Her delusion is obvious in her red shawl, a brazenly confident colour which is (just to state the subtext clearly) “ominous but brilliant” and likened to blood on snow – an allusion to another story in the collection, The Snow Child, which focuses on a father’s apparent “love” for his daughter, which is expressed through sleazy objectification and rape. A theme throughout the collection is the sick narrative that perpetrators tell themselves (and their victims) to erase their abuse through the perverse blurring of right and wrong, decency and abuse, love and hate, erotics and violation, coercion and choice.

    In many ways The Company of Wolves is a classic portrait of a sociopathic abuser. The girl who is on her way to visit her grandmother meets a man in the woods. He is not a wolf, nor is he a naked man-wolf. He is, instead, ordinarily human, clothed, charming and jovial. He does not look like a monster and his manner is “comic yet flattering.” The girl falls for it immediately and unquestioningly, giving him her basket with its weapon inside it. She also falls for his trick – a wager that he can get to her grandmother’s house first, and if she loses she has to kiss him – because she wants to lose to him and have a kiss. She overlooks the signs of his violence: his rifle, his flashing wet teeth, the dead birds he’s carrying.

    Like all abusive men who get away with it, the man’s first skill is one of impersonation: he is adept at pretending to be good. He tricks his way into the grandmother’s house by pretending to be the granddaughter. He murders her, then tricks the girl into coming in by pretending to be the grandmother. He is not a werewolf at all but simply a man who, he says, “loves the company of wolves”. Like everyone else in the stories, he projects his own foibles onto them and then ‘identifies’ with this delusion to justify himself. Wolves, after all, do not deceive, manipulate, trick, torture or violate for fun. 

    There is a horrible murder scene that is redolent or triggering of rape. The man strips naked to attack the elderly woman on the bed. The blatantly sexualised attack is only completed “when he had finished with her” and she is obliterated, utterly objectified and stripped of every human identifier. She not even referred to as “she” – only “the inedible hair” and “the bones”. Like the other human hunters in the collection he keeps a trophy to exult over his kill – the grandmother’s nightcap – and sits “patiently, deceitfully” for his next victim, concealing the “tell-tale stained” sheets, again a grotesque image of a sexual attack. 

    As in all patriarchal societies a young woman is considered more attractive than an older woman and while the man can murder and consume an old woman if he chooses to, only “immaculate flesh [really] appeases him”. In a sharply sick twist – so common in this collection and part of its unnerving genius – the young girl on her way is a willing martyr to his abuse. She is that classic of the horror genre, the white-clad virgin sacrifice. Her innocence is no protection, it turns out; her feeling of being within a near-magical psychic shield was pure naivety, evidently. Her emotional wholeness now looks like the arrogance of ignorance. Yet luckily for them both, she is a masochist, infected by the classic women’s fantasy of subduing and changing an abusive man. 

    Or is she? Angela Carter skilfully and devastatingly presses hard on the disturbing line between fear and submission, choice and force, humiliation and annihilation, self-sacrifice and self-preservation. There is a full-blown true horror moment when the young woman sees a “tuft of white hair” belonging to her murdered grandmother and realises clearly that “she was in danger of death.” She then gives herself to him apparently “freely” “to save her own life” because she “knows she was nobody’s meat” – overlooking the obvious riposte that if one offers oneself to save one’s own life, it is hardly a free choice. Unlike the wolf-stabbing girl-assassin of the previous story, she knows “the blood she must spill” is her own or she won’t survive. At the heart of this story is the hideous coercion that needs no violence, as the girl already knows what the “tender wolf” is capable of. Like many perpetrators the man himself gloats in his abuse and its horrific parody of lovers’ intimacy, crooning skin-crawlingly, “dear one”, “my pet” and “my darling”.

    The story presents a young woman who rewrites her entrapment and sexual assault as a glorious rite in which she “never flinched”. The now-phlegmatic narrator describes her with pity and irony as a “wise child” who sleeps “sweet and sound” between a wolf’s paws. Her fantasy is to “pick out the lice from his pelt” and eat them “as he will bid her.” Being locked in a room with her grandmother’s murderer becomes an opportunity for sexual self-realisation, apparently, in which victim and perpetrator share the same misogyny and sexist ageism and get off on it – “the old bones under the bed set up a terrible clattering but she did not pay them any heed.” Incidentally, there is an unpleasant misogynist ageism that runs through all of the stories: the stock character of the “old woman” as comically disposable collateral damage, murdered by man, beast or man-beast and then replaced by satisfied young women. The stories are fixated on young, in some cases barely pubescent, women’s self-fulfilment and self-realisation. 

    The Company of Wolves is a horror tale about a trapped, abused girl who goes to her fate with a resignation she rewrites as acceptance. “Since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid”; she behaves with the nihilistic bravado of the damned. It is a lingeringly disturbing depiction of female hopelessness in which a victim who serves herself up to an abusive man is somehow brave and her complete abandonment to debasement is a kind of greatness of spirit. 

    There is a return to the full-blown theatricality of the opening of the story as the girl’s ‘submission’ plays out, a terrible climaxing high pitch of tragic choral sound and midnight mass-like light. Wolves howl outside the door like a choir in lament and their eyes “shone like a hundred candles” just like, in the other stories, candles surround the biers, coffins and catafalques of dead or undead women. Sex, murder, sacrifice, submission and rape melt into each other in horror with an appropriately hammy soundtrack of howling, creaking hinges and fierce strings; the wolves’ noise is expressed in a rococo laying-on of descriptions as a threnody, a Liebestod (a death-lament), a clamour and a prothalamion. In a brilliant, haunting phrase the winter solstice permits the mingling of all things. Man, beast, predator, rapist, sadist, masochist, murderer, victim, virgin, sacrifice, martyr, consecration, corpse, seduction, violation, abuse, desire are all conflated sordidly together in an ambiguous and disturbing ooze as “the door of the solstice stands wide open; let them all sink through.”

    The final work, Wolf-Alice, is a sorrowful and sweet story about a young woman who has genuinely grown up with wolves, rather than incorrectly claiming some affinity with them as a way to justify personal abusiveness, as the murderer in The Company of Wolves does. Wolf Alice is a young girl who has been raised tenderly by wolves after being abandoned by her mother. Just like the girl in the previous story, her confidence and certainty are the result of having been loved when she was growing up. Her encounter with the world of human values and practices is a lowering one. 

    Wolf-Alice celebrates nature’s innocence, earthiness and tenderness. Its central character is simple but not stupid and the story’s narrative tone is one of terrible bathos and sympathy for this human foundling who, not being a wolf herself and not having been socialised around humans, is mute, with no human language of her own. She is described as a “pup”, “lonely” and adorable, making a “bubbling, delicious” sound. Wolves are not enemies to be feared but her “foster kindred” – an adoptive family related to her through love, not blood. Their significance for her is not predatory but maternal and protective, nourishing – they have “suckled” her and when she is apart from them they howl across “an irreparable gulf of absence”, the world “irreparable” hinting at a wholeness that has been permanently broken. 

    Wolf-Alice presents a new and liberated female physical standard which is very different from the delicate human martyr-beauties in all the other stories. Wolf Alice’s skin is callused because of her enhanced speed which is “not our pace”, she “trots or gallops” on “long, lean and muscular limbs”, her nose is long and sensitive – a “useful tool” which makes her enviably competent. An embrace of the animal self requires a radical change in psychology and a rejection of the human valuing of sight, female beauty and female appearance; in the animal world it is better to smell interesting than to look pretty. 

    Alice’s wolf upbringing enables her to flout the rules of human femininity and the warnings given to women, in particular the standard fairytale admonition that young girls should not venture into the forest alone. In fact the forest is Alice’s domain, the safe space in which to “wander when she can”, where nothing is off limits. She is “wild, impatient of restraint, capricious” – all the things a nice young lady is not supposed to be. She does not exist to react to events but “lengthily investigates” whatever intrigues her senses in the moment. 

    Carter reminds us in this closing story, as she has hinted throughout, that it is dangerous to anthropomorphise animals, that they do not mythologise us in turn and that humans and animals are distinct from each other: “her pace is not our pace”, “her nose is sharper…than our eyes”, “she spend her first days amongst us”. Yet Carter also makes a seemingly contradictory case for socialisation and nurture rather than nature: Alice is ‘really’ an animal although she is technically a human. She is not pushed and pulled by masochistic or sadistic human desires but lives in a perpetual present, “without hope” and also without desire. In an inversion of The Tiger’s Bride, in which a tiger husband licks off his bride’s skin to reveal a beautiful animal pelt, Alice’s tragedy is that although she is ‘really’ an animal, to the outside world she is a young woman and will be treated as such. “It is as if the fur she thought she wore had melted into her skin” – a warning that she is about to be disabused through her contact with the human world. 

    Humans bring pain, persecution and misery. It was “peasants’ shotguns” that killed her adoptive wolf-mother and humans who “tied her [Alice] up by force”. She is taken in by nuns who poke her with sticks “to rouse her”. It is at the hands of the nuns that she learns bodily shame, hygiene and embarrassment. Her stay is a “mutilation” of her real nature - that is, an unnatural wounding of it. While in the natural world her howls are “a language as authentic as any language of nature”, in the human world her voice is only “a rustle of sound”, a “whisper” that is “obscure”. Literally and socially, Alice has no voice; she is a nobody. In the non-individualistic animal world this would be good and normal. In the human world it makes her subject to the power of others, it ensures her captivity and exploitation. The wolves looked after her because they thought she was an “imperfect wolf”; humans mistreat her because she is an imperfect woman – they are motivated not by protectiveness but “fear”, denial and self-hate because she represents “what we might have been.” Instead of being inspired and changed by the possibilities Alice presents, human society tries to change her to fits its template and, when that fails, pushes her out of sight. 

    As in many of the other stories in this collection – The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon, the Erl King, Puss in Boots and The Tiger’s Bride – an innocent young woman finds herself isolated in a rich man’s home. Yet unlike the ‘ladies’ in the other stories, who do not realise until it’s too late, Alice knows that “beds [particularly marital beds] are traps”.

    Alice is parcelled off to a Duke’s castle, where she is used as a servant. The castle is a place of exile, an alien territory in which anything can happen, yet in this last tale Carter eschews the sexual chemistry and predictably genre-faithful sado-masochistic emotional pull of previous stories. The Duke is not a love interest, a tormentor, a counterpart or a nemesis. He is strange, and Alice is strange, but they’re strange in different ways which do not impinge upon each other. Alice does not become the lady of the house but instead behaves with a highly refreshing lack of human narcissism and taught femininity, like a stray dog, sleeping in the hearth and using ball gowns as sheets to roll about on. Unlike ladies taught to narcissistically watch themselves in the mirror at all times, she does not recognise her own reflection. Indeed the mirror is, as it is for all women in the human world, an “invisible cage”. 

    Meanwhile, just like the horrible supernatural creatures in The Werewolf, the Duke is cast as an ancient Nosferatu figure, undead but alive, jaded, “damned”, arrogant, shrivelled, “meagre” and unhappy. He haunts graveyards like a zombie, goes about only at night like a vampire, casts no reflection like a vampire and eats corpses like a cannibal. Like an animal, his skin is described as a “pelt” and like a werewolf he responds to the full moon as if it compels him – a ray of moonlight is like “an imperative finger” from a “governess”. Like a ghost he makes animals nervous and like any predator humans’ doors are “barred [to him] for miles”.

    Wolf-Alice charts women’s evolution writ small. Left to her own devices in the castle, Alice learns about time through matching her menstrual cycle to the moon’s cycle; from the mirror she becomes self-conscious, individualistic; she becomes the centre of her own narrative and sees herself standing out from nature rather than merging with it. Her expression becomes one of “sombre clarity”, it is “veiled, introspective”. She discovers vanity when she puts on the white dress of a young bride the Duke has devoured and notices that she “shines” in it. To book readers and film watchers she resembles the classic young female martyr of horror films in this dress. Out in the graveyard one night she also resembles a figure from supernatural mythology to the townspeople within the story: they think she is the ghost of the dead bride fulfilling another generic narrative – that of posthumous revenge – against the vampire-zombie-cannibal-werewolf Duke. 

    Wolf-Alice turns into a non-carnal, non-romantic story of animal comfort, in which the wolverine tenderness Alice has known enables her to ‘save’ the Duke, who is lying injured in his bed. In an echo of the ending of The Tiger’s Bride, Alice licks the Duke’s face like a dog consoling its master. As she does so, the Duke’s reflection slowly appears in the mirror. After so much high drama, horror and thrills both cheap and chilling, Carter’s masterpiece of fiction closes with a celebration of sensuality, tenderness and warmth which comes from the innocent natural world, far from the perverse eroticism, flashing glamour, gender politics and scheming sexual power-plays of humans.

    If you like this you may also like my essay on Susannah Clapp's biographical account, A Card From Angela Carter.