I was Head Angel in The Nutcracker the year I turned eight. I didn’t get the part based on skill or grace, or even because I looked angelic: I had an awkward short haircut, and next to my blonde, giggling classmates I was swarthy and glum—hardly a classic cherub. But I was the tallest girl in my class, and on that basis alone I was given a tinsel halo, an electric candle, and the title of Head Angel. My sour-faced dance teacher reluctantly led me to the front of the line at our first rehearsal. She pointed out two taped X-marks on the stage with a bony finger; I was to shuffle from stage left to stage right, a line of progressively daintier angels in my wake, and then stand still and grin innocently while the real ballerinas danced behind us.
Looking back, it’s clear that the angels were those leftover children not animated enough to be party guests, nor nimble enough to be dancing rats. We could stand onstage and smile for our parents’ cameras without risking the integrity of the show as a whole. Angels were filler.
Wearing the long, white polyester angel robes felt familiar: a polyester wedding gown had been a mainstay of my dress-up box since I was a toddler. My mother bought it for me for my third Halloween, at my request; she’d told the story of her own wedding more often than any happily-ever-after princess tale, and I thought there was no higher aspiration one could have than to be a bride.
For years afterward, my friend Corey’s and my favorite game was Wedding: he would be the groom, and I’d squeeze the gown on over my play clothes or drape a pillowcase on my head. We’d stand still and smile while my mother, playing minister, lectured us on the importance, the solemnity, the sacred romance of the institution into which we were about to enter. Even as toddlers, we could tell that marriage was something my mother took very seriously.
Playing at bride, then, seemed to involve the same thing as playing a Nutcracker angel: shuffling into place, standing still, and smiling while something important happened that wasn’t really about me—or that, at most, required me as decoration, as object rather than subject. The point was to show up and wear a white dress; the point was innocence and passivity, ascension to the Bride Self, virgin, angel. To become so white and pure that you weren’t a person anymore, but something so still and perfect that it almost wasn’t there at all.
We laughed as we walked down the road, gray shoreline and sea to our left, stone walls and rough fields to our right. We’d been out late at the island’s main pub the night before, but cold salt-air cures hangovers even better than a full Irish breakfast, and everyone was alert and smiling.
My husband and I led our friends up to the Aran Sweater Market at the edge of Kilronan, the tiny town that was the epicenter of Inis Mor. That morning, he had persuaded some of the tourist-hunting horse and carriage drivers to meet us there. They would carry our group of sixteen to the temple of Saint Benin, the smallest church in Europe, a tiny ruin at the crest of one of the island’s rugged hills.
When we got to the market, however, only one four-seater carriage was waiting, and its driver was pacing impatiently, about to give up on us. I turned to our guests, chagrined and apologetic.
On the road to Saint Benin’s temple, I dug my cell phone out of my purse and winced as I realized that we were a full half-hour late for the ceremony I’d arranged with the island’s resident Celtic monk. In the few communications we’d had, he’d been accommodating of my changed plans and overdue decisions, and I hated to inconvenience him further. His kindness and understanding only made me more embarrassed.
It occurred to me then, as the horse in front of us panted and wheezed, carrying its overloaded carriage up the steep hill, that my avoidance of wedding plans may have been a way of pulling away from the bride-loving girl that I used to be; maybe I was trying to pull away from my wedding-worshipping mother, too. By that day on Inis Mor, I hadn’t spoken to her in almost two years.
One of the best things my mother did for me was to pass on her love of reading. I don’t remember learning how to read, but I wanted to be an author by the time I entered school, and I spent much of my childhood immersed in books.
When I was ten, she read me Jane Eyre. Like the young Jane of the book’s first chapter, I was bright, bullied, and sullen; but if my mother hoped I’d feel a connection with Jane, she was mistaken. It was Jane’s shadow self, Bertha, who held my attention and my loyalty. She was both a mirror and a window, and I recognized her right away.
So much has already been written about Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s secret, captive first wife, the woman who destroys Jane’s own nuptial dreams. Jean Rhys retells the story from Bertha’s perspective in Wide Sargasso Sea, and the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar confront and free her in their essay collection The Madwoman in the Attic. I cannot hope to do more justice to Bertha here than these other writers have done before me.
What stood out to my ten-year-old self, though, as I listened to my mother read in bed, was the same thing I saw when I read the book again as a high-school honor student, and a third time as an MFA candidate in my early twenties: in Jane Eyre there are two kinds of women, and if you don’t qualify as one, you are doomed to be the other. You are Jane or you are Bertha: the angel or the devil.
Rochester himself makes the dichotomy painfully clear. After Bertha’s relatives accuse him of bigamy at his and Jane’s marriage ceremony, he drags his wedding party to the top of Thornfield Hall to see the woman he married, and thereby to illustrate his own suffering.
Bertha is hidden in a dark, hot, dirty room, and she is a dark, hot, dirty woman: tall, overweight, dark-complexioned, snarling. She typifies all the Victorian fears about women’s bodies: she is unclean, insane, violent, overtly sexual, eminently and uncomfortably physical. Bertha is a demon, and her attic is Hell: red, dark, rank, and disgusting.
But Jane—oh, Jane is never more angelic than when she stands next to Bertha. Jane is small and mousy, no beauty herself; but that very lack of physicality places her above Bertha and becomes her best virtue. There is nothing coarsely embodied about Jane; even in her wedding gear (indeed, especially then) her body does not inspire lust. Her very smallness and plainness make her pure and ethereal. Rochester calls her fairy, changeling, sprite; she is barely human in his eyes.
Jane tells the story thus:
Mr. Rochester flung me behind him: the lunatic sprang and grappled his throat viciously, and laid her teeth to his cheek: they struggled. She was a big woman, in stature almost equalling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest—more than once she almost throttled him, athletic as he was. He could have settled her with a well-planted blow; but he would not strike: he would only wrestle. At last he mastered her arms; Grace Poole gave him a cord, and he pinioned them behind her: with more rope, which was at hand, he bound her to a chair. The operation was performed amidst the fiercest yells and the most convulsive plunges. Mr. Rochester then turned to the spectators: he looked at them with a smile both acrid and desolate.
“That is MY WIFE,” said he. “Such is the sole conjugal embrace I am ever to know—such are the endearments which are to solace my leisure hours! And THIS is what I wished to have” (laying his hand on my shoulder): “this young girl, who stands so grave and quiet at the mouth of hell, looking collectedly at the gambols of a demon, I wanted her just as a change after that fierce ragout. Wood and Briggs, look at the difference! Compare these clear eyes with the red balls yonder—this face with that mask—this form with that bulk; then judge me, priest of the gospel and man of the law, and remember with what judgment ye judge ye shall be judged! Off with you now. I must shut up my prize.”
As an awkward ten-year-old who was taller than all my classmates, whose hair had lately darkened from baby-blond to brown, who was often called fat on the playground—whose moody, charismatic father shouted when I stepped out of line, but still snuck into my room at night to do things I couldn’t speak of—where else would I see myself in this scene, but in Bertha? I was the reviled one, the dark secret, the demon whose body betrayed both herself and the man who must, once, have loved her.
My only hope to become Jane, and thereby to escape Hell, lay in the kind of bride my mother had wanted to be: virginal, slim, and worshipped by her bridegroom as something both more and less than human; something he hardly dared to touch.
A storm rumbled to life just as we reached Saint Benin’s church, and our small group was immediately soaked. Everyone laughed when the rain started needling down, and simply huddled together in the shelter of the church’s ancient walls—there was no roof for us to stand under.
I felt embarrassed by the storm, as if it too were something I could have avoided through better planning and preparation, if only I were a more angelic bride. I’d even had my charity-shop dress let out so that it would fit me, instead of shrinking myself inwards so I would fit into it. I’d thought it was good and right not to starve myself before my wedding, which should be a time of fullness, openness, and love. But suddenly I felt fat in the worst way, the Bertha way, the way that meant I was unworthy of the attention and affection that my friends and husband were so happily bestowing on me. I wanted to crawl into an attic and snarl.
And then the ritual began. Dara Molloy, our Celtic monk, in practical modern clothes under his brown druid’s robe, held up his hands and lifted his face to the sky. He began the ceremony by making a wry reference to the storm even as he welcomed it. In another context, the weather might have seemed demonic in its force, in the driving wind that howled and sang on the hilltop, but it was transformed through the grace of Dara’s words, through the grace of our friends and their love. The storm became vital, blessed and blessing, part of the power of the landscape around us rather than something that fought against it.
Dara spoke of the divine feminine and masculine, describing them as not opposing forces, but each a part of a greater whole. He took my hand and dipped it in water from one of the island’s holy wells. “Here you are,” he said, “the highest creation in all of nature: a beautiful young woman.” Are you sure you mean me? I thought. But the womanhood he spoke of was no ethereal vessel of purity, no virginal sylph. She was a holy well, both the foundation and the flower of creation. “The Earth is a woman,” he said matter-of-factly. “We are standing on her body right now.”
The earth: huge and abundant, violent and strong, wreathed in blue and green and white and black. I was standing on her, and I was part of her, and my body was made in her image. My hand was in the monk’s confident grasp, my fingers dipped in holy water. I could feel my husband’s gentle, proud, loving gaze, and the loving gazes of my friends all around. Here was beauty I could own.
It’s only fair to add that Jane rejects Rochester after meeting Bertha. She leaves him, leaves Thornfield; she stays away for years. When she finally returns, mature and financially independent, she finds that Bertha has burned down much of the great house in a suicidal rage, and that her beloved Rochester is a blind recluse. Perhaps Rochester’s injuries are a punishment; perhaps, as some of my teachers have suggested, Bronte takes away his physical power in order to make him truly Jane’s equal.
I remain unconvinced. Jane and Rochester were always equals of mind; their bodies mattered far less. As an adult reader, I can see something in Bertha that I missed as a child. Now I wonder if Bertha is Bronte’s argument that the body of any human female, in all its imperfect and messy physicality, is Hell for an intelligent woman who wants to be known and understood for her mind alone. A body that disgusts men, Bronte seems to say, is the same as one that entrances them: a distraction. In order not to be devils, we must be angels, free of any body at all.
My mother cried when, at age eighteen, I admitted to her that I’d had sex before marriage. She couldn’t look at me, even though I had been born, full-term and healthy, seven months after her own wedding. Maybe she wanted something better for me than she’d been able to give to herself; maybe she thought that if I stayed a virgin, it wouldn’t matter what my father had done to me when I was a child. Or maybe she really thought no man could love me now.
It was speaking the truth about my father, seven years later, that tore apart what remained of my relationship with my mother. Four months after I reported his abuse to the police, four months after the last time she and I spoke, I eloped. My husband and I were married, that first time, in a small registrar’s office in Gretna Green, the home of secret marriages since before the time of the Bronte sisters.
I’d chosen a cream-colored day dress, printed with wildflowers, for the ceremony, and I wore a creamy rosebud in my hair. While my husband-to-be and I waited for our registrar, I made some small, self-deprecating joke about not being pure enough for a real white dress.
He looked surprised for a moment, then took my hand, his dark eyes searching out mine. “You’re pure as the driven snow, you are,” he said quietly in his Irish brogue.
I smiled and laughed a little, squeezing his hand, but something in me was starting to heal.
In Celtic times, handfastings were a kind of trial marriage. A couple was bound together not for eternity, but just for a year and a day. If, at the end of that time, they still wished to be wed, there was a second and more permanently binding ceremony. If not, the cord that had once tied their hands together would be cut, and they would both be free to love, and to wed, again. Any resulting children would be raised by the whole community if need be; and neither bride nor groom was demonized for their choice to end the union.
In fact, Dara told me at dinner after the ceremony, there were seven levels of marriage in Celtic society. Some had to do with social class; not all levels of marriage were available to every person. Some were permanent, some as fleeting as the sexual act itself.
I had two weddings, both of them small. Sometimes people ask me if I wish I’d had a big, traditional wedding, especially if they knew me as a child, back when I had a white gown in my dress-up box.
But I never felt more myself—more complete unto myself—than I did standing on that hilltop in the middle of a storm, the family I’d chosen all around me, my hands in holy water. I was a woman. I was a bride. I was no angel, and I wouldn’t have been one for anything. ♦
From Parabola Volume 39, No. 2, “Embodiment,” Summer 2014. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.