Antoinette rubbed the candlestick with her thumb.
It was a solid object, silver plated and heavy, with ornaments carved along the rim of its round base. How old it was, she could not tell. It may been in the family for twenty, thirty years, or have been a part of Edward’s mother’s trousseau.
Or maybe Edward stole it from someone else’s house.
The candlestick was empty, the candle having burned out. A new one should be brought up soon; grey daylight pouring into the room was getting darker. The sky was overcast, doubtless it would soon rain again.
The room was medium-sized, with mismatched pieces of furniture. A bed, a nightstand, a wardrobe and a dresser, two armchairs—at least those were of the same set—and a small table. Dull brown carpet. No mirror, no pictures hanging on the walls, no vases of flowers or trinkets. The wallpaper was an ugly yellow shade with a green pattern resembling leaves. She disliked it on first sight. One afternoon she found herself staring at it so hard, she could make out monsters hidden behind it. This was her life now. I shall go mad in here.
She stood up and walked to the window. Small, dirty, and could be open for only an inch, but it was a window. Window to the world. It existed, she reassured herself of it. A yard, an unimpressive garden, and beyond it—the moors. Stretched away to eternity, the horizon shrouded in a mist. Her feet ached with longing to get out, run out there, to those moors and run and run and run, never to return. But she would have to wait. That one time she tried to get away, they caught her before she could reach the main road. She hadn’t thought it through, she just ran. And she didn’t even have any warm clothes, it was so windy on the moors. She would have died of exposure. Next time, she would be cleverer. She would plan it out. She’d act as if she was resigned to her fate in the attic, and secretly plan her escape. He’d see. One morning he would enter the room and find the bed empty. She’d be gone.
The moors only looked like they stretched for eternity. They must end somewhere, England was an island. She also knew there was a city, Leeds, not ten miles away. If she could only get there, she would be able to contact Richard to ask him to come for her. She didn’t know which direction Leeds was. But she would find out, she would. He’ll see.
The wind rose, making whistling sound up in the roof. Antoinette shivered. It was so cold in England. She thought of Jamaica, of Spanish Town, the blue skies and palm trees. The St Jago de la Vega cathedral with its stained-glass windows. It used to be her favourite. Then she got married there.
She didn’t know that Edward was… like that, then. Nobody did. Richard was so certain it was a good match. “He’s from an old family, from Yorkshire in the north of England. The second son.” How could her brother have known? Edward presented himself as the perfect English gentleman, albeit not an heir. (She was the one with the wealth.) She had fancied she could love him even, despite his ugliness. Most of all, she believed they could make it work. She had been determined to make it work. Mutual respect and trust, if not love. So much she wanted to please him. Edward, dear, tell me what you want… just talk to me, please… She would have broken her back for him. But he only turned away from her, grumpy at the weather, the food, everything West Indian.
Edward became more withdrawn when the news of his father’s death came, yet he didn’t seem to mourn too much. The crease between his eyebrows deepened. She also suspected he hated his older brother. And then he died too, the brother, unexpectedly. Unmarried and childless. Overnight, Edward became the owner of Thornfield Hall. That was what the seat of Rochester family was called. One morning at breakfast he announced they would be leaving for England to settle there. “As you wish,” she said. Even if she had a choice over the move, why oppose it? Richard was often away on business trips and her parents were dead. Moving to England might be for the best. If nothing else, it would make Edward happy.
Her naivety would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so tragic.
Because he got even worse. Everything changed for the worse after that voyage.
Surely it was not her fault that she was so seasick, she didn’t want to be seasick. For once she stopped worrying about his moods, all her energy poured into surviving till the end of the voyage. “For god’s sake, Edward, no one chooses to be seasick!” she snapped at him once at dinner. An elderly couple at the next table stared at them. “Be quiet, woman, you’re causing a scene,” he retorted. All the better for you, she thought, reading sympathy on the faces of the man and the woman, sympathy not for her but for the poor Englishman stuck with a horrible Creole of a wife. So this is how it’s going to be. By the time they finally landed in Liverpool, she had almost lost the will to live. In the carriage to Yorkshire, she leant her head against the window and alternated between dozing off and watching the countryside. England didn’t look that bad. She only needed to get used to the climate, that was all. It shouldn’t be too hard. She wouldn’t be like Edward in Jamaica. Everything would get better, once they got to Thornfield Hall.
Oh, how foolish she was!
No more did she harbour those illusions. And she could kick herself now for being so stupid the time she attempted to escape. That was when he locked her in the attic. “You’re unwell, Bertha,” he said. “You need to stay indoors.”
He called her Bertha now, he said it was more English. She suggested that he used Antonia instead of Antoinette, if he wanted an English name. He gave her a confused look.
“Is Bertha not your name?” he asked.
“It is but you know very well I’ve always been called by my middle name.”
“I don’t know any such thing. Bertha is a perfectly good, respectable name.”
She didn’t deny that. She just didn’t like it. “It was for my paternal grandmother,” she said.
“And your paternal grandmother was English.” That apparently settled the matter.
It couldn’t have been as long ago as it seemed. In the attic, time measured differently. Days were weeks, weeks were months.
Sound of steps outside the door, key in the lock. Edward entered the room.
“Your dinner will be here shortly,” he said.
She wouldn’t thank him for not starving her to death, but still, food was some comfort. “I will need a new candle too,” she said.
“I will bring you one.”
He spoke almost kindly. A stranger overhearing their conversation—the elderly couple from the ship, for example—might conclude Edward was a caring husband. “I have hired a nurse for you, a Quaker,” he continued, “she will be here tomorrow. Her name is Grace Poole. She will look after you.”
“I don’t need looking after.”
“Yes you do. You know you do. She will be a company for you as well. I have to be away a lot.”
“You didn’t mention that before.”
“I did. You forgot again.”
He didn’t. She would have considered that good news, and she heard no good news since her arrival to England.
“Where is it that you have to go?”
“London, the Continent. Places.”
“You should take me with you.”
“You know I can’t.”
“I am your wife.”
“Which is precisely why I can’t risk you getting any sicker.”
She put the candlestick on the table. “That’s not the reason.”
A faint smile appeared on his face. “What is the reason, then?”
“You want to act like you’re unmarried, so you can seduce women.”
He laughed. “My dear, you truly are unwell. What the devil gives you such ideas?”
“Tell me then,” she lowered her voice, “why have there been no visitors to Thornfield? Why has no one come to greet me, as the new lady of the house? Where are your other relatives, friends?”
“You’re making up tales, Bertha. The staff know you’re here.”
“What staff? A footman and a housemaid, who’s clearly new here. A cook, who never leaves the kitchen. You don’t even have a housekeeper.”
“Hear, hear! Is Thornfield not good enough for you? I don’t remember having a legion of servants in Jamaica.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I mean!”
“What has got into you, Bertha?” He sounded almost amused. “This is not you. I cannot believe it. Look, here’s Mollie with the tray.”
He stepped into the corridor. It took all her willpower to remain sitting in the chair.
Edward put the tray with food on the table. “Here you go. Eat some, it will make you feel better. Let me go get you a candle.” He went out.
She sighed. What got into her, indeed? It wasn’t that she was wrong about what she said—she knew she wasn’t—but why say it out aloud? He’ll think you even crazier now. She rubbed her temples. Oh, to hell with it. What did she care if Edward chased other women? She didn’t want him anyway. They stopped sharing the bed a lifetime ago. Was it worse than locking her in the attic?
I need to get out of here. Richard, I need to send a word to Richard, he will come for me. It was pointless to write him letters from here, Edward would never send them.
And then her chest tightened, and her heart stopped beating, and the blood froze in her veins, you stupid, stupid-stupid-stupid-stupid, you are not getting away anywhere, ever again, you will never get out of here, and she let out a cold, bitter, menacing chuckle that scared even her own self.
She missed her chance. That Grace Poole creature was coming to keep a watchful eye on her. She would stay in the attic forever.
She grabbed the candlestick and clutched it till her palms ached.
The door opened, Edward returned with the candle.
“You haven’t touched your dinner,” he remarked.
She threw the candlestick at him.
It barely hit his shoulder. He looked at her with shock. “So is this what you are like? Violent, is that it?”
He picked up the candlestick and placed it on the table. She had never seen his eyes this cold.
“Now you listen to me, Bertha,” he said slowly, in an icy tone, “I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. If you attempt to attack me again, I will put you in restraints. I shall not have any disobedience. Do you understand?”
“I understand more than you think,” she said, in equally icy tone.
“Good.” He put the candle in the candlestick and lit it. “Now eat. Mrs Poole will arrive early in the morning.”
He walked out of the room and locked the door.
The wind threw first drops of rain against the window. The candle was burning, the flame dancing on the wick like a young maiden at a ball. Once, long ago, that was her too. It was at a ball she was introduced to Edward Fairfax Rochester, a ball organised by the Elmbridges for their youngest daughter, who had just come of age. “Handsome he certainly is not,” Cecily whispered to Antoinette’s ear and giggled. He wasn’t, Antoinette agreed, and had no fortune either. But that didn’t matter, because she had. He was so charming at that ball, a flawless nobleman, and not a bad dancer, he even made her laugh once or twice. The only thing she wondered about was why he had to cross the Atlantic to find a rich bride, whether there weren’t any heiresses closer to home. But she didn’t dwell on it. More likely he just longed to travel to West Indies. This landscape was so different from his own, he told her, fascinating. And she believed him. Everyone did. Even Richard was fooled, her brother that was so sharp in business matters. Edward played his game well.
The new master of Thornfield Hall needed no inconvenient Creole wife any more. He was free to go about his life pretending she didn’t exist. Seducing good, unsuspecting women, then discarding them like an old newspaper, once he got bored. He would dismiss Mollie and the footman and hire new servants who would never learn of any wife. The only one who would know would be Mrs Poole, her gaoler, paid to keep her locked and to keep her mouth shut.
Could she, with time, turn Grace Poole into her ally? Make friends with her, talk to her about things. Tell me about your family, Mrs Poole. Where did you grow up? That sort of stuff. And with time… Which way is Leeds?
Unlikely. Edward would sure pay Grace Poole a large salary, there would be nothing in it for her to break her loyalty.
She was trapped.
Torrents of rain raged against the windowpane, but it was a storm she wanted. Wild, like her rage. Her eyes would stay dry from now on, no more tears, only rage. Trapped. An attic room with forgotten furniture, small window and horrid wallpaper, this was her lot. Death would be her only absolution.
Unless Edward dies first.
How? A healthy man of not yet thirty?
She didn’t exactly imagine killing him—difficult to accomplish in her situation and besides, she would never get away with it—but there were always accidents. If she could earn Grace Poole’s trust, after a while, she might let her out of the attic sometimes. Quakers were supposed to be good people.
Antoinette looked at the candlestick. The poor thing didn’t deserve to be thrown against Edward. “I’m sorry I misused you like that,” she said and caressed it. How beautiful the dancing flame was! Fire really had a beauty in it, now that she thought of it. Accidents…
She picked up the fork and tucked into her dinner.
Author’s Note: As you no doubt were able to guess, the protagonist of this story is no other than the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a character that has long had my fascination. In the book, her name is Bertha Antoinetta, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel, she is called Antoinette (after they marry, Rochester starts calling her Bertha). I simply combined the two. As it is technically a fanfic, I tagged it as such. I like playing with these characters and imagine different scenarios and headcanons, though this is the first time I’ve written a story from her POV.
Thank you, Short Story Generator for giving me an idea! (A seriously useful and funny website full of generators–try it out!)
The detail about wallpaper is from the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which I jokingly refer to as the Madwoman in the Attic Origin Story. Like Jane Eyre, it’s also in public domain and you can read it for free here. (I’ve just realised that the writers are both Charlottes.)
The bit about Antoinette wanting a storm wild like her rage was inspired by the line “she wanted a storm to match her rage” from A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin. The she in question is Cersei Lannister, another one of my favourite characters, who also happens to be hated (sometimes so viciously it worries me) by the fans of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire.
And last but not least, many thanks to tnkerr of The New, Unofficial, On-line Writer’s Guild, one of whose weekly prompts have, erm, prompt me to write this. The prompt was “it might burn down your house”. In the end I didn’t use that line, it didn’t fit the story, but it definitely sparked my imagination, so credit where credit’s due.