• AS SUSAN L. MEYER SUGGESTS, “[a]n interpretation of the significance of the British empire in Jane Eyre must begin by making sense of Bertha Mason Rochester, the mad, drunken West Indian wife whom Rochester keeps locked up on the third floor of his ancestral mansion” (252). In Richard Mason’s deposition concerning the marriage of Edward Fairfax Rochester and Bertha Antoinetta Mason in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Bertha is described as the child of Jonas Mason, West India planter and merchant, and Antoinetta Mason, identified only as a Creole. In Rochester’s account of Bertha’s family the “germs of insanity” are passed on by the Creole mother (334; ch. 27). In this essay I retraverse late eighteenth- to mid-nineteenth-century ethnographic discourses about white Creole degeneracy and situate Brontë’s representations of the Creoleness of Bertha and Richard Mason in relation to them, arguing that Jane Eyre demarcates both femininity and masculinity in imperial and racial terms, while also blurring these categories. Brontë, I demonstrate, links the degenerate moral and intellectual character of the white Creole with the cruelties of the slave-labour system in Jamaica, and with historical Jamaican slave rebellions figured through metaphor and allusion. This depiction suggests that Brontë has carefully historicized the relationships among Bertha Mason Rochester, Edward Fairfax Rochester, and Jane Eyre.

publication date

  • March 1999