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The Grizzly Gazette

The Grizzly Gazette

Janes Eyre’s Bertha Mason and the Creole Identity


In Charlotte Brontës’ 1847 novel “Jane Eyre”, the character of Bertha Mason, the wife of Edward Rochester, is described as  “mad” and “uncontrollable”.

The story is told through the titular protagonist Jane Eyre, who undergoes a transformation from an abused orphan to an educated governess, in stark contrast to Bertha’s backstory.

Bertha’s backstory, which is told through Edward, involves the character being a wealthy daughter of a White English Creole plantation owner in the British Colony of Jamaica. 

Edward then explains that he was coerced into marrying her by his father due to her wealth, all the while having no knowledge of her family’s history of mental illness.

Despite having little narrative control, Bertha’s presence throughout the story incorporates views by English 19-century writers on the female Creole identity. Bertha’s immoral behavior mirrors descriptions of English travelers and historians describing Creole White women of the British West Indies. 

Throughout the 19 century, English travelers who visited the British Colonial West Indies saw White Creole women as morally, culturally, and sexually corrupt. This was the direct result of their environment and their close proximity to Blackness due to slavery. 

It must be noted that the word differs in definition from region to region, with some areas such as the Southwest United States identifying Creole as usually coming from a mixed European, African, or Indigenous background. In British colonial regions in the Caribbean, however, the word was often described as someone who had direct White/European ancestry. 

The general dissertation of women in the colonial British West Indies by these writers and travelers was of a world where Black Women labored, Brown/mixed women served, and White women consumed and leisured. 

While this dissertation is based on fact, the excess leisurement of the White female Creole population within the British West Indies caused great concern among English writers and travelers.

In the eyes of many of these English travelers, White Creole women did not live up to the ideal standards of a Native-born English woman whose positions in English society were largely domestic and unassertive. 

These submissive and quaint traits of English women align with the traits of Jane Eyre, who is described as a deeply moral woman with a sense of “plainness”, emotionally and physically. Jane Eyre is in stark contrast to the “immorality” that was produced by White Creole women. 

Many of these writers attributed the unchaste nature and vulgar behaviors of White Creole women to their frequent fraternization and influences of Black and mixed women. 

Black and mixed-race women were labeled as inherently sexual in nature and uncivilized by White English society, which was used to uplift White women’s virtuousness. 

Voicing his concern surrounding the unchecked “lustfulness” of the White female Creole population, English-born Jamaican plantation owner Byran Edwards wrote in 1801, “…romping, or stretching and lolling, from sofa to sofa, in a dirty confused hall, or piazza, with a parcel of Black wenches, learning and singing obscene and filthy songs, and dancing to the tunes.” 

In addition, many English writers noted how wealthy White Creole women wore a type of fabric called “madras”, which was used for headdresses, that originated from enslaved Black and mixed populations. White Creole women incorporating madras, whether this cultural fusion was appropriated or adopted from Black and mixed women, further alienated them from English culture and subjected them to be othered by travelers. 

English writers and travelers lowered the categorization of Creole White women due to the influence that slavery had on them socially and culturally. 

The caricaturistic descriptions of Creole White women, like Bertha Mason, by English writers and travelers throughout the 19-century exemplify complex views on race, English culture, and the effects of slavery. While White women’s involvement and active participation in the institution of slavery within the British West Indies can not be ignored, there are countless stories of them abusing and dehumanizing Black enslaved women

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