It was an exciting time to be a female character. She had seen to that.
They were gathered together now because she had arranged it. ‘An Unholy Trinity’ Grace had called them with not a trace of irony. Already they could feel their potential for change growing in the capable hands of the one who had brought them together.
And more were on their way to swell the ranks. She was certain that others could be persuaded to join their cause. Others from novels not as celebrated as theirs: they were her real target. Those whose writers may not have hidden mad women in the attic and who may not have a genius for writing but who were still trapped in a world where men chose, cast aside and conquered. It was the female characters in the male novels that she wanted primarily. That was where she would start. If the initial campaign was a success, then she had said they would broaden their field of operation. Together they would infiltrate the books in which she had made contact with the female characters and subtly and softly they would shift the balance. Re-write the stories and in doing so re-write the stories of those who read them. The plan was terrifying simple and startling in its scope.
The three of them, Grace, Blanche and Bertha, sat facing each other. A silence had settled over them as they sipped their drinks, waited and pondered the wonder of being together. Blanche, young, beautiful and wearing her pride as a shield; Grace, middle-aged, stocky and practical – experience giving her an edge and Bertha gaining in strength and nurturing her hatred as if it was a God given gift that she mustn’t waste. All of them drawn on by a sense of injustice; a sense of outrage at a system that would allow a character like Mr Rochester to have such easy control over them all in one way or another. She had helped direct that sense of outrage and taught them how to focus it where it could have the most impact.
Jane would not be part of the group. That had been understood from the start. As Mrs Rochester, wife and mother, it was impossible. Although Bertha had felt that she may be persuaded. Since the cleansing fire and fall had freed her, Bertha was gradually coming back to herself. She liked to sit next to Grace scribbling in a note book that their hostess had given to her when they had first arrived. She filled page after page and then unceremoniously burnt them in the library fire each evening. The lady of the house in which they found themselves seemed to know how to reach each of them. She understood, even more than Grace, what Bertha needed to continue the process of knitting up that poor unravelled mind. Writing down her thoughts and feelings; expressing her anger and hatred and then destroying the paper on which they were written seemed to expel the tension that knotted up her face and her body so that when she had arrived she had seemed tied up in a knot of herself.
Of the three, Blanche had been the most difficult to persuade. Even though she had recognised in their leader a woman whose breeding and physical attributes more than matched her own. Blanche had been humiliated by Rochester in a way that choked her ability to see clearly.
She had argued like an obstinate child, “Why should I care what happens to other women? My own humiliation is enough to contemplate, thank you.”
The other, the woman who had brought her out of the world of the novel and into the world that she had created for her self, had simply smiled.
“Why don’t we take a walk; I’d like to show you what I’ve done since I came back here after the fire. I’ve made a few improvements that I think someone of your taste would like. You will stay for dinner as well before you go.”
It had been a statement not a question. And Blanche, so starved of lively, intelligent company, let alone the force of wit and charm that her hostess possessed, was happy to oblige. She was lonely since the situation with Rochester had come to nothing. She had enjoyed his intelligence as well as the thought of his money. Now her future stretched out ahead of her bleak and arid as an overcast day waiting for a break in the cloud or even a fall of rain to relieve the suffocating atmosphere.
As they walked, the woman at Blanche’s side made her laugh in a way that she hadn’t experienced since childhood. They walked around the grounds and down to the little beach. By the time they came back to the house, Blanche knew something of the other’s story and, for the first time, felt empathy and concern for someone other than herself. What had happened to her reduced in comparison. She talked of Mr Rochester and there was more laughter at his expense. Her companion was adept at mimicry and she knew Rochester’s speech patterns from the book; his somewhat mocking tones spilled from her hostess’s mouth in a way that took the sting out of the memory of him.
When they sat down to dinner that night, there was no more talk of not taking part; Blanche had a new future opened up for her. The break in the cloud had come and she recognised it and welcomed it.
Grace had been comparatively simple. She had talked to their hostess but also to her right hand woman, a woman whose physical presence made Blanche recoil, but with whom Grace was perfectly at home. They discussed what Grace termed the practical side of things and as soon as Grace was satisfied that the proposal was viable and understood what they all had to gain, and lose, she agreed. It made sense and she was happy with what was required of her.
Bertha had been different. Blanche had never seen her alone; she kept by Grace’s side in a way that Blanche was sure would have driven her mad, but Grace seemed unconcerned. She treated Bertha with a practical detachment that belied the emotion in her eyes when she looked at her. Blanche found their relationship puzzling and avoided thinking too deeply into the nature of things between them.
At first she had just scribbled and scribbled and page after page had been fed into the fire. Then gradually she began to listen to the talk of the others. She started to nod in agreement at times. Blanche watched her in abstracted moments, trying to trace in the ruined fallen-in face the remnants of the beauty that had attracted Rochester. Bertha stirred a deep fear in her and sometimes when she looked at her own face in the mirror, Bertha’s face stared out at her. These moments became fewer as they fell further into the grand scheme that was being outlined for them. The first part of which was a comprehensive reading programme starting with the book from which their hostess and her house had sprung.
Grace had named their hostess, ‘The General’ because of her formidable organizational skills and her talk of the fight ahead of them. There was often laughter and each of the three found themselves being drawn more and more to the one who had brought them together. Her charm was all encompassing and it was wonderful to bask in it and see oneself reflected in her beautiful eyes that radiated warmth.
Bertha had happily gone sailing with her in her boat, while Grace spent the afternoon sitting in the shade of a beautiful chestnut tree reading the books that they had all been provided with. When they both returned, Bertha looked extraordinary. Her cheeks were flushed; her bulky body seemed somehow less rigid and more fluid and her eyes seemed a little less tortured.
And so the three of them sat now in the library, sipping wine and waiting. She would be here soon and then the real work could begin. Blanche looked up at the clock on the mantelpiece. She had been gone for two hours; she would be back at any point now. As this thought came into her head, she heard the front door slam and a low exchange of voices. The three women looked towards the door expectantly as it opened and their hostess walked in.
Blanche drew her breath in and looked up at her as she stood there smiling at them. Blanche had read the book by now, they all had, and knew that she had been described by the man who had killed her as having the face of a Botticelli angel; such a description was not an exaggeration. Her beauty was the type to dazzle and derail. Such beauty and such determination, wrapped around a core of steel, were matched equally with brains and a ferocious organisational capability. She truly was a force to be reckoned with. The triumph on her face told them that she had succeeded. It was hard to imagine anyone being able to deny her anything.
Rebecca smiled round at her guests sat in the library of the house she loved, her house, her Manderley.
“Je reviens.” She said and started to laugh.