When we are young, we believe in the powerful import of fairy tales. Good triumphs over evil, knights are paragons of virtue, and powerful women are, more often than not, hideous witches emblazoned with warts. At the age of six, I remember avoiding a friend’s stepmother because I was under the impression that stepmothers were all plotting to poison us. Above all, the most ridiculous takeaway for girls was that we should wait for some guy to come and save us. This usually works out great – just listen to the Taylor Swift song about a white horse.
Real life for women has never resembled a fairy tale. Once upon a time, way back during the US Supreme Court hearings of 2018, Christine Blasey Ford voiced sexual assault allegations against Republican operative Brett Kavanagh. In exchange for her agonising decision to come forward, she received death threats and accusations of insanity. Essentially, party members responded with their characteristic degree of nobility. It would have been easier to fade into obscurity, but Ford has refused to compromise her truth. Her memoir, scheduled for release in March 2024, will detail her search for justice.
“Fairy tales indoctrinate us into ‘othering’ women with agency”
There have always been negative societal assumptions against women who oppose the patriarchal status quo. Fairy tales, foundational texts that, according to John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, “initiate children into aspects of a social heritage”, and indoctrinate us into ‘othering’ women with agency into the witches and evil stepmothers of literature. By contrast, the dominant man, often depicted as saving the hapless heroine, is condoned by the author and, by extension, romanticised by readers. Historically, many classic texts for young adults have followed the same trend. When rereading Jane Eyre during Ford’s hearings, author Betsy Cornwell had a sinking feeling. She recognised this story as a harmful twist on a tale as old as time, a narrative romanticising abuse.
When I spoke to Cornwell last month, she explained how she became disillusioned with Jane Eyre. Firstly, she always saw Mr. Rochester as a villain rather than a romantic hero. She recalls: “I experienced it as a very scary gothic story much more than as a sort of aspirational romance,” which is understandable given that the supposed hero keeps his wife locked in the attic. Dismissed as mad, this woman poses a dangerous threat to the novel’s domestic ending. The titular protagonist, though clever, can only find fulfilment, as in a fairy tale, when she is uplifted from poverty by her unpleasant husband.
Literature is a double-edged weapon, able to cut through stereotypes as well as reinforce them. Blasey Ford is challenging the dehumanising discourse with her story. When authors reinterpret a prior work, they go beyond a retelling to instead formulate a “re-version, a narrative which has taken apart its pre-texts and reassembled them as a version which is a new textual and ideological configuration”, according to Stephens and McCallum. Likewise, Cornwell wrote her young adult re-version of Jane Eyre, Reader I Murdered Him, to challenge the novel’s portrait of women having their identities irrevocably linked to their passive dependency on male figures. Instead, her characters embrace different sexual identities – and kill domineering and abusive men. The word ‘slay’ has suddenly been endowed with new resonance.
“I think Jane Eyre… has become a fairy tale in our cultural consciousness”
Like fairytales, classical texts have been ingrained into our heads over repeated readings in secondary school and college. Inevitably, so are societal norms. Cornwell recalls: “ I think Jane Eyre or the works of Jane Austen have almost become fairy tales in the way they exist in our cultural consciousness.” Considering this influence, she felt very uncomfortable with Jane’s limited capabilities for individual expression posited by the novel. She says: “Every time I reread it [Jane Eyre], I came at it with all of these feelings … anger really and resistance to the text even as I really admired it and its complexity and brilliance.” Her primary objection to the novel was the misleading narrative that the text reinforces through the narrow contrivance of the ‘happy ending’ and Jane’s eventual acceptance of Mr. Rochester despite his gaslighting and manipulation.
Writing her version of events was a cathartic experience for Cornwell. Instead of a docile plot device, Mr. Rochester’s adopted daughter, Adele, is depicted as a bisexual vigilante who exacts justice for women limited by the patriarchal marriage plot. These demands resonated with Cornwell because, as a young person in a serious relationship during college, Cornwell felt “claustrophobic” and trapped by a similar pressure to settle down in a heterosexual relationship. She refers to the imagery of Sylvia Plath’s branching tree, where societal expectations of womanhood limit every path.
Analysing the unhealthy dynamic between Rochester and Jane, Cornwell also dismantles the overly simplistic power dynamics construed by fairy tales. She says: “There is no perfect ‘victim’ … There is so much hyper fixation on how victims of violence respond to that violence and hyperfixation on being the perfect fit victim. If there’s anything wrong with you, you can’t stand up for yourself, or you don’t deserve protection or justice.” Her heroine struggles but is ultimately unrepentant about killing the abusers of women who have been wronged, subverting the moral shame often associated with tales of female revenge and those seeking justice for themselves. On the other hand, Jane is depicted as an intelligent woman in a relationship with an abuser, which also displays that anyone, regardless of intelligence and overall life experience, can end up in these relationships.
Simultaneously an abuser and father figure, Mr. Rochester’s characterisation upsets the standard, and deeply flawed, abuse narrative. Cornwell says processing abuse that happens to you is often difficult because rather than two-dimensional monsters who are abusers, it is people and “it’s statistically far more likely to be people you care about than strangers.” She muses that it is how we “distance ourselves from the idea of abuse and violence by thinking that only monsters perpetuate it … Mr. Rochester turns out to be fairly monstrous, but I didn’t want him not to be a human being.” The author refers to the difficulty of coming forward based on her own experience and why it takes people a long time to come forward because “you probably care about the person who hurt you. And second of all, they’re human beings too.”
“Women thoroughly internalize the message that we have to humanise our oppressors”
Gothic literature often posits gender and sexually nonconforming bodies as ‘sites of cultural anxiety’. Works like Rebecca – itself a response to Jane Eyre – contain language suggesting that the monstrous woman is not human at all. Richard Marsh’s The Beetle makes the threatening woman a literal insect. Cornwell defies this principle through a strategic reversal, making men figures of evil instead and giving her queer characters a happy ending when these male threats are extinguished. She says: “I think women thoroughly internalise the message that we have to humanise our oppressors.” Essentially, a man can fulfil the roles of the evil stepmother, and disgusting insect we accept as evil for evil’s sake, at the same time. Thankfully, the novel is not set in the long-lost kingdom where some people who can inexplicably forgive the negative traits of a straight white man have no qualms about attacking people of a different gender or racial identity. Doesn’t that kingdom sound like a great place to live?
Regarding the second concern, Cornwell also addresses that Gothic literature, like European fairy tales, is dominated by white supremacy. Likewise, although Jane Eyre is feminist in many ways, as a product of its time, it is not intersectional. Bertha, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, is Creole, a racially charged label that serves as another form of ‘othering.’ To combat this, Cornwell strives to include nonconforming characters like a transgender character and an Irish traveller – and cites adaptations by writers of colour like Wide Sargasso Sea and the upcoming release Escaping Mr. Rochester, which sounds wild as it features a romance between Jane Eyre and Bertha. “It’s also interesting because Jane Eyre is such a feminist text. We have Jane declaring her equality with Rochester and being such a complex, wonderful character. And yet that complexity and humanity is denied to Bertha.”
Reading the original The Little Mermaid story – infused with Christian beliefs – after the Disney movie was thoroughly disenchanting for my younger self. This disillusionment is because fairy tales, based on an oral tradition, are not static but evolve with a society’s social morals. For Cornwell, the same applies to the Gothic. She defines it as “a way for people to talk about things that might be taboo, things that aren’t okay to speak about openly or that people struggle to express directly”. The original Jane Eyre addresses issues of mental health and abuse, violence and poverty through Thornfield Hall, which Cornwell says can be interpreted as “a vision of someone’s mind or Jane’s mind, and you have the madwoman in the attic, and it’s this taboo thing that we’re not supposed to talk about, but we can talk about it through these heightened stories”. Gothic literature provides a language for women to talk about taboo subjects or “abstract oppressions that can be hard to express”.
“In other words, our modern era may be reminiscent of a gothic novel. But there is hope”
As an American who has moved to Galway, Cornwell believes each country has flaws concerning feminism. Ireland is ahead of the US in many respects since it has passed beneficial legislation while the US has overturned Roe versus Wade. That said, Ireland has its “version of toxic masculinity and its version of patriarchy and domestic abuse”. In other words, our modern era may be reminiscent of a gothic novel. But there is hope since female and gender nonconforming communities are less passive and more outspoken than ever. This era can be our gothic novel – and our modern gothic reversion – provided we write our personal narratives in an active voice.