There’s a section of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre that often gets glossed over in discussion, in favor of the novel’s central gothic romance. After Jane realizes her intended, Mr. Rochester, is a bigamist, with a mad wife in the attic, she runs away. She does this without much money, and quickly loses what money she does have — she finds herself utterly destitute, hungry, and exposed to the elements, wandering around the moor towns for days with almost no human contact except for begrudging, halfhearted charity.
Finally, she lies herself down on the earth, wishing to give up but unable to do so.
And I sank down where I stood, and hid my face against the ground. I lay still a while: the night-wind swept over the hill and over me, and died moaning in the distance; the rain fell fast, wetting me afresh to the skin. Could I but have stiffened to the still frost — the friendly numbness of death — it might have pelted on; I should not have felt it; but my yet living flesh shuddered at its chilling influence.
Rather than sheltering her, nature punishes her. But Jane was resolute. She chose this fate over her previous life in a prison of her womanhood, where she has been chained over and over to domineering men, and left powerless.
Of course, she’s saved from the brink, but not after being ill to the point of catatonic for weeks.
Jane’s short and harrowing journey into the semi-wilderness came to my mind this past month when I read two of 2014’s acclaimed, and arguably feminist, novels by women: Evie Wyld‘s All The Birds, Singing, and Catherine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing. In Wyld’s novel, a woman named Jake leaves her very troubled past in Australia behind to raise sheep in remotest Britain, refusing human companionship in favor of her dog and her sheep for some time, for some shrouded reason that is slowly revealed. In Lacey’s book, which reads like an extended, feminist version of Bartelby the Scrivener, protagonist Elyria leaves her older husband in New York to hitchike through New Zealand, abandoning all nascent attachments she forms there, with, essentially, an “I’d prefer not to.”
Both novels are written in first person, like Jane Eyre, and both rather fearsomely stand on the brink of nihilism in their ideology — rescued by their own creative force. Unlike Jane, who becomes reconciled to society by inheriting money and marrying a maimed and widowed Rochester, the progress these contemporary heroines make towards reconciliation with the life they’ve spurned could be measured in mere inches — or arguably, goes backwards. To make another comparison, this ethos is not quite like Wild, in which Cheryl Strayed’s choice to leave for the wilderness helps her return to as a member of the human fellowship, healed. Yet the feminist principles found in Strayed’s book can also be found in these novels. They just rise the next level: there’s no point in ever going back, the message seems to be. There is nothing waiting for women in either place but pain. So the only choice left is to distance themselves emotionally from the whole damn world. As Daphne Merkin wrote of Lacey’s novel, in the New Yorker, her protagonist is the embodiment of Leslie Jamison’s idea of the post-wounded woman.
While All the Birds, Singing works its way backwards and forwards towards a big reveal about Jake’s past and final, symbolic step towards her regained humanity at narrative’s end, the overall effect is bleakness and even horror. Meanwhile, Nobody Is Ever Missing offers us almost nothing in Elyria’s journey to give us hope for her. I admit that I found this very unsatisfying at first. But reading both novels back to back made me appreciate them far more than I would have otherwise, given that the traditionalist reader in me always likes to see more catharsis.
Yet since reading Wild, I have become deeply intrigued by the idea of dropping out, as it were, of civilization’s routines and expectations as a particular form of feminist rebellion, almost an ultimate feminist end-game. That’s because the most essentially building blocks of civilizations are families and romantic relationships.
Therefore, if relationships between women and men, and women and their families, are strained and forced into a position of inequality or unmet expectations by patriarchy, than brutal nature and utter solitude becomes a sensible refuge, an alternative. This is underscored by the fact that both novels do nothing to talk up nature, despite the poetic title of Wyld’s book. Rather, they are concerned mostly with the barbarism of other creatures, from the sting ray that attacks Elyria on a beach, to the large creature that is stalking and killing Jake’s sheep.
It occurs to me, with my only-partial knowledge of the full range of recent literary output, that this exploration of solitary self-segregation for women is a version of what adultery was in the 19th and early 20th century, a symbol of escape that is also a form of doom on its own. I’m fascinated and eager to see more literature in this vein that burrows into the concept of female detachment, so deeply, perhaps, that we can find something entirely new on the other side.