Richard Mason is a fascinating character, created by Charlotte Bronte, for her novel Jane Eyre, and taken up a century later in the prequel written by Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea. Mason reappears in All Hallows at Eyre Hall, the sequel to both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea, as one of the main characters.
This article will take a closer look at this pivotal character, drawn by Charlotte Bronte in the 19th sentury, developed by Jean Rhys in the 20th century, and reiterpreted by Luccia Gray in the 21st century.
Mason makes two brief appearances, which are essential for the plot of Jane Eyre. Mason’s character is only briefly sketched; nevertheless the reader is able to identify him in his specific and crucial role as both villain and foil to Rochester.
A simplified approach to these four characters may lead us to the conclusion that both Mason and Bertha could be interpreted as antagonists to Jane and Rochester. Jane is plain, good and pure, as opposed to Bertha, who is, or was, dazzling, wicked and sexual, whereas Rochester is unattractive, strong and honest, in contrast to Mason, who is good-looking, cowardly and deceitful.
However my interpretation of the novel is far from simplistic and aims to contribute to the unveiling the subtext of Jane Eyre; what was really meant (connotation), not was actually said (denotation). Bertha deserves, and therefore will be the subject of another article, because on this occasion I want to focus all attention on Richard Mason’s character and role in the novel.
Mason first appears in the novel arriving at a lively, guest-filled Thornfield Hall in a horse drawn carriage, claiming to be an old friend, while Mr. Rochester is out riding:
“The post-chaise stopped; the driver rang the door-bell, and a gentleman alighted attired in travelling garb; but it was not Mr. Rochester; it was a tall, fashionable-looking man, a stranger.”
At first, Jane is somewhat impressed by the newcomer:
“His manner was polite; his accent, in speaking, struck me as being somewhat unusual,—not precisely foreign, but still not altogether English: his age might be about Mr. Rochester’s,—between thirty and forty; his complexion was singularly sallow: otherwise he was a fine-looking man, at first sight especially.”
However it took her only seconds to realize there was something untrustworthy about him:
“On closer examination, you detected something in his face that displeased, or rather that failed to please. His features were regular, but too relaxed: his eye was large and well cut, but the life looking out of it was a tame, vacant life—at least so I thought.
The guests at Thornfield Hall were impressed with the visitor. According to the ladies gathered he was attractive, using adjectives such as: “a beautiful man,” and, “a love of a creature,” some “adored” him and referred to “his pretty little mouth, and nice nose,” and others said he was “ideal” and “charming.” However Jane decides that he is repulsive:
“But I liked his physiognomy even less than before: it struck me as being at the same time unsettled and inanimate. His eye wandered, and had no meaning in its wandering: this gave him an odd look, such as I never remembered to have seen. For a handsome and not an unamiable looking man, he repelled me exceedingly: there was no power in that smooth-skinned face of a full oval shape: no firmness in that aquiline nose and small cherry mouth; there was no thought on the low, even forehead; no command in that blank, brown eye.”
Two paragraphs later, comparing him to Mr. Rochester, she has framed him as the villain by comparing Mason to a falcon and Rochester to a sheep:
“I compared him with Mr. Rochester. I think (with deference be it spoken) the contrast could not be much greater between a sleek gander and a fierce falcon: between a meek sheep and the rough-coated keen eyed dog, its guardian.”
Shortly after, Rochester returns disguised as an old gipsy who wishes to tell the guests their fortune. After the farce, which Jane discovers easily, she tells him that he has a visitor and he reacts with horror:
“His name is Mason, sir; and he comes from the West Indies; from Spanish Town, in Jamaica, I think.”
Mr. Rochester was standing near me; he had taken my hand, as if to lead me to a chair. As I spoke he gave my wrist a convulsive grip; the smile on his lips froze: apparently a spasm caught his breath.”
He lets her know immediately that Mason is a big problem for him:
“Jane, I’ve got a blow; I’ve got a blow, Jane!” He staggered. “Oh, lean on me, sir.”
However the two men converse alone together and she hears them bid each other good might amiably, as if they had reached some kind of gentlemanly agreement.
Later, in the middle of the night, Jane and all the guests hear a terrible howl coming from the third storey crying for help. It comes from the room directly above hers, where we later discover Bertha has been hidden for eleven years. Everyone wakes up and leaves their rooms in fright. The worried and curious guests are sent back to bed while Rochester asks Jane to follow him upstairs:
“Mr. Rochester held the candle over him; I recognised in his pale and seemingly lifeless face—the stranger, Mason: I saw too that his linen on one side, and one arm, was almost soaked in blood.”
He then left her alone with him while he went to fetch Dr.Carter:
“I shall have to leave you in this room with this gentleman, for an hour, or perhaps two hours: you will sponge the blood as I do when it returns: if he feels faint, you will put the glass of water on that stand to his lips, and your salts to his nose. You will not speak to him on any pretext—and—Richard, it will be at the peril of your life if you speak to her: open your lips—agitate yourself—and I’ll not answer for the consequences.”
The Jane did not know at the time who or what had attacked Richard, but we will find out it was his sister, Bertha Mason, who had bitten him and attacked him with a knife. Rochester eventually returns with Dr. Carter who carries him away from Thornfield Hall to cure his wounds.
(In the first chapter of All Hallows at Eyre Hall, Mr. Mason refers to this incident and reminds Jane of the noises she heard that night, disclosing a shocking secret which lay behind the closed door and was only partially disclosed in Jane Eyre).
Mason’s second and last appearance occurs three months later, when Mr. Briggs, a London solicitor interrupts the wedding by accusing Mr. Rochester of attempted bigamy. Rochester denies being married, denying the authenticity of the marriage certificate, and later suggesting that if he ever had a wife she was not living, until Mason intervenes by answering the vicar’s question:
Then addressing Mason, he inquired gently, “Are you aware, sir, whether or not this gentleman’s
wife is still living?”
“Courage,” urged the lawyer, “speak out.”
“She is now living at Thornfield Hall,” said Mason, in more articulate tones: “I saw her there last April. I am her brother.”
That is when they all return to Thornfield hall and discover the cruel secret in the attic.
Following the discovery, Rochester tried to convince Jane that he was tricked into marrying a mad Creole, by his own father as well as her father and her brother. Jane believes him, as many readers have done in the last hundred and fifty years, but in any case, Jane leaves because, tricked or not, mad or not, Bertha Antoinette Mason is his legal wife; she is Mrs. Bertha Rochester.
Wide Sargasso Sea
In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys expands on the story of Bertha and Richard Mason, who plays a major role in this novel, too. We learn that Richard and Bertha are not blood relations. Richard was Mr. Jonas Mason’s son by his first marriage, and she was her mother, Antoinetta’s, daughter by her first marriage. When they married, they had no children. Bertha’s mother was a Creole, although her father and Richard’s father were both English.
Rochester tells Jane his marriage to Bertha had been arranged by their respective fathers and in Wide Sargasso Sea, Rochester writes a letter to his father informing him that the transaction has been conducted according to their plans:
“All is well and has gone according to your plans and wishes. I dealt of course with Richard Mason. His father died soon after I left for the West Indies as you probably know. He is a good fellow, hospitable and friendly; he seemed to become attached to me and trusted me completely.”
Wide Sargasso Sea confirms the information Rochester tells Jane after Bertha’s discovery in Jane Eyre in another letter to his father:
Dear Father. The thirty thousand pounds have been paid to me without question or condition. No provision made for her (that must be seen to). I have a modest competence now I will never be a disgrace to you or to my dear brother the son you love. No begging letters, no mean requests. None of the furtive shabby manoeuvres of a younger son. I have sold my soul or you have sold it, and after all is it such a bad bargain? The girl is thought to be beautiful, she is beautiful. And yet…
In Wide Sargasso Sea, it is Rochester who convinces Mason of his honesty. Rochester is awarded the thirty thousand pound dowry, and when her father dies she inherits a great deal of money, which also goes to Rochester because he is her husband. When Bertha’s aunt Cora suggests she should be protected legally, Richard answers:
“You are talking about an honourable gentleman, not a rascal,” Richard said. “I am not in a position to make conditions, as you know very well. She is damn lucky to get him, all things considered. Why should I insist on a lawyer’s settlement when I trust him? I would trust him with my life,” he went on in an affected voice.”
So, in Jane Eyre, Richard Mason is protecting his sister. Rochester was given a great deal of money in exchange for the wedding, and he pledged to love her in sickness and in health. He is naturally looking after his sister’s interests.
But there are many unanswered questions. Why did Mason return to see his sister in April? Did he visit his sister frequently? Did he know how about her living conditions? What did he talk to Rochester about? What was their secret agreement which is not fully disclosed in Jane Eyre? All Hallows at Eyre Hall holds the answers to these enigmatic questions.
All Hallows at Eyre Hall
Mason does not appear in All Hallows at Eyre Hall by chance. There is a specific and unexpected reason for Richard Mason’s presence at Eyre Hall. Richard Mason has some disquieting news for Jane Rochester which will turn her world upside down, once more. She will find out exactly what happened the night Bertha attacked her brother. We will discover why she attacked him and what those strange animal noises and squeals coming from the attic were all about.
Bertha’s presence was only one of the secrets at Thornfield Hall, and although both secrets were conveniently removed before Jane and Rochester married, Bertha’s shadow will haunt Jane once more twenty-three years after that fateful night.
Richard Mason was a villain in Jane Eyre because he interrupted Jane and Rochester’s wedding, but in all honesty, he simply reminded Rochester that he was already married to his sister for whose hand he had received a great deal of money. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Richard is the gullible and careless older brother who neglected to look after his sister’s financial well-being, allowing Rochester control over all her funds and finally take her to England, out of her family’s reach. Mason does not do any of the things villains do in either novel; he is not seen to kill anyone, deceive anyone, steal from anyone, abuse anyone, etc. He is more an irresponsible coward than a villain.
On the other hand, in All Hallows at Eyre Hall, Richard Mason is finally given his true role as villain in the style of Count Fosco in The Woman in White. He is a scheming manipulator who has his own selfish ulterior motives. Mason will finally be allowed to play a major role as a really nasty piece of work. He has become a more ambitious, vicious, and clever schemer. You are going to love this villain!
However, I must warn you, there is another, unexpected villain in All Hallows At Eyre Hall, and he is even worse than Shakespeare’s greatest villain, Richard III. He murders, plots and schemes, even helpless children and his family are included amongst his victims, and his name is not Richard Mason.