Back in the Jug Agane

Incredibly, after something like two years of research leave, I’m teaching a seminar this afternoon at the university. It’s for the comparative literature paper we teach on the body, and I’m involved in the module that explores the mind-body connection. For quite some time now the topic has been hysteria, given that there are more European works of literature that explore the trope than you would credit possible. I teach this alongside a colleague from the Spanish department and we generally have a lovely time together with the students. I said to her the other day: ‘Tell me how this teaching thing goes again?’ and she replied ‘Oh I wouldn’t worry too much about that. I just turn up and see what happens.’

This sounds like a fine strategy to me, although I have to do the presentation which involves a little more than mere bodily presence. But that’s ok because it’s also stuff with which I am very familiar. I talk about The Turn of the Screw, which I’ve discussed in this blog before, and I also talk about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic tale of hysteria, The Yellow Room. I call this ‘the undergraduate’s favourite’ as it’s all of about 15 pages long and a really neat exposition of how that turn of the century cultural epidemic of hysteria often played out a deeply antagonistic gender battle. The text was written off the back of Perkins Gilman’s own experience of a hysterical illness, which was treated by a ‘rest cure.’ This cure, she was convinced, did her far more harm than good, and certainly in this day and age, hustling a woman with a delicate state of mental health into solitary confinement and forbidding her any form of distraction or entertainment does not sound like a good idea. The story details a woman’s descent into madness and points the finger squarely in the direction of her husband, who happens also to be her doctor, and his dangerous mismanagement of her condition.

The story opens with our unnamed female narrator already suffering mild depression and being brought to a new location, a kind of ironic holiday house, in order to enjoy complete peace a quiet. She is confined to one room, a former nursery, where she is obliged to spend her days in isolation and inactivity. In particular she is not allowed to read or write, as these pursuits are considered bad for excitable women. Left thus to her own devices she becomes increasingly obsessed with the ugly wallpaper in her room and the patterns she begins to identify within it (‘the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase.’) As her mental health deteriorates, so she comes to view the wallpaper as representing a restrictive or imprisoning trellis behind which another shadowy woman lurks (‘At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be’). It doesn’t end well for our heroine, who follows the classic pattern of hysterical revolt, which is to say a profound protest at her condition that ends up damaging her severely before it is properly understood.

This is a story written in the white heat of early feminist anger. The narrator is a victim of male misunderstanding whereby emotions that seem excessive or alarming are redrafted as mental illness. Furthermore, a woman’s right of access to the traditionally male domain of language in the form of reading and writing is also reasserted by Perkins Gilman. Deprived of other forms of language, the narrator reads the wallpaper as symbolic. And what she reads there, in a kind of fantastic projection, is the truth of her own condition. She, like the woman in the wallpaper, is restrained and confined behind the symbolic bars of a misreading.

All this reminds me that I must post on Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant novel, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, in which a young girl is confined to an asylum in the first part of the twentieth century for failing to behave the way a bourgeois gentlewoman should. Really, these things did occur and not so long ago. I cannot help but feel that these stories should be read as a necessary part of social history by all young women, to remind us, lest we forget, of the terrible conditions women were forced to endure unless they managed to remain sweet and complicit and pleasing within the patriarchal gaze of society. If you were not cheerful and ‘reasonable’ then imprisonment by a well-meaning father or husband (and sometimes not so well-meaning) could easily be your fate. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s worthwhile bearing such unpalatable thoughts in mind.

Talking of lost worlds, the title of this post comes from one of the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Williams and illustrated by Ronald Searle. These are hilarious (to my mind) books written from the perspective of Molesworth, small and subversive boarding school boy whose spelling is as atrocious as his attitude. Gone are the days of Masters and corporal punishment, but much remains that is eternal. English masters, according to our mini anti-hero ‘hav long hair red ties and weeds like wordsworth throw them into exstatsies’. On my own dear subject, ‘According to ancient tradition no fr. master can keep order.’ Which means that ‘fr. masters seldom get a chance to sa anything either in eng. or fr. But sometimes the boys are exorsted with raging and glad of the rest so the fr. master speaks. He speaks then of M. Dubois who is uterly wet.’ And as for history: ‘noone hav ever found a way of avoiding history it is upon us and around us all. The only thing when you look at the cuning vilaninous faces in our class you wonder if history may not soon be worse than ever.’ Ah classic comedy. I’m rather hoping for a more exalted tone of discussion this afternoon, however!

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20 thoughts on “Back in the Jug Agane

  1. Oh Molesworth! Surely one of the great comic books of all time. Hope The Yellow Wallpaper goes well — I too have taught this and students do seem to love it.

  2. And of course, these days hysteria has been renamed Conversion Syndrome and we know that it is caused by the inappropriate activity of two areas of the brain. However, we’re no further on in knowing how to treat it and recovery is still a very hit and miss business. But if anyone had kept me away from books I would be a lot further away from full health than I am.

  3. Well, a young generation of women may well be exposed to them, except they get it through melodramatic romance novels. 😀 Sometimes the hero rescues her and often as not she manages to sneak out and bully a handsome but poor aristocrat into marrying her, saving her from being “confined” and losing all her money to dastardly relatives.

    You know, Wide Sargasso Sea would fit in very well, I think, with that mind-and-body talk, as its essentially about a girl raised in an environment that wasn’t not conducive to mental stability (to say the least). Her marriage with Rochester is, in some ways, her last go at it but things inevitably deteriorate because they don’t know or understand each other. In the face of all the strangeness (the West Indian culture not being the least of it) he retreats into that (older) British bastion of male privilege and, well, that’s done.

  4. Harriet – thank you for your good wishes – they clearly helped! The Yellow Wallpaper was a pleasure to teach and the students were very enthusiastic about hysteria, as indeed who wouldn’t be? And Molesworth always makes me laugh, even though it’s so very dated in some ways. Ann – where hysteria is and what it looks like nowadays is a very interesting question. Elaine Showalter got into trouble for saying it was Gulf War syndrome, Juliet Mitchell says it’s more common in men now and all about sibling rivalry, and there were a series of newspaper reports about odd sickness illnesses that swept through all-girls boarding schools in America. If any disorder is not about to be confined to the left frontal lobe (or whatever) I would put my money on it being hysteria. And yes, literature deprivation is a terrible idea for a cure for any complaint! Imani – Now you’re really onto something there with Wide Sargasso Sea. I should think the combination of madness and sexuality would make it an excellent text. Ok, one more reason why I really must read it!

  5. Oh, I wish I could attend your seminar. What fun! The Victorian Chaise-Longue is another good one for the whole mind-body discussion. Years ago, I read a great nonfiction book about women being put in asylums by males in their lives basically just for being females who, in my mind, were stifled by their roles. Can’t remember the name of it, but if I do, I’ll let you know. And now, to add Molesworth to the TBR tome…

  6. Litlove, I would love to be a student in your class! “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a favourite of mine and it’s a treat to get to read a bit of your take on it here. I was going to suggest “The Victorian Chaise-Longue” as a perfect companion to it but Emily beat me to it. Emily, is the book that you’re thinking of a collection of first person accounts by the women thus confined interspersed with a bit of commentary by the author/editors? If so, I bet it’s “Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Walls 1840-1945” written and edited by Jeffrey L. Geller and Maxine Harris. It’s an amazing book.

  7. Reading your thoughts here make me want to pick your brain on a reading of Jane Urquhart’s Map of Glass. A contemporary novel, yes, but it definitely examines the whole mind-body relationship and how one woman’s life becomes fairly controlled by her doctor husband and his attempts to control her. I don’t think he ever tries to heal her, no matter how much he thinks that. I’d be very curious to hear what you think. And I would also love to attend your lecture, litlove, I’m sure it would be wonderful!

  8. I love “The Yellow Wallpaper!” In fact, I’m trying to decide if I should use it with my college students in their introductory lit/research course I’m teaching this semester. So far I’ve given them a lot of woman-centric read, though, so I’m thinking of giving the guys a break and assigning John Updike’s “A&P.” Hate to, though, because there’s so much to discuss about “The Yellow Wallpaper.” *sigh*

    Enjoy your return to the classroom! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time, and so will your students.

  9. I’m sure you class was brilliant. I love The Yellow Wallpaper. The image of the shoulder-level rubbed out trail around the room from her waling round and round and then her pulling pieces of the paper off. Such a sad and terrifying story of being trapped.

  10. I’m sure your lecture went wonderfully–I’d loved to have heard it as well. I have never read The Yellow Wallpaper (though have read The Turn of the Screw)– now I must. I think I would have gone very mad if I had been made to sit alone in a room with nothing to do. It’s frightening to think that a woman was a man’s property essentially (not so very long ago as you say) and that he had the power to do this exact thing, and no one would have thought the less of him.

  11. Emily – I wish you could have been there! If I can get to Philly for the meet, we will have to have some critical commentary groups and work together on some of our favourite stories. I must get hold of the Victorian Chaise-longue! Kate – I wish you could have been there too! And thank you for those wonderful recommendations, which I will certainly be following up. Verbivore – it’s so interesting that you should mention the Urquhart book which I possess and was this close to reading last year, then other books and reading plans got in the way. I shall dig it out; it sounds fascinating! Andi – what a difficult decision! I know just what you mean about ending up with an excess of one gender and feeling the need to tilt the balance. I’m sure your students will thoroughly enjoy whatever you choose for them! I must say it was very nice to see mine again! Archie – will it surprise you to know that I had you in mind as I was quoting Molesworth? I thought, I’ll bet Archie’s a fan, and I’m delighted to know I wasn’t mistaken. I remember those hilarious maths ‘solutions’ you posted on you site before Xmas. Stefanie – isn’t that ending powerful? It’s such a neat and compact tale of horror and incarceration. Danielle – I quite agree – who would survive complete absence of activity and distraction? I think you’d like the Perkins Gilman for one of your Sunday short stories (if you ever run out!!). The extent to which a woman was a man’s possession in the near past sends chills down my spine. If ever I moan about my life, I do try to recollect how fortunate I am to be able to moan freely!

  12. I was a “Yellow Wallpaper” undergraduate myself, and I’m sure I read it in the same seminar in which I read “Wide Sargasso Sea” – anyway, I loved both books myself. Both are brilliant depictions of women misunderstood and constrained by the norms of their time.

  13. I love The Yellow Wallpaper too, and would have loved to be in your class and hear more of your thoughts! You’re so right that it’s good to be reminded that it’s not so long ago that women were treated this way. My students certainly don’t seem to be that aware of it.

  14. Ever since I read my father’s (jeez, I’ve brought him up twice in posts to you now, sorry about that) copy of The Yellow Wallpaper when I was twelve, right after spending a couple of months entranced with Edgar Allen Poe, I am firmly convinced this is a story that should NOT be read before coming of age, and should properly be TAUGHT. You seen, people buried in walls and hearts beating without bodies didn’t scare me in the least, but The Yellow Wallpaper? Well, see, I had Yellow wallpaper in my bedroom. I had nightmares for months, and no matter how hard my dad attempted to explain what you just did, I was pretty convinced that there really was just a woman living in the wallpaper.

  15. We read that short story in high school. I remember it being the greatest – both for the class itself and the “investment” in my future. Many other post-high school teachers made passing references to this text that really enrichened the experiance.

  16. I love The Yellow Wallpaper, too–I read it first as an undergraduate, in the “white heat” of my early feminism as well. Also read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Wish I could come to your seminar, sounds great 🙂

  17. Charlotte – I can see that I AM going to have to read the Jean Rhys. I don’t really know how come I haven’t done before now. Your recommendation only makes me the keener! Dorothy – well that’s exactly what I think – they seem to feel that feminism is irrelevant to their lives, but I insist we should honour the suffragettes and the women from the 60s and 70s who brought about such huge cultural change. It would be so cool to be in one of your seminars, too! Courtney – I can remember being the exact same age and picking out the ‘faces’ in my curtains. Thank God no one had introduced me to the Yellow Wallpaper! It would have completely freaked me out, too. And your father is very welcome here; I love to hear your family stories! Nessa – hello and welcome! I’m so glad you had such a good experience with this story. So many don’t seem to hit the right spot in the classroom, so it’s heartening to find one that does. Gentle Reader – I mean to reread the Kate Chopin; it’s so long since I read it that all the details (apart from Edna floating in the sea) have long gone, but I do recall it as being wonderful (in a terrible way). It would be very good to go back to those early feminist stories – they pack such a punch. And I wish you could have been in the seminar too. That would have been a lot of fun.

  18. Pingback: Herland « Care's Online Book Club

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