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!