Madeira Mondays: The Yellow Wallpaper (Book Review)

A colonial mansion, a hereditary estate, I would say a haunted house, and reach the height of romantic felicity – but that would be asking too much of fate. Still I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper

I wanted to share with you a ghost story this week!

It is almost Halloween, after all. I went back and forth about which story to pick, and ended up settling on a story that was written in the 19th century, not the 18th, although it’s set in an old 18th century home. It’s about a woman who has been feeling unwell (a ‘temporary nervous depression’, she calls it) and travels with her husband to a fading ‘colonial mansion’ one summer, a space where she can (presumably) recuperate. Her husband, John, is a physician and forbids her from writing, or doing work of any kind, until she feels better. But the woman begins a series of secret journal entries, chronicling her growing obsession with the ‘yellow wallpaper’ which surrounds her, in the room where she’s being held.

At first the wallpaper is just an eyesore, ‘one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin’, but slowly it seems as though the pattern comes to life. It watches her. It moves. It is like the bars of a cage and, behind it, she sees a woman held prisoner, desperate to escape.

I’m talking, of course, about The Yellow Wallpaper written by celebrated American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935). 

The book cover from 1901. Stetson was Gilman’s first married name, which she sometimes went by.

This is quite a famous short story but one that I hadn’t actually read until a couple of weeks ago. Quite simply: I loved it. I loved everything about it, really. I loved the themes in it: the repression and infantilization of women at the time in both marriage and in medicine (she’s treated like a child by her husband, who is also her doctor, and her own beliefs about her own health are ignored), the importance of creativity and self-expression.

It is full of vivid and unsettling imagery and I could see this wallpaper so clearly through the narrator’s eyes, as she slowly descends further towards insanity:

…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions. The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smoldering unclean yellow…

The story is on one level a critique of a specific psychological practice of the time to treat ‘nervous’ women, known as the ‘rest cure’. Gilman herself had suffered from postpartum depression, and was prescribed the ‘rest cure’. She wasn’t allowed to write or have any kind of mental stimulation – all she could do was ‘rest’ (which meant enforced seclusion and bed rest). Her doctor told her to:

Live as domestic a life as possible. Have your child with you all the time…Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.

(As quoted in the ‘Introduction’ to Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh)

The ‘rest cure’ was a treatment advocated by Silas Weir Mitchell, who is actually mentioned by name in The Yellow Wallpaper. Gilman eventually rebelled against the ‘rest cure’, which had only worsened her condition, and began writing again. When she finished The Yellow Wallpaper, she sent a copy to Mitchell, but never received a response.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman c. 1900, photo via Wikipedia

Interestingly, according to this article I found from the American Psychological Association, the cure that Mitchell prescribed to women was very different to the one he suggested for men:

While Mitchell put worried women to bed, he sent anxious men out West to engage in prolonged periods of cattle roping, hunting, roughriding and male bonding.

So…women had to shut themselves away inside, and stop engaging in any sort of self-expression. Men should get out there and…ride some horses! It was called the ‘West cure’. I laughed so much when I learned about this, because it so clearly illustrates the misogyny and the cultural stereotypes of the time. Women were told to go back into the home, into the domestic sphere, while men experiencing what we might think of now as depression and/or anxiety were encouraged to just get out there, go outside and do some ‘manly’ activities (like hunting or herding cattle).

In any case, Gilman’s story is inspired by her experiences with the ‘rest cure’ and its negative effects, but it’s also a timeless story about how important it is for everyone to be able to express themselves. The narrator finds it a ‘relief’ to write. There is a great irony that everyone around the narrator wants her to stop writing (‘I verily believe (John’s sister) thinks it is the writing which made me sick’), but in reality it is the writing which is keeping her alive.

But is this a ghost story, Carly, you might ask? Well…I think so! And not just because I read it in the ghost story anthology, Ghost, edited by Louise Welsh. It’s quite a gothic tale (spooky old house, a woman in captivity, heightened emotions) for one. But it’s also a ghost story because the narrator is haunted by the yellow wallpaper. More broadly, she’s haunted and tormented by the confines put upon her by her husband and the male-dominated medical establishment of the time.

I know I’ve made it sound quite heavy, but it’s a brilliant story, very readable, and free to read online (it’s available here on Project Gutenberg).

Happy reading and happy halloween, my friends!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson…teen rebel?

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post on Emily Dickinson‘s poem about waiting. In that post, I mentioned how Dickinson was one of my favorite poets, especially as I was growing up, and how I have many of her poems memorized. Around that time I also mentioned that I was thinking about watching the new Apple TV series Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson and a couple of you said you’d be curious to know what I thought of that series. Well – I’ve now seen Episode One of Dickinson entitled ‘Because I Could Not Stop’ and wow – there’s a lot going on in this show.

In Episode One alone, we meet ‘Emily Dickinson’, reimagined as a rebellious and slightly emo teenager who says things like ‘I’m just chilling’ and ‘Hey bro!’ She’s got big literary ambitions and a conservative family (including a mother played by 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Jane Krakowski). We get a sexy steam-punk personification of ‘Death’ in a top hat. We get modern pop music. We get a secret lesbian romance. We get, in short, a lot of stuff. (Who knew so much was going on in rural 19th century Massachusetts?)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Dickinson isn’t interested in historical accuracy. They make that abundantly clear from the first scene when Emily is asked to get water from a well. She complains that her brother doesn’t have to fetch water. When her sister responds that her brother doesn’t have to do chores because he is a boy, Dickinson says, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, we can’t know how the real Emily Dickinson spoke, sure, but she was a pious woman living in rural New England at the time of the American Civil War, so…I think we can safely say that she didn’t talk like this. And that’s the whole point of the opening scene – the show is letting you know immediately that they’re going for this sort of irreverent mish-mash of historical characters in period clothes mixed with deliberately anachronistic, modern dialogue and, in many cases, modern attitudes too.

A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16 displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), accessed via The Poetry Foundation Website

I’m actually not sure what to compare this to – in terms of style. The fun and irreverent mix of modern and historical makes me think of Hamilton, but that seems almost unfair to Hamilton, given that Hamilton harnesses modern music in its historical retelling for a strong thematic purpose. By telling a historical story in the contemporary musical language of rap (and by starring a multiracial cast), it’s saying that these stories belong to contemporary, multicultural America. It’s also drawing a parallel between the struggles of an 18th century man, Alexander Hamilton, and the struggles of modern immigrants. It’s also just an innovative musical choice and, when you’re watching it, the music feels fresh and even revolutionary, which conveys the fresh and revolutionary ideals of the man it’s about (notice that King George III doesn’t rap, but the revolutionaries do!).

Maybe Dickinson is doing something similar. Are they trying to show that Dickinson is ahead of her time, by having her speak in a way that is…ahead of her time? Notice that her mother and father don’t talk as casually or in as modern a way as Emily does. They speak in a more ‘period’ fashion. But I think the whole acting-like-a-modern-teenager thing is more for comedy than anything else (at least from Episode One). The tone is actually a lot more similar to something like Drunk History (which Jane Krakowski has actually been a part of) than Hamilton.

I’m really not sure yet if I liked Dickinson. I thought that it would be more like Reign, a teen drama ‘based’ on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which was popular a couple of years ago. I liked Reign because it was basically a soap opera. Crazy stuff (betrayals, affairs, secret plots) were in basically every episode and it didn’t take itself very seriously. I am worried that Dickinson might be taking itself too seriously, or working its way there. I think I’d like it more if it stayed in the more lightly comic tone – I actually laughed out loud once or twice when I was watching it!

I think too that some of the dialogue in Episode One was really heavy-handed, but that might just be because it was the first episode. There’s a lot of exposition and lines like ‘I don’t want to get married! You know that!’ and ‘You’re afraid, Emily? You’re not afraid of anything!’

I am curious to see where it goes though. I’d be fine if they heightened the fun (more steam-punk Death in a carriage!) and played down the family drama stuff, but I’m worried it might go the opposite way. But we’ll see.  I’ve seen/read a few other representations of Dickinson’s life, both quite serious – The Belle of Amherst (a play) and A Quiet Passion (a film from 2016) – but I’ve not seen anything quite like this before.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and ‘Death’ (Wiz Khalifa) in Dickinson

I might watch Wild Nights with Emily (2018)which was a purely comedic film, about her supposed romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to compare it with this series (since I think that interesting aspect of Emily’s life will play a big part in this too).

Let me know what you think of Dickinson! I would be so, so curious, if you’ve seen this series, what you think of it? Should I keep watching? Does it improve from this or go downhill? And if you’ve not seen it, what do you think of the sounds of it? (Also excuse that Dickinson falls slightly outside of our ‘Madeira Mondays’ 18th century remit, since it is technically about the early 19th century! But I figured you wouldn’t mind!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

PS And speaking of poets and poetry, I also wanted to let you know that I’m doing a poetry performance online this week with the brilliant ‘spoken word cabaret’ Sonnet Youth.  I’ll be reading poems from my new pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, alongside three other excellent Scotland-based poets. It’s a free to watch video stream, with the option to donate to charity if you’d like. It’s on Thursday, 17 September 2020 from 20:00-21:30 and the event link is here

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film Review)

France, 1770. A tale of forbidden love, same-sex desire and painting. Sign me up! From the moment a friend of mine sent me the trailer for Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la Jeune Fille En Feu, in its original French), I knew I would enjoy this movie. It ticks so many boxes of things I enjoy. It’s historical, it’s a bit gothic, it’s about female experiences and patriarchal limitations. I’m also a sucker for art about art. So I went into it with pretty high expectations. But what I did not expect was just how good this film was: it’s a subtle, sensuous, and frankly pretty faultless movie. It’s also just so. darn. romantic. And tragic. But we’ll get to that in a second.

portait of a lady

As I mentioned, the film takes place in France in the 1770’s (which, by the way, is the exact same time period in which the novel I am working on is set – so I loved seeing the costumes in this!). It follows a small cast of characters. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter, newly arrived to a drafty old mansion on the Brittany coast. She has been called there to paint Héloise (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocratic woman who will soon be married off to a Milanese nobleman. The painting will be a gift to this man, a lovely portrait of his new French bride. The only catch is: Héloise doesn’t want to have her portrait painted at all. She doesn’t want to be married off, either. So Marianne must paint her subject in secret, observing her with furtive glances on their walks on a windswept beach, or by the steep cliffs. Is there tension? You bet there is! Are those pauses pregnant with longing and unspoken words? You bet they are.

This is a film that is especially suited to its medium and by that I mean it’s a very visual film. Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue, when it happens, is excellent. Funny and specific and gives a great sense of character. But it’s a lot about looks, as slowly Marianne’s portrait of the surly but also surpassingly sweet Héloise emerges. But Héloise is also looking back at Marianne, observing this young woman who, unlike herself, has a professional career as a painter and has decided not to marry. Marianne wears masculine clothes and smokes a pipe (although this is not entirely uncommon for women of the time). Marianne is well-travelled. She’s heard symphonies. Héloise is entranced. They’re entranced with each other.

portait of a young girl

Marianne (Noemie Merlant), right, and Heloise (Adele Haenel), left.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that these two fall in love (it’s made obvious in the trailer). At its heart, this film is a love story. But what I like most about the film is that we are made constantly aware – through their romance, through Marianne’s career (which is limited due to her sex), and through a sub-plot with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), Héloise’s servant who falls pregnant on accident – that their lives are governed by patriarchal rules. Marianne casually mentions that she cannot draw nude male models, only female ones, because female artists are not allowed to observe naked men. ‘Is it a matter of modesty?’ Héloise asks. Marianne replies: ‘It’s mostly to prevent us from doing great art. Without any notion of male anatomy, the major subjects escape us.’

This is great. Sciamma doesn’t have to make Marianne say: ‘We’re oppressed! We’re women! It’s an unequal society!’ We just know from these examples.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women, which I liked for certain reasons, but it’s also concerned with limitations faced by women of the past, when trying to enter the public, professional world. And it definitely hits you over the head with these sorts of inequalities more overtly than Portrait does. Think of the speech that progressive artist Jo March makes in Gerwig’s Little Women:

I just feel that women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a women is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely.

This is a good speech and delivered exceptionally well by Saoirse Ronan, but all of those same sentiments were encapsulated in Portrait, without needing to be directly said. This film is subtle and understated in all of the ways that I felt Little Women was not. And, granted, Little Women was a much cheerier, lighter, brighter, film overall. Whereas Portrait is more turbulent, moody, subtler, holds a lot more back. (Little Women is an American film, after all, and Portrait is a French one haha!). But still. They came out at almost the same time and explore many of the same themes, which is why I’m comparing them.

ANYWAYS, if you like these types of stories (about women who are ‘ahead of their time’, about forbidden passions, about slightly creepy mansions on windswept coasts), then you’re gonna LOVE Portrait of a Lady on Fire. While Portrait didn’t blow my mind – I don’t think it was doing anything exceptionally innovative or treading on especially new territory – I still think it was an excellent film. I cried several times. It’s also definitely one of the best films I’ve ever seen set during this time period, so if you’re looking for a brilliant, subtle, well-crafted historical film, then do check it out!

(PS All of the images in this post, including the gorgeous waves-crashing Featured Image, were accessed via IMDB)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!