Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been banging the drum for this novel for a while, so apologies if it seems like I'm repeating myself. But anyway, there's a new edition out, with an excellent introduction by Maggie O'Farrell, and it also contains a selection of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's other writings, including some chapters from her autobiography, which is fascinating. I wrote a piece about it in today's issue of Stella in the Sunday Telegraph, which I'm also posting here...
‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is often described as a masterpiece, though its authoress, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, might have objected to that particular term, for she was an early feminist who wrote the story, in part to escape the mastery of male doctors and to become the mistress of her own destiny. Since its rediscovery in the 1970s by a new generation of women, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has become a cult classic, passed on by word of mouth (even, somewhat bizarrely, inspiring Marios Schwab’s fashion collection last autumn); and its status is likely to grow now that Virago is reissuing a new edition. But when Gilman wrote this eerie novella in 1890, fictionalising her own catastrophic nervous breakdown after the birth of her daughter, and her treatment by a leading physician, Dr S. Weir Mitchell, she had to battle to get it into print.
The editor of the Atlantic Monthly gave it a curt rejection, which Gilman recounts in her memoir (extracts of which are also included in the forthcoming Virago edition of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’). ‘Dear Madam,’ wrote the editor in a brief note, ‘I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself.’ When Gilman’s novella was eventually published in The New England Magazine, in May 1891, it elicited a number of angry letters, including one from a doctor who protested, ‘The story can hardly, it would seem, give pleasure to any reader… such literature contains deadly peril. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure?’
Over a century later, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has lost nothing of its unsettling power – the kind that troubled its early readers, and enthrals many more of us now -- but what is it that makes it such a profoundly disturbing story to read? The answer, I think, lies in its urgent immediacy, born out of Gilman’s own experience of mental illness, and the horror of what follows by way of ‘treatment’. The narrator, a nameless young woman who has a small baby, is suffering from what she describes at the start as a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.’ This is the label her illness has been given by her husband – a physician – and also her brother, another doctor. The treatment prescribed by her husband is rest – ‘[I] am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again’ – and with this aim, she is confined to the top floor room of a large country house that he has rented for the purpose.
‘Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good,’ she observes. ‘But what is one to do?’ The terrible, stifling prescription is that she must do nothing – she must not write, cannot see friends, her baby is cared for by a nursemaid – and soon, she finds the only freedom allowed her is to examine the peeling yellow wallpaper around her. ‘I never saw a worse paper in my life,’ she writes in her secret journal. ‘It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and 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 colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’
Before long, the narrator has begun to perceive the figure of a woman behind the sinister pattern, and then more women – some beneath the monstrous Gothic design, others creeping in the landscape beyond her barred windows – until eventually, driven mad by her confinement (quite literally, bored out of her mind), she peels the wallpaper away from the walls, and joins the shadowy figures around her. ‘I wonder if they all come out of the wallpaper as I did? … I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!’
The horror of the story – for it is, in a very real sense, creepy – is manifest without one knowing anything of the biography of its writer; but nevertheless, Gilman’s life is as disturbing, in some ways, as the yellow wallpaper, and certainly contains several similar ‘contradictions’. Born in Connecticut on July 3rd 1860 to Mary and Frederic Beecher Perkins, she was the youngest of three children born over three years; the first died at birth, the second was a son, Thomas, and Charlotte followed just over a year later. ‘The doctor said that if my mother had another baby she would die,’ wrote Gilman in her autobiography. ‘Presently my father left home. Whether the doctor’s dictum was the reason or merely a reason I do not know. What I do know is that my childhood had no father.’
Gilman clearly suffered from the absence of her father (a librarian and editor who wrote infrequent letters, but occasionally sent books to his children), and also from the absence of affection shown to her by her mother. According to her memoir, her mother gave her children ‘tireless service, intense and efficient care, and the concentrated devotion of a lifetime’ but never displayed any tenderness: ‘… still suffering for lack of a husband’s love, she heroically determined that her baby daughter should not so suffer if she could help it. Her method was to deny the child all expression of affection as far as possible, so that she should not be used to it or long for it. “I used to put away your little hand from my cheek when you were a nursing baby,” she told me in later years… She would not let me caress her, and would not caress me, unless I was asleep.’
Little wonder, then, that Gilman suffered what might now be diagnosed as postnatal depression after the birth of her own daughter. In 1884, she had married the artist Charles Stetson, and their baby, Katharine, was born the following year. Even before the birth, despite her husband’s solicitude, she was sinking into depression. ‘A lover more tender, a husband more devoted, woman could not ask. He helped in the housework more and more as my strength began to fail, for something was going wrong from the first… A sort of gray fog drifted across my mind, a cloud that grew and thickened.’ After the birth, her depression worsened, and Charlotte’s mother arrived ‘to take care of the darling, I being incapable of doing that – or anything else, a mental wreck… I lay all day on the lounge and cried.’
Gilman was diagnosed as having ‘nervous prostration’, though her suffering was far more intense than the phrase suggests: ‘This disorder involved a growing melancholia, and that, as those who know who have tasted it, consists of every painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brain-ache that fills the conscious mind with crowding images of distress.’ Saddest of all, given Gilman’s own upbringing, starved of affection, she now found herself weeping while breastfeeding her baby: ‘… instead of love and happiness, [I would] feel only pain. The tears ran down on my breast… Nothing was more utterly bitter than this, that even motherhood brought no joy.’
After consulting Dr Mitchell – ‘at that time the greatest nerve specialist in the country’ – Gilman was ordered to take ‘the rest cure’. ‘I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”’ She returned home, followed Dr Mitchell’s instructions, ‘and came perilously near to losing my mind… I would crawl into remote closets and under beds – to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.’
Eventually, in 1887, Gilman decided that the only way to recover was to separate from her husband, and she set off to California with her daughter to earn her own living. ‘There was no quarrel… but it seemed plain that if I went crazy it would do my husband no good, and be a deadly injury to my child.’ Feminists have ascribed her recovery to this decision to become an independent woman, yet Gilman herself described her subsequent years as ‘a crippled life’. True, she became a successful writer and lecturer, but when her daughter was nine, she sent her back to the East Coast to live with her ex-husband and his second wife. Gilman justified her decision as being entirely rational: ‘Since her second mother was fully as good as the first, better in some ways perhaps; since the father longed for his child and had a right to some of her society; and since the child had a right to know and love her father – I did not mean her to suffer the losses of my youth – this seemed the right thing to do.’ What she did not seem aware of was that in some complicated, contradictory fashion, she was reworking the pattern of her own childhood; as if in the belief that she could prevent her daughter’s suffering by denying her the physical presence of a loving mother.
Yet unlike the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Gilman did not become a creeping lunatic, hidden away from the world in a top-floor bedroom. She travelled widely, remarried (to her cousin, Houghton Gilman), and became a role model to subsequent generations of women (despite her somewhat unsavoury views on racial purity, about which academic debate still rumbles). But perhaps her lasting achievement should not be as feminist heroine, but as the writer of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – and the survivor who unlocked the door of the madwoman in the attic, and lived to tell the tale.