Saturday, November 12, 2011

" - he hates to have me write a word."

"If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency - what is one to do?"

Since we were talking about attics and madness, Hortensia (by the way, your name means 'gardener' - one I wouldn't mind having myself, as I like cultivating things - tomatoes, lettuce, imaginary characters), there's a story that I'm putting in the attic as it ticks all the boxes: madness, women, attics, and writing.

You probably know The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) ... not one of my favourites stories, but one I read from time to time, as its a great feminist classic and example of female Gothic.

There's something about the gothic that suits women's anger at their lot: think Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and my own Charm of Powerful Trouble (though I'm not in their league), which I call Mullumbimby Gothic, a little known and represented genre.

A young wife and mother and her husband lease what amounts to a haunted house, and it is here she becomes unstuck. She has an unfortunate tendency to want to write, and her husband thinks she should be shut up alone in a top floor room to rest ... well, we know where that kind of thing leads. The wallpaper starts getting to you, for starters.

There is also evidence that some other mad person has been locked up there - though the woman naively thinks it may have been used as a gymnasium (the rings on the walls) or a children's room (the bars on the windows) ...

And that wallpaper, which someone has started peeling away from the wall:

"The colour is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight. It is dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others.
No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.
There comes John, and I must put this away - he hates to have me write a word."

But the prisoner scribbles away secretly - she needs to write, it helps her. From the start, she is writing her story.

Then, in about the middle, the text changes, and no further reference is made to writing. Things become extremely strange, and the story becomes a stream of consciousness from her mind, rather than a written text.

At the end, she is completely mad.

We all know how writing keeps us sane (as well as judicious doses of fish oil, exercise, and so on). Being shut up with hideous wallpaper in a room that's clearly haunted is not prescribed these days.

I'm changing the colour of the wallpaper in the attic in honour of this story, but only until the next post. I think you'll agree, Hortensia, that we couldn't live with this hideous, sulphurous yellow.


  1. it is such a joy to read yr posts, jo. a joy...and a little tickle and an itch to write. youse the best.

  2. Thank you Kate. I enjoy writing them (and a plus - it keeps me sane!)