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Bookish Birthdays: Charlotte Perkins Gilman

1st Jul 2011

Charlotte_Perkins_Gilman

During my degree, many moons ago, the class was given a short story to read. This wasn’t unusual; it was a Creative Writing degree, and we were often encouraged to read examples of fine writing to learn the basics of structure, pace, and plot. What was unusual was our response.

A deathly hush fell over the room. Being quite a nippy reader, I had the pleasure of watching others finish the story, and the same involuntary shudder run across their shoulders as had done mine earlier.

As we all raised our eyes to the tutor in disbelief and horror at what we had read, their eyes were full of mischief. They had given us the wonderful gift of discovering something that would always remain with us: a fine piece of writing. The short story was The Yellow Wallpaper, its author Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

At the time there were many examples of the ‘madwoman in the attic,’ from Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre to Alice Ruscastle in The Adventures of the Copper Beaches.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman took this ‘madwoman’ character and humanised her, making her readers see the “treatment” of madness for what it was; a misguided, inhuman way of separating and demonising those already ‘othered’ by societies rigid normative code.

Perkins Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins in 1860. Her mother was abandoned by her father after she was told never to have a child again, and Charlotte and her brother were shunted around as ‘poor relations’ for much of her childhood.

This wasn’t really that much of a bad thing; her relatives included prominent suffragists and abolitionist and writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, but it affected Charlotte greatly in terms of how she saw marriage.

Although she has always sworn against the institution, Charlotte married artist Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, and soon gave birth to a daughter, Katherine. It was after Katherine’s birth that Charlotte began to suffer from depression.

Branded as ‘hysterical’, she was entered into a sanatorium in Philadelphia to undergo the “rest cure” -basically stripping the “patient” of any intellectual stimulation. This was a time when women were very much considered the “weaker sex”, and although well-meaning, this “resting” brought about Charlotte’s eventual breakdown. It also inspired the horror that is The Yellow Wallpaper.

In the short story, a woman who has recently given birth is kept in her bedroom by her husband, a doctor, and denied any sort of stimulation, including writing and bonding with her child.

Bored out of her mind in a house she already has misgivings over, she begins to fantasise about the room’s hideous yellow wallpaper, seeing shapes and patterns emerge. Eventually she breaks down and the obsession with the wallpaper takes her over completely. It is brilliant and rings completely true, and anyone who has ever had depression will seethe with fury at how the woman is treated.

In 1888, four years before The Yellow Wallpaper was published, Charlotte left her husband, and pretty soon found relief from her depression. In the 1890s, she published poems, short stories and the work that made her famous at the time; Women and Economics.

A passionate feminist and reformist, she continued to write well into the 1920s, marrying her cousin Haughton Gilman in 1900. She was an early activist for paternal rights, allowing her daughter as much contact with her father as she wanted. She also lectured widely on Nationalism, was a representative of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and wrote satires on those who resisted social change.

Basically, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was possibly the best person in the world ever. No wonder she inspired so many.

In 1932, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Writing in her suicide note, she said she “chose chloroform over cancer” and killed herself in August 1935. She had previously campaigned for euthanasia for the terminally ill.

A copy of The Yellow Wallpaper was donated to The Travelling Suitcase Library earlier this year, and immediately I was pressing it into another avid reader’s hands. Even if you never read anything else by her, read The Yellow Wallpaper. It is one of the scariest, more horrifying, yet brilliantly concise and effective stories I’ve ever read.

It will make you see the Victorian idea of ‘madness’ in a whole new light, and fear for the way we treat mental health being dragged backwards even more than the current cuts to vital services and organisations are doing.

Thank you Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and happy birthday for Sunday.

Jess Haigh

Comments

  • Alex Herod says:

    Thank you Jess, this has made me want to re-read immediately!

  • Thom Cuell says:

    The Yellow Wallpaper is as good a horror story as anything by Lovecraft. Good article!

  • Jane Bradley says:

    As someone else who was in that Creative Writing class all those many moons ago, I can concur that it did indeed make everyone shudder. It’s a fantastic story though, and one that never seems to get old no matter how many times I re-read…

  • Kavitha says:

    Great feature! I discovered ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ a couple of years ago, and thought it was brilliant. I wonder if there’s anything written in contemporary times that captures the horrors/confusion of the mind of someone suffering from mental illness so effectively as Charlotte Perkins Giman does.

    And what I find is fascinating is that many of the issues the narrator raises during her confinement, are still valid today. As a society, we don’t seem to have come a long way from a rigid, isolated understanding and approach towards mental illness..