“I firmly believe it saved me from a world of dating pain, uncertainty and misdirected energy,” says Lucy Mangan
Have you read The Yellow Wallpaper? You should. It’s a short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and a little chunk of feminist history. It was loudly denounced when it first appeared in 1892. One (male) reviewer said, “Such literature contains deadly peril.” What it actually contained – then and now – is information to inoculate the (female) reader against many forms of harm.
I first read it as a teenager and I firmly believe it saved me from a world of dating pain, uncertainty and misdirected energy. Not that I didn’t still experience a share of all of them, but without Gilman in my corner, I know my shy, insecure, wholly passive adolescent (and 20-something, because I was a criminally late developer) self would have ended up far deeper mired in the sh*te the worst kind of men seek to put women through before they know themselves.
The story is about a nameless woman who has been diagnosed by her doctor husband John with “a temporary nervous depression […] a slight hysterical tendency”. To treat her, he effectively confines her to the nursery – covered in heavily patterned yellow wallpaper – to rest. With nothing else to do, she gradually grows obsessed with the curlicued wallpaper – she can see a crouching woman creeping stealthily between the patterns, and finally goes mad. It was closely based on Gilman’s own experience. She was labelled “neurasthenic” – a catch-all condition applied to any woman who seemed dissatisfied with her domestic lot – and prescribed “the rest cure”, which she later described as bringing her “so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over”.
Her 20-odd pages deliver so many warnings. Tuck this sentence, for example, into your mental quiverful of arrows and let it fly next time you are confronted with conflicting versions of an event: “John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him.” What you will find here is dismissal, denial and gaslighting. So many times, I have been told by boyfriends that I “shouldn’t” be upset. Moving along that spectrum of denying another person’s reality because it does not chime with your own, you move into the world where victims of sexual harassment start to question their version of events, minimise their distress and even pretend nothing happened.
The Yellow Wallpaper also brilliantly recreates that process we have all taken part in at some point – of curbing our tongues, modulating our opinions and moulding ourselves (just slightly, why not? It’s only polite!) the better to fit with our partner’s wants and expectations. And then, perhaps, like the protagonist, because we are fearful of the consequences if we stop. And she is clear on the deeper ramifications of this – John denying her the tools of expression (she writes in secret: “I must say what I feel and think”) is a large part of what drives her mad. In today’s world, that means looking for lost and underrepresented voices so those individual selves can become whole and our collective self comes together stronger.
Gilman wrote her story about husbands, the medical profession and the patriarchy at large shaping and suppressing women’s lives and freedoms 126 years ago. It was only in 2015 that we got a name and a crime – coercive control – for most of what her heroine experiences. Gilman started saving her readers long before the law even looked that way. Write your stories.
stylist.co.uk has had a yellow makeover on 15 August, to celebrate our Yellow Issue and pay homage to the colour of the season. Read more about the most playful shade of all here.