Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Kate Reviews: The Yellow Wallpaper

I've been a little absent from the internet lately because I'm reaching the final stretch of assignments for my MRes: I just have to write and deliver one 5,000 word research paper, do the whole critical reflection thing and then I'm free to sit down and work on the 17,000 word prose collection which will form my dissertation. The windowsill in my bedroom is piled up with books: memoirs (or memoirs dressed up as fiction), feminist theory, sociological theory and a lot of Sylvia Plath.

That said, keeping a regular blog is a really important part of my development as a writer because it forces me to write to schedule. But there really isn't room for me to think about anything I'm not getting university credit for. I walk around composing paragraphs about whether Holden Caulfield has Borderline Personality Disorder or not in my head, the way I used to sketch scenes from my novel or the beginings of poetry. I'm still enjoying it: I may not have much time to read for pleasure but I'm enjoying what I'm reading. So in an effort to get some of it out of my head and down on paper pixels I'm writing the first of a series of reviews of the books I'm studying for my course.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper is one of those difficult book where you want to recommend it because it's a really genuinely good book that had a real impact on the world but at the same time it's so well written that it manages to convey every ounce of the horror of a sane person being confined and slowly going crazy from the sheer boredom. It's been compared in style to Poe but what makes it really horrific is that, unlike being cut in half with a pendulum, 'rest cures' were an accepted part of the author's reality. This is what makes The Yellow Wallpaper scarier to me than just about anything I've ever read.

The unnamed narrator is a perfectly sane, rational woman who has been prescribed a rest cure due to post natal depression. She feels down and cries fairly often and can't stand to see the baby but it's nothing that necessitates her being confined to bed and certainly nothing that means the intellectual strain of reading or writing will cause her complete mental collapse. The invariably male doctors who prescribed these rest cures seemed to think it was safer for women - sane or otherwise - to not write at all. That sounds like I'm exagerating but I promise you they actually went on record saying that women spent all their intellectual energy on childbirth (?!?!) and were pretty much unfit for anything else. It took me twenty two years and six months for a book to enrage me to the point where I hurled it into a wall but it was that passage there which finally broke me*.

A rest cure is essentially solitary confinement. It may seem over dramatic to talk about people being driven to insanity by their bedroom wallpaper but it is worth noting that this kind of isolation and confinement is something that today we only do to criminals. Deprived of any kind of mental stimulation the narrator begins to fixate on the pattern of the wallpaper in her sickroom, beginning to project her own mental state onto it.

The Yellow Wallpaper is brilliant if you understand it in relation to Jane Eyre or rather the first Mrs Rochester. The narrator's husband is not a bad guy. He genuinely cares about, even seems to love, his wife. He just doesn't respect her because back then husbands didn't respect their wives. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed a rest cure and it was only by finally defying her doctor's orders that she managed to avoid a total breakdown. Unfortunately her narrator, Bertha Rochester and countless real women did not possess this level of autonomy.

This is a really important book for me right now because it reminds me that no matter how draining, stressful or terrifying my degree might occasionally be I'm incredibly lucky to be born today when I am allowed to pursue higher education instead of being locked in a room and literally bored to insanity. There's a fashion at the moment for attacking feminism, or certain strands of feminism because all women do not have equal opportunities. For the record I think this is an important discussion which needs to happen but I also believe that it is important to acknowledge how much ground feminism has covered in the last few hundred years. While I think it's certainly not perfect, allow me to present the comparison between our reality and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as the result of the work of insirational women (including Perkins Gilman herself) as something that feminism got right.

 *It also helped explain why the copy I was using was so battered.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Words By The Water

How to write up the Words by the Water festival? I had a lovely time, saw some interesting talks, met Carol Ann Duffy and barely restrained myself from buying my own bodyweight in books. The festival organisers who awarded me the bursary sent me a list of question so -because I have a week's worth of work to catch up on- I'm going to reproduce the answers I sent them here.

What did you get out of your experience at Words by the Water?

I was especially interested to attend Sarah Wise's talk on Victorian mental healthcare, which provided a fresh perspective on a research paper I am currently writing. Other highlights included Sara Maitland who writes a genre of non fiction I didn't know existed but totally want to read and Mrs Moneypenny, whose advice has got me drawing up a five year plan.

Who inspired you?

It's unfair in a way to pick a favourite moment in a week jam packed with highlights but Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson are the example that stands out. Carol Ann Duffy was unforgettable: calm, commanding and completely unpretentious. To hear her live was a privilige and my high point of a festival. Sharing the stage with her, John Sampson managed to make the audience sing Over the Sea to Skye. Hearing a hundred voices fill the darkened auditorium was truly magical.

Did you learn something new?

I learnt that the Necropolis in Rome was buried by early Christians and, in its pagan days, families would come to their family tombs to have feasts with the dead.

Did you meet anybody new?

Everyone was very helpful.

Is there anything you can think of that could make it better? 

I honestly can't think of anything that would have made the week better. Everyone was completely lovely and the seats were great. It might have been nice if there'd been a small, informal mixer to meet the other bursary recipients and thank the staff though.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Words By The Water

No blog post this week as I've managed to snag bursary tickets for The Words By The Water literary festival at Keswick's Theatre by the Lake. It's a really amazing opportunity and I'll have a full write up next week. Until then I'll be busy going to events, visiting family and trying to figure out how to submit an assigment by post. Wish me luck!