Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Stephanie Carroll has given us a truly amazing gift and I can't wait to see this one as a movie. A brilliant debut novel and I look forward to reading more of her writing. Thank you for a beautifully crafted tale. - Amazon UK Review

A White Room Made No. 1!!!

I totally loved this book. It's been described as being similar to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, ... Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Though I concur that all that is true, I go further by being reminded of why the gothic writing work and home remind me of Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables ... and some of the works of V.C. Andrews, such as Flowers in the Attic. She gives us a gothic feel reminiscent of Daphne de Maurier's works. - Amazon US Review

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(On Amazon just click the "customer reviews" link next to the star rating and it will take you to the reviews where you can click "write a review.")

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In the end, I just really loved this story. I enjoyed watching Emeline's transformation, and seeing her challenged. I really liked the progression of her and her husband John's relationship. Supporting characters like Lottie and Ethel were well-developed, and the characters who conspire against Emeline are creepy and self-serving, yet possibly redeemable.Guys, if you want some realistic historical fiction that deals with difficult issues, that doesn't allow a love story to overcome the plot, and that has you really feeling for the characters involved, go and read this right now. - Goodreads Review

A White Room Won!

Shelf Unbound Magazine Notable Page Turners & Favorite Cover! Pg 36 & 40
“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper, this book shows with alarming clarity what life was like for women before the modern age freed us of so many restraints … absolutely mesmerizing.”—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego

USA Book News 2013 Best Book Award Cross Genre Category
A novel of grit, independence, and determination ... Despite the consequences, Emeline defies society’s expectations in her endeavor to help others, risking not only her marriage, but her reputation—and ultimately, her freedom. An intelligent story, well told.” 
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine

Q&A and Reading on Central Valley Talk

Fans of The Yellow Wallpaper will love this debut from Stephanie Carroll because it's about a woman feeling her house is alive and that other people are living in it. I, for one, couldn't put the book down but was also reading with the covers up to my chin and all of the lights on. It's not because the book is scary but because I could absolutely understand why Emeline was losing it. I could have sworn that my own walls were watching me ... - Barnes and Noble Review

Watch My Very First Book Reading!

Are Women Really Just Crazy?
Check out my talk on how Victorian Hysteria has Affected our Society's Perception of Women

Don't Forget to Check out the Fire Section!
In addition to being an author, I am also a fire dancer! Betcha didn't expect that, did you?

Top Ten Awesome Victorian Swear Words

Realistic language is a must in historical fiction and my most used resource for my novel A White Room was The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon. So to celebrate this must-have resource, I have used it to compile what I think are the ten most awesome Victorian swear words. 

One of my readers asked whether this is American or English, which is a very important difference for research, so I just want to point out that this book is focused on America in the 19th Century. 

WARNING: This blog post contains SWEAR WORDS!!! Probably not suitable for children.

photo credit: brizzle born and bred via photopin cc

Just so you know, I'm going for historically unique, but for clarification purposes let me say that words fuck bitch, cunt, and shit were all used back then too. There are many derogatory and other swear words that were used then that we  still use now. Only problem is I don't know if readers will believe it because it seems too modern, like calling a virgin girl a cherry.

Top Ten Swear Words

1. Balls - shortened from ballocks

2. Bootlicker - same as ass-licker
3. Cherry - vulgar term for a young woman
4. Quim - female genitalia
5. Strumpet - a whore
6. Blazes - hell or the devil
7. Cussed - cursed or mean
8. Dratted - expletive or used for damned
9. Lickfinger/Lick-spittle - kiss-ass
10. Tarnation/Nation - used for damnation

BONUS: Top Five Surprisingly Naughty Words

1. Bull - taboo word because it was associated with sexual potency so polite people said cow brute, a gentleman cow, a top cow, or a seed ox.

2. Dad - euphemism for God as in dad-blame it.

3. Dickens - devil as in what the Dickens are you doing?

4. Inexpressibles - a euphemism for pants or trousers. This was due to the fact that the legs were considered extremely private. People usually said limb instead of the word leg. Also very awkward to use in your writing without explaining and even more awkward for your character to stop and explain it. Have to admit I tried to avoid it in my novel.

5. Mary - homosexual.

Want to know more commonly used words or see some real examples of how these words were used? Check out The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s by Marc McCutcheon. He's also written another one The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition to World War II by Marc McCutcheon.

Someone asked for the British equivalent of these books. I think What Jane Austen Ate and What Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool might be of use but keep in mind that I haven't personally read it so I can't guarantee anything.

Show me you're out there and leave a comment! Anyone know any other interesting naughty historical words they can share? Or good books for such research? Feel free to shoot me some questions too!

What is The Neo-Victorian Novel?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I wrote this article a while back after doing some research, I kept coming across references to the Neo-Victorian Novel, but no definitions or explanations of what in the world it is, so as always when I come across a mystery, I researched the crap out of it! So here is a digital trail of where this question took me across the internet and of course my ultimate conclusions.

I decided to include two sections here: 
Non-academic and academic because non-academic sources have definitions that to differ from academic. 

Why not give only academic definitions? 
1. Terms can sometimes mean one thing in one circle and another in a different circle. 2. The break away from academic definitions may provide insight into how the general reader might think of the Neo-Victorian novel. 3. If you are researching this online, then you might come across the same sources and by dividing them this way, you might be able to evaluate them more efficiently.

Non-Academic Definitions
photo credit: heather via photopin cc

  • Author Charles Palliser says in The Guardian, "There has been a vogue in the last 25 years for the “neo-Victorian novel” (horrible term, but hard to think of a better one) which is not just a historical novel but an attempt to recreate the mindset and conventions of that period."
  • If you are writing a paper or doing any kind of professional or academic research, I don't think Wikipedia is an acceptable resource, but it can be useful when you need a direction. The Neo-Victorian page on Wikipedia doesn't define the Neo-Victorian Novel but defines Neo-Victorian as a fad involving people putting modern spins on the Victorian aesthetic. For example, a Victorian telephone with no wires and push buttons instead of the traditional spin-dialer would be a Neo-Victorian telephone. Interesting indeed. I think a lot of Steampunk stuff and books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith might fall into this category.
  • Neo-Victorian Group on Goodreads defines itself as a group of people who like to read novels written in modern times that are set in the Victorian period; however, going through some of their pages, a pattern begins to appear regarding a desire for mystery novels, romance, and some thrillers. This seems to be a throwback to The Little Professor’s definition … that is at least at first but later new findings suggest this Goodreads page may have started based off of a different viewpoint.
  • The Little Professor’s Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels is a satirical list of rules for writing a clichéd Victorian novel. I am including this not because I agree with the assertions but because it is something that pops up when you search for Neo-Victorian and it sheds light on what some think of as being the Neo-Victorian novel, even if their views do not fit with the actual definition. Note: Don't freak out if you are writing a novel right now that does any of the things the author calls cliche. It's one person's opinion, and it doesn't necessarily mesh with the opinions of readers who enjoy books that include some much of what is listed.  

A Quick Definition of Postmodernism

The above resources refer to the word postmodern a lot and the next resources do it even more … so a quick definition:

photo credit: Wallie-The-Frog via photopin cc
... as quick as I can get it ... sigh. Postmodern is a word that is thrown around a lot, especially in college, and it always tends to be defined in really difficult terms wherever you find it defined. Even PBS has a difficult time defining it without getting all academic on us. But basically postmodern is a way of thinking that modern people have - Victorians did not have post-modern thought. They were of the “modernist” thought time period.

Postmodernism’s primary principal seems to be that everything is relative - which is the simplest definition I can boil it down to, but it is a bit more complex than that. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary does a better job of defining each of its uses because it’s also used to describe things that are modern sometimes, so in the following examples that use the word postmodern, who knows if they are just saying it’s a modern novel or if they are calling upon the complex definition of postmodern and going with Merriam-Webster's definition 2a (movements in reaction to modernism often calling upon older forms or traditions such as in architecture or literature) or definition 2b (radical reappraisal of modern movements, culture, identify, etc.).

Back to the Neo-Victorian Novel and What Academics Say

    photo credit: tigerclaws via photopin cc
  • The Redemptive Past in the Neo-Victorian Novel by Dana Shiller is an academic paper that goes into detail regarding the theories of Fredric Jameson who thinks the modern (postmodern) approach to historical fiction further distances our society from what actually happened. This is a very academic paper, so put on your smart spectacles. At the very bottom of page two we get the author's argument: "...neo-Victorian fiction addresses many of Jameson's concerns by presenting a historicity that is indeed concerned with recuperating the substance of bygone eras and not merely their styles." Historicity means accuracy so this is saying that the neo-Victorian novel is so authentic that it attempts to bring back more than just the style of the period but the essence or substance of it.
The author uses A.S. Byratt's Possession and Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton as examples of neo-Victorian novels. Both take place partly in the nineteenth century and explore how "present circumstances shape historical narrative."

I'd like to point out that the cover of Possession is the same picture used as the cover of the Goodreads group for Neo-Victorian novels. The pattern continues! 

Possession is a story of two scholars researching two Victorian poets, a story of mystery and romance.

According to Dana Shiller's definition, a Neo-Victorian novel is a novel about modern people looking back onto the past of the Victorian times.

  • Jacqueline Banerjee, Associate Editor of The Victorian Web has a wonderfully researched article that goes over multiple academic definitions, which is why I included it in the academic section. The definitions include those of Louisa Hadley and Kora Kaplan. There are many different definitions one could take from this article, including that the Neo-Victorian novel is one that involves both a contemporary and historical timeline, but this article goes much more in-depth, adding the "theory-friendly feminist Victorianist[s]" definition and others. The main ideas I gleaned from the article are that Neo-Victorian novels may be those that blend history and fiction so well that it is difficult to determine the "blurred borders," and that the authors of Neo-Victorian novels are consciously adding a modern reflection or revisionist tone to the period, say for example by highlighting bigotry or overlaying a modern mindset on a historical character.     
  • Oxford Bibliographies has a fantastic definition and explanation of Neo-Victorian divided into two categories, that of the Neo-Victorian novel and that of the academic study of the Neo-Victorian novel. It even discusses the origins of Neo-Victorian in the 1960s or p, which is enlightening when considering the subject.

Further Reading
You can also find more academic papers like Shiller’s by just searching Neo-Victorian and academic on Google. A bunch come up. I kept finding a lot of academic information on the Neo-Victorian Novel, but piecing together a general academic viewpoints from various random papers on the subject isn’t going to happen, so I decided to go to the place academics get information out into the world and no - it's not online. Academics go old school with ... what are those things called again, oh right books.
photo credit: Klara Kim via photopin cc
  • Neo-Victorian Fiction and Historical Narrative by Louisa Hadley. The book description is actually an argument for the definition that Neo-Victorian Novels are dedicated to historical specificity. The fact that the book description is an argument for the definition might mean that the definition of the Neo-Victorian Novel is not agreed upon among academics yet. It may still be a topic of debate in the academic world of literature.
  • History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction by Kate Mitchell. The book description says it examines rewritings of the Victorian period by such authors as A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Gail Jones, and Graham Swift. This seems to be going back to the definition we found in the English 623 webpage regarding writers who give a new spin to stories from Victorian times. Another clue that this is a still a topic of debate.
  • Also check out the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. According to the home page: " This journal’s enterprise is temporally double, staging an encounter between the Victorian and neo-Victorian, between the two periods’ aesthetic productions and material works, their discourses, ideologies, and socio-political contexts. It explores themes of modernity, alterity, and evolution through time and place in an ever more globalised and interconnected world."

What Do You Think?
Got any research to add? 
Which definition fits in your opinion?

What Exactly is The Gothic Novel?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Needful Things Door Knocker
by Dominic Alves via Flickr cc.
Reviewers have compared my debut novel A White Room to the classic Gothic novels The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (thank you Oh, For the Hook of a Book!). I was so delighted when this happened because I wrote my novel in a way I felt was reminiscent of Gothic fiction, but when I looked at other Gothic novels, mine didn’t seem very Gothic in comparison. That led me to wonder, what exactly is a Gothic novel?

* I’m not an expert on the Gothic novel, so I am including my sources for where I got my information and for you in case you’d like to do further research.

The Origin of Gothic

The term Gothic actually derives from the Visigoths and Ostrogoths (the barbarians) who conquered Rome in the 5th Century A.D. After the collapse of Rome, the world fell into a dark age and the Goths were ultimately forgotten until artists and architects rediscovered Greco-Roman culture during the Renaissance. They began to refer to certain (barbaric) architecture built during the middle ages as Gothic even though it wasn’t necessarily built by the Goths. These were castles, mansions, and abbeys, many of which were in ruins.

The Original Gothic Novel

Writers developed the first Gothic novels in England from 1790 to 1830. These works were termed Gothic because they took place in and around Gothic buildings and architecture. Many themes and conventions developed that also came to define the Gothic novel. In addition to usually taking place in a mansion, castle, or abbey, these buildings were often in ruins in the story, which created a mood of mystery and dread because it reminded readers of a world lost, a fallen society, or a world in decay. The hero was usually isolated in some way, and the villain was usually a man who had fallen from grace and represented the epitome of evil.
Crumbling Ruins: L Grove via photopin cc

These novels also dealt with serious real-world fears like murder, rape, and sin, but on an exaggerated level and often times through the supernatural, so the Gothic novel also became associated with horror fiction. Some examples of Gothic literature from this time period are Matthew G. Lewis's The Monk and Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho.

Victorian Gothic

Another form of the Gothic novel came about in the Victorian Era starting in the 1880s (my kind of Gothic). The setting, again, played a role and usually involved a large, dark mansion. Like the previous Gothic novels, these dealt with frightening real-world themes also on an exaggerated level and with the use of the supernatural. This is when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was written. Victorian fears seen in Gothic fiction included insanity, sexuality, incest, and the fear of progress.

At this time, the modern world was quickly advancing in science and technology (automobiles, electricity, etc.) and society had its concerns about the consequences to mankind. This is quite obvious in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which reveal society’s fears by demonstrating the horrors technology could have on the human body.

According to experts, the Gothic novel is a cyclic occurrence in literature, something that is revived to express or deal with society’s anxieties.

The Modern Gothic Novel

Gothic culture has boomed in the twentieth century in style, music, movies, and more. The modern Gothic novel is a little bit more difficult to pin down though. Some people would argue that the thriving horror and gore genres are our modern day Gothic. Others would argue that the modern Gothic would be anything similar to the works of Tim Burton, whose dark, macabre style has been a focal point of Gothic culture for years.

Yet, if you look around the internet for the modern day Gothic novel, you will find all kinds of suggestions. Horror Novel Reviews lists The Body by Stephen King (later made into the classic and awesome film Stand by Me) as a modern day example of a Gothic novel. Goodreads lists Kate’s Morton’s The Forgotten Garden. Amazon UK lists The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.

An Opinion

From what I can tell, all Gothic novels in the past were contingent on a few specific elements.

In all of the original Gothic novels, a creepy old castle or mansion was in the mix. Now you might be thinking that means only writers willing to set their novels in the past can qualify, but keep in mind that the original Gothic authors were placing contemporary characters into a setting that was old and decaying. They weren’t setting their stories in the past when those buildings were in use.  

Gothic in the Snow by
Guldfisken via Flickr cc 
Now, I don’t know if I would go as far as to say that the architecture has to be from the middle ages. The Victorian Gothic novel didn’t stick to middle ages architecture, but the setting was usually in a large, dark mansion, which felt reminiscent of that architecture. Or those mansions may have all technically been Gothic architecture as there was a Gothic revival in architecture in the Victorian Era. However, I don’t have a source that confirms that theory.

Something else that seems to define the Gothic novel is the presence of contemporary anxieties that often tap into our darkest fears. In that definition The Body would qualify, but I just can’t accept that movie as Gothic because it doesn’t have the dark aesthetic.

What does modern day Gothic style, music, and movies prove about Gothic culture? It’s contingent on the dark aesthetic. I don’t think that dark aesthetic has to be historical in nature, but I do think it needs to be there in order for something to be categorized as Gothic. Now does that mean it needs to be at a Tim Burton level? No! Definitely not! I think the Gothic aesthetic can be achieved in many ways, and I’m sure there are all kinds of novels that qualify.

In my opinion, to be truly loyal to the origins of Gothic though, a novel needs a traditional or similar setting, dark aesthetic, and themes involving mankind’s deepest, darkest fears. Dealing with those fears using the supernatural is a major bonus.

With that definition a novel like The Forgotten Garden would fit, but how many people would say they recognized it as Gothic? And what about novels that only have one of these three aspects—that includes my own novel— or none at all but still seem recognizable as Gothic?

Well, one answer is that my definition is totally wrong. =/

Another possibility is that novels that fit the genre but don’t appear Gothic or others that don’t fit the genre but do appear Gothic might not be true to the tradition, but might be on the verge of a new Gothic genre, subgenre, or adjacent genre, which is much more exciting than subscribing to what has already been done.

It’s called breaking tradition, and what’s awesome is that actually goes back to the tradition of the Gothic novel. The original Gothic novels were born out of the Romantic tradition in literature, but the authors used the Gothic novel to break Romantic conventions and created something brand new. (The Gothic Novel – UC Davis

Writing Mentally Unstable Characters on Firsts in Fiction

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Authors Aaron Gangsky and Alton Gangsky and Social Ninja Molly Jo were kind enough to have me back on Firsts in Fiction to talk about writing mentally unstable characters. Check out the podcast and for more, check out Five Techniques for Writing Crazy Characters' Inner Monologues.

5 Techniques for Writing Crazy Characters' Inner Monologue

Friday, November 20, 2015

Crazy by KT Lindsay via Flickr cc
            In my novel A White Room, my heroine goes insane and her primary symptom is that she believes the house and furniture are coming to life and plotting against her, but as you can see in the above excerpt that’s not the only thing that makes her seem off. I used five techniques to write her inner thoughts in a way that was crazy too. 

Make sure to scroll to the bottom to read an excerpt from A White Room.
1.      Distraction

In the above excerpt, I have my character Emeline struggling to pay attention, which makes her comprehension of the other characters feel scattered and confusing. This creates a sense of insanity. She can’t take in the world around her and normal human interaction becomes confusing and threatening to both her and the reader. Having distractions in the writing literally creates the effect of jerking the reader back and forth, which creates a chaotic mood overall.

2.      Synesthesia

The definition of synesthesia is experiencing a sense such as smell but from a stimulus that isn’t for that sense. So say if someone smelled a rose after touching a coffee cup. As a literary device, synesthesia is used a lot in poetry to create interesting descriptions by combining sensory words that complement each other like loud perfume. Perfume cannot be loud, but the mixed description brings a twist to it that grabs a reader’s attention. This can be done through metaphor or simile – saying something is or is like.

Combing complementary sensory descriptors creates a neat effect, but when you combine senses that don’t naturally work together, it comes out kind of weird, kind of crazy.

Sounds seeped through the walls like black blood.
He must not have heard my eyes.

3.      Random Bizarre Tangents
I had recently added the Ageratum alyssum. It was just a small white flower, but the name reminded me of the word asylum. I very much enjoyed the notion of a mad flower. At that moment, I wished I could crawl into the window-box jungle and build a little home there surrounded by insane flowers. – A White Room.

Be careful with random tangents though. Usually, going off on a tangent is a big writing no-no, but if used intentionally, it can suggest your character is losing it. Just focus on making bizarre and short tangents that are your character’s and not yours. What I mean by that is the tangent is your character’s thoughts and not your own narration or a sidebar to fill in plot holes. Those are the no-nos.

4.      Transference of Thoughts into Unintentional Behaviors

It’s not me, I told myself. It’s not me! I screamed it in my head. It’s not me! “It’s not me!”“What?”Oh my. I’d said that out loud.
– A White Room.

On multiple occasions I have Emeline thinking something and then accidently do or say whatever it was she was thinking without having deciding to do it. This creates a sense of being out of control and being taken over by the mind.

5.      Repeating

Repeating is something Fight Club and Choke author Chuck Palahniuk does brilliantly.

“I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.” “I am Jack’s wasted life.” “I am Jack’s smirking revenge.” – Quotes from Fight Club’s schizophrenic main character Tyler Durden. The character repeats the “I am Jack’s …” throughout as a way to describe his own emotions.

Repeating can be done with a phrase or saying or it can be used in a string of thought, having your character repeat a word or multiple words in a sentence or paragraph, which will make it seem like he or she is going in circles.

Repeating kind of goes hand in hand with obsession. Obsession works really well to suggest insanity when it’s over something mundane or strange, but it can also suggest crazy when it’s somewhat normal too. In my novel, Emeline is obsessed with the furniture, but Tyler in Fight Club is obsessed with his friend, which is not too abnormal until it turns out to be himself.

Bonus: Repeating can also be a behavior, a tick, like scratching one’s face or cracking a certain knuckle over and over.
Insanity is more than just having two personalities or seeing the furniture move. It can also be shown through a character’s thoughts and emotions and behaviors and even more importantly the way that the author writes them. The writing style and syntax itself can be a bit crazy, nonlinear, and chaotic.

These five techniques can be very useful to create insane inner thoughts, but they aren’t the only devices. The cool thing about writing crazy people is that you can get creative and come up with your own insane tools. Now go forth and spread the madness!

An Excerpt from A White Room

Dr. Walter Bradbridge leaned over me. I stared into his powder blue
eyes and tried to speak volumes to him without saying a word.
“It was good of you to keep her in bed, John.”
He must not have heard my eyes.
John stood a few feet behind him, spying over his shoulder.
If he said I was mad, I didn’t know what I would do. Then
again, how could he not reach such a conclusion when I knew John
had misconstrued the facts? It was up to me to sway him, but I was
so distracted listening to them through the walls. The little girl was
giggling and humming to the left, and I could sense that wicked
being pacing behind the wall opposite the bed.
“Is she ill?” John paced behind Walter.
“I’m not ill,” I said.
“She doesn’t appear to be sick, but I’m afraid—well.” He
straightened and spoke to John in whispers.
John’s blank expression grew concerned as he brought his hand
under his chin.
He was telling him.
“What would bring this on?” John asked.
“She is still in mourning, which can take a toll, but there are a
number of—”
“What?” I yelled, surprising myself with my outburst.
Both Walter and John jumped and looked at me.
Walter touched my hand. “It’s nothing to fret yourself over.”
He continued talking to John as if I couldn’t hear. I wished they
would speak up.
John folded his arms. “Can I leave her in this condition?”
“You shouldn’t have to cancel. I know this is an important trip.”
He situated his instruments in a black leather satchel.
John sighed. “That’s a relief.”
“I want to go,” I said.
“Emeline, I don’t think that would be wise,” Walter said.
“What condition?”
He shook his head. “Don’t you worry yourself about that.” He
turned his back to me. “It might actually be best for her to be
alone. The less stimulation the better.”
John nodded, holding his chin with one hand and an elbow with
the other.
“You’ll need someone to check on her, though.”
Sounds seeped through the walls like black blood—how could
they not hear it? They were so loud they drowned out their words.
I watched their mouths move, but their voices no longer resonated
in my ears.
Walter set his bag on the table next to the bed, and abruptly my
senses returned. He spoke to me in a tone meant for a child. “I
believe we are all finished here.”
My lips shook as I waited to be condemned with the diagnosis,
but he said nothing more. He took hold of his bag and strode to
the door. John followed. Would he not tell me? Was he to judge me
to John and deny me my own sentencing? They left, and the door
clacked shut.
—Quoted from A White Room with the permission of the author.

About A White Room

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family. 
John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.
Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.

A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free. 

Gothic Horror Story or Victorian Woman's Reality?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The following post was originally featured on Gothic-Victorian author Essie Fox's website and blog The Virtual Victorian

If you enjoy this post, you might also enjoy my novel A White Room, which was inspired by "The Yellow Wallpaper."

The Woman’s Experience through “The Yellow Wallpaper”
“The Yellow Wallpaper” was written from the vantage point of a woman writing in a journal. She’s been diagnosed with some kind of condition* by her husband who is also a doctor. Her husband has brought her to a country home to rest as a form of treatment, and he insists that she rests all the time, no stimulation. She’s not even supposed to be writing, but it’s the only thing that brings her solace, so she sneaks to write in her journal.

Her husband forces her to rest in this one room that she cannot stand. She hates the wallpaper in it, but without anything else to do other than stare at it, she becomes obsessed. Soon, she is seeing it move at night, and she sees someone inside of the design, a woman trapped behind the paper.

It’s clear that whatever her condition is, bed rest isn’t helping, but her husband insists, and she obeys, continuing to slip deeper into her obsession with the wallpaper until finally on the day they are to leave the country home, she snaps. They find her “creeping” and peeling the yellow paper from the walls. She has freed the woman trapped behind the design and has in fact become her. She no longer cares what her husband demands, and he faints at the sight of her.

*There are references to an infant child in the story that suggests the main character was actually suffering from postpartum depression although this is never fully addressed in the story itself and postpartum was not an understood condition at this time. Based on the described symptoms, treatment, and later author accounts, historians widely accept the character in the story was diagnosed with hysteria or a related condition referred to as a “condition of the nerves.”

A Horror Story or a Message?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was published in a magazine in the early 1890s. At first glance, many readers, both past and present, see a scary story of either a haunted house or a situation of pure insanity, both of which are elements of Gothic fiction. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is considered a part of the Victorian Gothic and horror genre, but it is much more than that.

The story was inspired by Gilman’s own experiences after seeking help for her “nervousness” and “melancholia” from the famous neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, who was known for his “rest cure” treatment for hysteria. Read what Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself said about her story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Historians now look to Gilman’s short story as one of the most revealing inside looks at the experience of a woman diagnosed and treated as a hysteric during the late nineteenth century. Since Gilman was also a feminist with very public ideas regarding her views, this work is also seen as a look into how feminism may have developed during a time when hysteria was being diagnosed on epidemic levels.

What was Hysteria to the Victorians?
Hysteria evolved out of Ancient Greece with theories regarding a woman’s uterus having the ability to wonder the body and affect the brain, an idea that prevailed into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact the smelling salts Victorian women used to prevent themselves from swooning were believed to frighten the uterus away from that area of the body.

Throughout the century, hysteria was commonly associated with nervous or anxious tendencies such as fainting. However, by the late Victorian Era, there were a massive amount of symptoms associated with the condition known as hysteria, and women were diagnosed no matter how unique their actual situation. In many cases, men and women used it as an explanation for any kind of unwanted or erratic female behavior, especially emotional behavior.

There were also a wide variety of cures, including the rest cure (used in “The Yellow Wallpaper”), the water cure, vigorous exercise, vaginal stimulation*, hypnosis (Jean-Martin Charcot), and the beginnings of talk therapy and psychoanalytic analysis (Sigmund Freud). Due to Freud’s work, much of the research on hysteria has had an impact on modern psychology. 

*A note on vaginal stimulation. Although many articles focus on the invention of the electric vibrator and the use to create a female orgasm as a treatment for hysteria, this was not the major impact of the hysterical movement on women or society. It did not contribute to any further understanding of female sexuality at the time. The idea of a woman being flawed if unable to climax through penetration prevailed even into the late twentieth century.

Hysteria and the Women’s Movement
In many ways the hysteria movement reflected and or embodied certain problems women wanted to be rid of through the women’s and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At this time, men and women were expected to live in “separate spheres.” Women dominated the home, childbirth, childrearing, and religion while men dominated the public world of business, economics, and politics. It was believed that these separate spheres were determined by nature. Women were believed to be naturally pure, pious, domestic, and submissive, four traits called the Four Pillars of The Cult of Domesticity or True Womanhood. These ideas were not something decided by men but were deeply ingrained belief systems, traditions, and values.

The problem was that the beliefs regarding a woman’s nature put her in a situation of subjugation. Women were believed to be naturally fragile physically, emotionally, and mentally, which is why society considered the public domain as something from which women needed protection. This mentality also meant that women were seen as more susceptible to mental illness and lacked the competence to make decisions regarding their own wants and wellbeing—deeming them as naturally and inherently mentally unstable. This was accepted by society, both men and women.

However in the late 19th Century, the advent of the “New Woman” challenged these ideas.

What was Hysteria Really?
The results of this, however, were situations like that which was revealed through “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Women were placed into unbearable situations and not deemed mentally capable of determining whether or not it was good for them. Their faculties were also questioned if they desired to act outside of what was considered acceptable. If a woman decided to pursue a profession instead of finding a husband, it was reasonable to question her mental state as this desire would be considered unnatural for a woman. It was believed that a woman would never in her right mind want to choose anything other than a lifestyle that resulted in bearing children as was her natural purpose.

Modern analysis of documented cases of hysteria suggests many of the women were actually experiencing real mental illness including depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, or severe stress. Some historians believe these types of mental disorders were more common in women at the time as a result of the inequalities they experienced, which due to changes occurring in society, were no longer bearable.

Other cases, however, revealed rebellious women. Such cases included women whose behavior suggested lesbianism, promiscuity, views against marriage, feminist views, or the desire to pursue what were considered inappropriate female roles. Learn more at Science Museum History of Women and Psychology.

Why the Late Nineteenth Century?
For a long time these beliefs prevailed without causing problems for men or women. They were born out of centuries of survival, but the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were times of great change. Modern technology made it possible for much of women’s work to be handled in factories or in the home with new types of gadgets and machines. Women were becoming useless and without purpose in their accepted sphere.

It’s natural for people to find purpose in their lives, so of course the desire grew within women to venture out into the world and look for more. Unfortunately, the values and beliefs about women did not change with the modernization of the western world. This led to a flood of discontent that appeared in the form of actual mental distress or rebellion that was interpreted as mental distress. Unfortunately, the mass diagnoses of hysteria and subsequent treatments further subjugated many.

These desires of women ultimately broke through the restrictions of society resulting in the women’s and feminist movements and forming the “New Woman” of the early twentieth century. However, until common conventions gave way, these women were either deemed insane, or they stood outside of society as black sheep or spinsters. Some women like Gilman managed to publish their views and contribute to the beginning of the women’s movement while receiving the disdain of society, but others endured brutal responses and punishments to such behavior.

The Revelation of “The Yellow Wallpaper”

The amazing thing about the short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is that it manages to encompass this in the span of ten or so pages, and it reveals it through experience not through direct explanation. In a time period when it was unacceptable to have these views, taking readers through the experience of a woman had an impact that others could not achieve through stating the problem directly.

Gilman’s message did have an impact, not only to modern readers, but on contemporary readers, including the doctor Gilman said she wrote the story in response to. In her own words: But the best result is this. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading The Yellow Wallpaper.

Further Reading