Guest Post: Two Speculative Fictions from the 1890s: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Little Room”(1895), Madeline Yale Wynne

The second guest post in my series SF Short Stories by Women Writers pre-1969 (original announcement and list of earlier posts) comes via MPorcius (follow him on twitter) who runs MPorcius Fiction Log. This wonderful site is predominately focused on vintage SF.  I must confess, he has wider-ranging SF interests (and tolerance!) than myself and frequently reviews “classic” authors I’ve delegated, for good or bad, to the refuse pile — A. E. Van Vogt and his ilk for example.  This is a good thing, because if you want a more illustrative cross section of the genre (from the New Wave to pulp to sword and fantasy) then check him out!

His post focuses on two short stories by 19th century speculative fiction women writers.

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(“The Yellow Wallpaper” appeared in More Macabre (1961), ed. Donald A. Wollheim, cover: John Schoenherr)

Review of “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Little Room” by Madeline Yale Wynne (1895).

By MPorcius

First, thanks to Joachim for hosting this series of guest posts and for inviting me to participate, and, more broadly, for doing so much to promote speculative fiction that is a little off the beaten path and perhaps receives less attention than it deserves.

For this series Joachim asked us to write about a few of our favorite speculative fiction short stories written by women and published before 1969, ’69 being chosen because that is the year Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which is often seen as a pioneering work of SF by a woman, appeared.   Not to take away anything from LeGuin’s achievement, but Joachim and, I expect, most SF fans, are well aware that women were writing entertaining and thought-provoking speculative fiction long before 1969; after all, one of pop culture’s most influential and compelling characters, a figure to stand beside Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, or Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Lord Greystoke, is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s Monster, who first burst upon the scene in 1818.

I keep saying “speculative fiction” and I do so deliberately. When I looked over my blog archives I found that what were probably my favorite female-penned SF stories from before 1969 were not in the H. G. Wells-Robert Heinlein “speculation about technology and the future of society” tradition, or the Edgar Rice Burroughs-Leigh Brackett “romantic adventure on alien worlds” tradition, but closer to the Edgar Allen Poe-H. P. Lovecraft tradition of stories of psychological terror and cosmic horror which expose the fact that the wider universe–and the inner universe of our own minds–are stranger than we can fathom. The stories of which I speak are “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Little Room” by Madeline Yale Wynne, both written in the 1890s. At first I was a little disappointed that I didn’t have something to write about from the Golden Age or the Cold War, something full of robots, ray pistols and rocket ships, but then I realized that “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Little Room” were in fact quite good choices for the series; not only are they very effective from the purely literary point of view (I can honestly and enthusiastically say they are among the best-written and most memorable short stories I’ve read since I started my blog) but they demonstrate that women have been active in every nook and cranny of the SF field for a very long time.

Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Little Room” feature vivid descriptions of rooms and their emotional resonance, and so they were right up my alley. I enjoy fictional descriptions of rooms, Marcel Proust’s description of the seaside hotel room in In Search of Lost Time, for example, or the tiny rooms in J. G. Ballard’s story of overpopulation and overcrowding, “Billenium.” I have lived a more or less sedentary life, and thus spent lots of time in rooms, and, having moved every two or three years since leaving New Jersey for New York in the ’90s, I’ve lived and worked in many different rooms. I’ve spent a lot of time tracing with my eyes the grain of woods, cracks in plaster, and wallpaper patterns, and thinking about the relationships between bookshelves and doors and windows and moldings and pictures. Like a city street, where the buildings are all put up by different people but live in a relationship with each other, a room is a collective work of art–somebody designed and built the room, placing windows and doors, but generally somebody else decides where the furniture goes, what kind of pictures and curtains to hang. A room builds up a character, a personality, in the minds of the people who spend time in it, because of how it looks and because of the good or evil things that have happened in it.

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(Uncredited cover for the 1899 first edition of “The Yellow Wallpaper”)

In its clarity and directness, use of an unreliable narrator, and feminist ramifications, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) feels very modern, and (as someone who isn’t necessarily onboard with every aspect of the modern project), I assure you I mean that in a good way.

Our narrator is an educated woman, married to a physician.  Her brother is also a physician.  These doctors think she is mentally ill in some way and requires rest, and so forbid her from working, even from simply writing–the husband actually has a schedule for her to follow, covering every hour of the day!  The narrator repeatedly admits that he does this out of love for her, but to the reader it is obvious she is treated like a child or a prisoner!

The couple has rented a big old estate for three months.  The husband decides they shall use a top floor as a bedroom, a room once used as a sort of nursery and as a gymnasium when the estate was a school.  There are bars on the windows, and a hideous yellow wallpaper covers the walls of this room.

The narrator, who spends most of her time in the bedroom, becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, and her interpretation of its design evolves over time.  Eventually she comes to believe that the wallpaper depicts a woman trapped behind bars, bent over, eternally creeping, and she endeavors to aid this prisoner in her escape.  At the end of the story the narrator identifies with the liberated wallpaper woman and believes that she herself has escaped from the wallpaper.  Her husband faints when he sees her creeping around the room in a circle, one shoulder rubbing against the wall.

Gilman’s story is open to several interpretations.  Perhaps the woman is truly insane; she may be suffering from postpartum depression, having given birth shortly before the move into the rented estate, and/or the pain of being denied the opportunity to see her child by her well-meaning (but stifling) protectors. Such a mentally ill person might integrate the complex patterns of the wallpaper into her delusions. There is also the possibility that the narrator is basically normal and the estate is haunted–there is some physical evidence that the yellow wallpaper has driven other people insane, and it is hinted that the couple was able to get the estate cheap because it has a bad reputation.  Perhaps a ghost escaped the wall paper and invaded the narrator’s mind! Obviously many elements of the story–women as prisoners, a woman kept from doing productive or interesting work, a woman treated as a child, a woman separated from her own baby–can be interpreted as symbolism of the way women are treated by men and by society. (Libertarian types will appreciate that the tyranny suffered by the narrator is at the hands of well-meaning, “expert” do-gooders.)

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a very good psychological story: thought-provoking, clear when it should be (lots of sharp images of the sinister room and estate) and mysterious when it should be (is the woman crazy? is there a ghost? should we trust this woman’s descriptions?)  I strongly recommend it.

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(“The Little Room” appeared in American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (2009), cover: Andy Kerry and Michelle Kerry)

“The Little Room” (1895) by Madeline Yale Wynne is a great little uncanny story.

In Vermont live two wealthy old ladies, sisters, in a large house.  Sometimes relatives come for brief visits, or to stay for a season.  On the north side of the house, between the front and back rooms, is a door.  Some visitors to the old house vividly recall a little room being behind the door, while others remember, in exact detail, a china closet being there. Members of both schools of opinion are able to describe their vision of the contents of the space behind the door with great precision and in great detail, the room and its furniture or the closet and the china. The people who saw a room think the closet viewers must be putting on an elaborate hoax or suffering some delusion, and vice versa.  Most shockingly, some individuals who recall seeing a room as children return as adults to find the room gone, replaced by the china closet!

Two young people recently visited the house separately; one saw a room and one saw a closet. They set off together to solve the mystery once and for all. When they arrive in town they find a pile of ashes–the house has just burned down!

Wynne’s creepy plot is matched with the perfect style; she writes economically, something I always appreciate, and skillfully paints an image in the reader’s mind of both versions of the little room which may or may not be there.  She also does a good job conveying the reactions of the characters to this mind-shattering, relationship-straining, phenomenon.  Another strong recommendation.

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I was exposed to lots of theories during my time in academia, and while I never actually believed most of them, even some of those about which I am deeply skeptical, say Freudianism or Marxism, can provide an interesting jumping off point for discussion or a fresh way of looking at the world. One of the things we talked about at Rutgers and CUNY in the liberal arts and social sciences departments (and something that seems much more closely moored to reality than Marx’s or Freud’s theories) was the idea that middle-class Victorians followed an ideology of “separate spheres.” There was the public sphere outside the home, where the man conducted business to make money and participated in government and war to maintain order and protect the weak, and within the home there was the domestic private sphere, where the woman created a peaceful space where she raised children and where the man could relax after the stress of the business world and the battlefield.

Rereading “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Little Room” in preparation to write this guest post, I was reminded of this separate spheres business, because both stories are all about rooms–both take place within the female-dominated sphere of the home. But whereas the theory of the Victorian bourgeoisie was that the space outside the home, where men had to deal with all those striking labor unionists, bomb throwing anarchists, Crimea invading Russians and “half-devil and half-child” natives, was the danger zone and the domestic sphere crafted by women was a place of peace and repose, in these two stories the domestic sphere is a place of horror where women are forced to confront radical, in fact incomprehensible, disorder. Perhaps we should see these tales as refutations of separate sphere ideology; Gilman portraying the domestic sphere not as a place of safety and rest but instead as a prison for its inhabitants, and Wynne showing the home as totally unstable. Or perhaps we should see these stories as exploiting fears of the result of deviating from separate spheres ideology; the house in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is not the narrator’s real home, and she has been separated from her child and duties as a housewife, breaking up the rules of the domestic sphere, while the Vermont sisters in “The Little Room” never married and never raised children of their own, making their house a weird “other” space because of their failure to fulfill their duty and potential as wives and mothers.

These entertaining and thought-provoking stories, being out of copyright, are widely available on line, as well as in the handsome anthology recently put out by the Library of America, American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps (2009), edited by Peter Straub. Horror fans and those interested in women writers should definitely check them out.

For more reviews consult the INDEX

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Two Speculative Fictions from the 1890s: “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Little Room”(1895), Madeline Yale Wynne”

  1. Hi

    I have Wollheim’s The Macabre Reader but not this one so I will have to see if I can find a copy. While I like robots and ray guns as much or more than the next guy but I am also a big fan of Arkham House, Wordsworth’s Editions (Tales of Mystery and The Supernatural), authors like M.R. James and the Benson Brothers, and anthologies with titles like “The Graveyard Reader” and “Night’s Yawning Peal” so I will be reading both these stories online. Gothic/Horror writing was a field open to Victorian and Edwardian women when many were not and I am really pleased to that you highlighted this aspect of speculative literature in your post.

  2. When I was much younger I read something by Henry James and hated it, but when I went back to college, in my mid thirties, my English instructor urge/talked me into reading “The Turn of the Screw” and while I liked it, there was a whole book’s worth of literary theories on what the novella “really” was about. ALL of them ignored the fact that it was a ghost story, something James admitted that it was. So I’m sympathetic to mporcius’ reluctance into getting dragged down into the weeds with literal theories, even while admitting that they may have something to say. Some people are so busy theorizing they miss the woods because the trees are in the way. Richard Dalby edited a series of ghost story anthologies by women writers. They are amazing in just how much psychological horror could be found in these stories, which may be why The Yellow Wallpaper has had such staying power and seems to constantly find new homes and new readers. This examination of these two stories remind me of why I read “reviews”, to find new viewpoints and to remind me of old favorites that have somehow slid to the back of my aging gray matter

  3. Hi

    To follow up, I read and enjoyed both stories. The underlying theme of male domination, in what were tales of uncanny experiences was quite interesting. I also enjoyed reading your take on the M.R. James stories, thanks for the link. For a ” decorating related James story ” you might try THE DIARY OF MR POYNTER which can be found full text on the web as well. And again thanks for your post.

    Happy Reading
    Guy

  4. MPorcius, thank you so much for the detailed/analytical review… Now I will think about rooms in SF — I suspect something like Wilhelm’s The Downstairs Room, with its supernatural elements, would be fascinating to read in dialogue with these earlier speculative works!

  5. Excellent reviews MPorcius, very much enjoyed reading your analysis. I was already aware of The Yellow Wallpaper which really impressed me (as you point out, it gives you a lot to consider). But I was not familiar with Wynne, and I’ll look into her work post-haste.

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