And even before that mother-as-subject, mother-as-madwoman in the attic had been portrayed in The Yellow Wallpaper. The first sentence – “It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer” – prefaces a tale in which this ordinariness becomes increasingly and disturbingly deranged. I read it when I was a teenager, and I read it then as a narrative of hysteria. Written at the end of the Nineteenth Century, it’s certainly of that era, the epidemic of hysteria, of Charcot and the Salpêtrière, and the narrator’s own “hysterical tendency” is mentioned on the second page. It’s only now, on rereading as a mother, that I recognise it as an explicit tale of the post-partum condition. While the absent baby is only mentioned three times in the whole story, it’s the wallpaper that absorbs the new mother’s gaze:
The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.
You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back-somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples upon you. It’s like a bad dream.
The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions – why, that is something like it.
It is not the baby but the wallpaper that is the object of her attention, that keeps her up at night, and with which her own self increasingly blurs: the story ends when she has switched places with the woman creeping in the wall paper: “It is so pleasant … to creep around as I please.”
First published in 1892, my copy is Virago, 1997