Join Toni as she explores the life of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman was born Charlotte Anna Perkins on the third of July 1860 in Hartford, CT. When Charlotte was a young child her father Fredric Beecher Perkins abandoned his family leaving her mother (Mary Perkins), older brother (Thomas Adie Perkins) and Charlottes in what would be considered genteel poverty. Charlotte’s mother moved Charlotte and Thomas between their father’s relations, who included; suffragette Isabella Beecher Hooker, abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe and educationalist Catherine Beecher. Charlotte’s mother had been deeply affected by the abandonment of her husband; she instructed her children not to form deep attachments to other people. In fact, Charlotte’s mother only showed Charlotte and her brother affection while they were sleeping.
Charlotte’s education was sporadic at best. She attended seven schools in four years. Most of her education was from her aunts. However, her teachers noted Charlotte was naturally intelligent and had a love of literature. Which her father encouraged by sending books. Charlotte’s formative education ended when she was 15. At 18 Charlotte attended The Rhode Island School of Design with money that was gifted to her by father. Once Charlotte graduated, she made a small living, painting cards.
After being pursued by Charles Walter Stetson Charlotte agreed to marry him in 1884. By the next year she had their first child Katherine Beecher Stetson. After the birth of Katherine, Charlotte suffered severe postpartum depression. By 1888 Charlotte and Charles had separated, they didn’t divorce until 1894. In April of 1891 Charlotte and Katherine moved to California, by September Charlotte had entered in a relationship with journalist and social activist Adeline Knapp. Their relationship was tumultuous and was made worse by Knapp’s alcoholism. By May 1893 Charlotte and Adeline’s relationship was over and Adeline moved out of the couple’s home in July.
Towards the end of 1893 Charlotte’s mother passed away and Charlotte moved back to the East Coast with Katherine. During this time Katherine went to live with her father and step mother. It was during her mother’s death that Charlotte turned to her first cousin Houghton Gilman. They began a relationship and were married in 1900. The couple lived in New York until 1922 where they moved to Houghton’s family settlement in Norwich Connecticut. The couple lived there happily until 1932 when Charlotte was diagnosed with breast cancer. Houghton died suddenly in 1934 from a brain aneurysm. In 1935 Charlotte ended things on her own terms.
In 1887 Charlotte wrote in her diary “she was sick with some brain disease which brought suffering that can’t be felt by anyone else.” Charlotte went to a physician who prescribed the rest cure. She was sent home with the instructions to live as domestic as possible, to have a child with her at all time. To lie down an hour after eating and to have only two hours of intellectual life a day. Charlotte was also instructed to never touch a pen, brush or a pencil for the rest of her life. Throughout 1887 Charlotte followed the instructions, however, her depression deepened. In the Summer of 1888, Charlotte and her daughter Katherine went to live in Bristol, Rhode Island. Where she began to write again this is when Charlotte noted that her depression started to lift.
The rest cure that Charlotte was prescribed was created by Silas Weir Mitchell in the late 1800s for the treatment of hysteria and other nervous illnesses. For 6 to 8 weeks the patient was isolated from friends and family. They were not allowed to read, write or talk. Mitchell believed the rest cure boosted the patient’s weight and increased their blood flow. It also removed patients from a potentially toxic atmospheres in their home. But what truly happened is that the women were treated like children and their will broke. Feminist scholars have stated that the rest cure reinforced an archaic and oppressive notion that women should submit their will to a male authority. In a later autobiography Charlotte argued that the rest cure was exactly the opposite of what she needed during that dark period of her life. Instead of giving up the things that she loved she should have been encouraged to perform the activities that enriched her life.
The Yellow Wallpaper was published in 1890. The story is Charlotte’s response to the rest cure that she had been prescribed while suffering post-partum depression.
The Yellow Wallpaper
‘The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.’
Written with barely controlled fury after she was confined to her room for ‘nerves’ and forbidden to write, Gilman’s pioneering feminist horror story scandalized nineteenth-century readers with its portrayal of a woman who loses her mind because she has literally nothing to do.