"Ladies Half-Sick of Shadows"

Updated: Jun 14, 2021


by Elizabeth Faris

An illustration by Frederick Simpson Coburn from The Works of Alfred Tennyson (1909)

MARIANA (stanza one)

by Alfred Lord Tennyson

With blackest moss the flower-pots

Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots

That held the pear to the gable-wall.

The broken sheds look’d sad and strange:

Unlifted was the clinking latch;

Weeded and worn the ancient thatch

Upon the lonely moated grange.

She only said, “My life is dreary,

He cometh not” she said;

She said, “I am aweary, aweary,,

I would that I were dead!”

Alfred Lord Tennyson penned this portrait of melancholy and decay as a backdrop to one of his many poems about withering damsels beyond all hope of deliverance. These haunting lyrical ballads were composed in the early nineteenth century on the cusp between the Romantic and Victorian Periods. As such, they are as reflective of one as they are prescriptive for the other. Celebrated works like Mariana (1830) and The Lady of Shalott (1832) derive their subject matter from traditional sources, marrying elements of setting with themes of female suppression and confinement in such a way as to provide lasting inspiration for the school of Gothic narrative that would surface in their wake.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Not least among its finest catch is The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), the story of a young woman’s grueling descent into madness, rendered by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman in terms no less evocative than those of her poetic predecessor. However, unlike the languishing Mariana, the dilemma of Gilman's protagonist goes well beyond the trampled heart and consequent mischief of the mind: she is victim not only of her thwarted desires, but equally of the pernicious dictates of an insensitive husband and the unwholesome quarters to which he has consigned her. In a dilapidated nursery, high atop a manor of hyperbolic dimension and design, this repressed young wife is to see her worst fears of personal undoing brought to full fruition.

It is a setting the narrator is quick to characterize as giving rise to her own dire feeling of foreboding: “I will proudly declare that there is something queer about it. Else why should it be let so cheaply?” And indeed, it is in terms of perspective that Gilman’s narrative differs most apparently from that of Tennyson. All the morbid intensity that Mariana conveys through soul-stirring imagery, The Yellow Wallpaper recreates by means of a sharply subjective point of view. In the same way Edgar Allan Poe’s dubious spokesman for The Tell-Tale Heart plunges his reader headlong into his patently skewed inventory of the many demons at his door, so Gilman’s narrator provides no preamble in declaring herself victim of a nameless sense of dread. Steeped as such in her inevitable bias, and cloaked in strains of speculation and denial, she proceeds to peel for us the layers of her own psychic disintegration.

It is through such skillful manipulation of perspective that the author will seduce her reader to side unequivocally with the oppressed against her oppressor. No shadow of doubt will she allow us to entertain as to the culpability of the physician husband, whom she bluntly typecasts for the vagaries of his gender, profession, and the society in which they move. So blithely prescriptive is he of every step she takes, so blandly dismissive of every fear that he calls fetish, that no matter what his claims of good intention, we know him nonetheless for the tyrant he really is. Life with him, as Gilman’s heroine portrays it, is a sentence of slow and silent suffocation, the ensuing pallor of which she foreshadows for herself from the onset, referring to the very page on which she would bear it witness as “dead [and] a great relief to my mind.”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

If only by coincidence, it is a page made of the same unlucky substance that is to line the walls of her chamber of so-called rehabilitation. When first she lays eyes on that fateful paper, she is both drawn and repelled by its colour and condition, describing it as she might her own morbid experience of depression: “dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study.” Her ambivalence notwithstanding, she wastes little time in seizing us by our deepening partiality and dragging us along with her into its noxious midst, then from there, down the corridors of her ravaged perception to a place of such pity, horror and apprehension that, in those “lame uncertain curves… [that] plunge off at outrageous angles, [and] destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions," we cannot fail to detect the voice of grisly prediction.

Thus, as daylight fades, and night invades those gloomy confines, shadows become elongated. The waxing moon casts in stark relief the “sprawling outlines [that] run off in great slanting waves of optic horror,” and with them, the secret sickness of her soul. Assuming her place then, amid the ghastly tangle of this metaphor for her madness, she becomes the “recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down,” and lunacy prevails. For just as Tennyson’s wasting heroine would opt for death in the absence of her Galahad, so Gilman’s seeks oblivion against the weight of his demands.

With the dawning of the 20th century, Tennyson’s legacy was to find fresh voice in Modernist interpretations of the lone lorn lady, minus all the Sturm and Drang of Gothic Romanticism. One of the more memorable among them is the short story Miss Brill (1920), written by Australian author Katherine Mansfield. This simple depiction of a day in the life of a solitary elder sweeps us up and bears us aloft in a quivering flight from fact to fantasy, only to drop us back down to the cold hard reality of just what it means to have to grow old alone.

In the same tradition as her British contemporary Virginia Woolf, Mansfield has mastered the art of conveying subjectivity from a third person limited point of view. Unlike Gilman's protagonist, Miss Brill offers no direct statement of her attitudes and feelings. Instead, we are steeped in them via the narrator's faithful and fluent account of her every thought and deed. Far from being held at arm's length, we are beckoned to a guessing game as to what is real and what is the product of a fertile imagination. Left to draw our inferences from the pool of our own intuition, we cannot help but feel ourselves thoroughly immersed. Thus, after our first encounter with the lady, sitting solo on a park bench and doting on her shabby fur stole as if it were her only friend in the world, we can easily recognize in countless scenes to follow that same cheerful fixation with make-believe sources of sustenance.

Ironically, it is Miss Brill's fierce rejection of self-pity that inspires our deepest compassion. As bleak as her prospects are, she can - and must - still fancy herself a going concern. In her mind, she is accompanied on every side by all species of humanity clamouring for her counsel. When an elderly couple can't agree on the husband's spectacles, when a ‘high-stepping’ mother must rush to rein in her child, when a beautiful woman can only sneer at a small act of courtesy, Miss Brill's inward retort is proportional only to her secret longing to be heard: “Dear me! Miss Brill didn’t know whether to admire that or not!” and “Miss Brill had wanted to shake her!” For one so bereft of human connection, eavesdropping is no mere pastime. It is the substance of life itself. Katherine Mansfield

The true depth of the void she seeks to fill may elude us, however, until such time as our navigator begins to steer us into the realm of pure projection. At first, we idle on the gray periphery of little girls with French dolls dressed in velvet and lace and peasant women with straw hats leading smoke-coloured donkeys, questioning by turns, but mostly trusting the evidence of our eyes. Then along comes the ermine toque, and the picture starts to shift. Hair, face, and eyes of the same faded yellow as the tiny tell-tale paw all mingling and merging until at last what appears is a perfect portrait of the protagonist herself. Thus, when in the wake of ruthless rejection, she "smile[s] more brightly than ever," we are not to be deceived. For these are none but her very own demons dancing before her eyes, having crept from the cracks in her cherished illusions.

Miss Brill’s world is a stage and the house is packed with thoughtless prying eyes. A young couple will soon arrive to share her bench, and they will whisper: “Why does she come here at all -- who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” We don't need to be told that she hears their every word. Skipping the simple pleasure of a small slice of honey cake, her weekly affirmation of an ever hopeful heart, she heads straight back to the cupboard of home to restore her furry friend to its box. But no sooner is the lid in place than she swears she hears a weeping from within. Of course, it's only the sound of her poor neglected self. For like Poe's guilty heart pulsing under foot and Gilman's troubled spirit stirring in the wall, there are just some things too terrible for words.

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