When Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that disturbing 19th-century novella called 'The Yellow Wallpaper', she could hardly have known that it would later become a classic of feminist fiction. Even less could she have realised that at its heart was a pioneering portrait of the trauma of postnatal depression.
As the book is being reissued by Virago this year, it is interesting to note that, unlike her heroine, the author herself managed to break free from the oppressive shackles of her mind.
But, what was it about Gilman's short story that so evoked the mental anguish of women a century ago? And, could vestiges of how men saw women in days gone by still linger on even today? She wrote the story in part to escape the mastery of male doctors and to become the mistress of her own destiny.
First of all, let's look at what led to Gilman conceiving the story in the first place. For many years the author suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to what was then termed melancholia. This led her to consult a noted specialist in nervous diseases. This ‘wise' man put her to bed and applied the rest cure, to which her still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with her at all. He therefore sent her home with solemn advice to live as domestic a life as far as possible, to ‘have but two hours' intellectual life a day', and ‘never to touch pen, brush or pencil again' as long as she lived. This was in 1887.
Gilman went home and obeyed these directions for some three months, and came very near the border line of utter mental collapse. Fortunately, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, she cast the noted specialist's advice to the four winds and went to work again. At last, she was able to experience a measure of joy and growth in her occupation, at length recovering some feeling of power. It was at that point she decided to write ‘The Yellow Wallpaper' to warn other women of the perils of following man's dictates of what women were allowed to do or not do.
The heroine of the story, a nameless young woman who has a small baby, is suffering from what she describes at the start as a 'temporary nervous depression - a slight hysterical tendency'. This is the label her illness has been given by her husband - a physician - and also her brother, another doctor. The treatment prescribed by her husband is rest - 'I am absolutely forbidden to "work" until I am well again' - and, with this aim, she is confined to the top-floor room of a large country house that he has rented for the purpose.
She must rest in bed and do absolutely no work whatsoever, despite her own protestations to the contrary. Her baby is cared for by a nursemaid. By degrees, as the story develops and the heroine becomes more and more bored in the bed all day, her mental condition deteriorates. Her husband nails down the bed and locks the door so that she won't injure herself and there is no temptation for her to leave the room. The ‘nailed-down' bed symbolises her ‘nailed-down' life completely.
With nothing left to do, she starts to study the crazy pattern on the yellow wallpaper behind the bed, eventually descending into a madness that she had never experienced before. The climax of the story sees the husband cheerfully coming home from work and climbing the stairs to her room, before unlocking the door. He faints at the sight of his poor wife, who is on all fours, creeping solemnly around the room to get away from the crazy images shouting at her from within the wallpaper.
The analogy of all this is that the heroine is a formerly-sane person who was kept locked up for weeks as supposed treatment for her ‘nervous condition'. But, the underlying theme is that the 19th century was a time when men worked and women were kept ‘imprisoned' in their homes, forbidden to contemplate work. Her physician husband was hardly a Harold Shipman; rather, he was merely doing what he thought right and transmitting the theories of the time. The story tells its own tale of what happens when a young, bright mind is imprisoned in a straitjacket and forbidden to release its energies for the good of the person's soul and health.
In retrospect, we now know that the author's symptoms which led to her writing the book were facets of post-natal depression, a common enough complaint. She found herself weeping while breastfeeding her baby and motherhood brought her no joy. But because of her treatment by a male physician, she had a catastrophic nervous breakdown after the birth of her daughter. She had to fight the male bastions of the day to get her novella published. Even then there were angry complaints from male readers, many of them doctors.
So now, a century later, what is it that still makes it such a profoundly disturbing story to read? The answer lies in its urgent immediacy, born out of Gilman's own experience of mental illness, and the horror of what followed by way of 'treatment'.
Thank goodness that the author, unlike the heroine of The Yellow Wallpaper, did not become a creeping lunatic, hidden away from the world in a top-floor bedroom. She travelled widely, remarried and became a role model to subsequent generations of women. But perhaps her lasting achievement is that she herself was the survivor who unlocked the door of the madwoman in the attic by ignoring the ideologies of the time and opening up her mind to creative pursuits.
'The Yellow Wallpaper' (Little Brown), by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1516;
books.telegraph.co.uk) at £7.99 plus £1.25 p&p