Friday Reads: Rich Girls

Friday Read: The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “If I Were A Man,” a woman inhabits her husband’s body for an afternoon and uses her position to tell other men that women are just as smart, athletically talented, and employable as they are and as such, should not be judged for things like caring about fancy clothing or marrying the right person, because men have made it so that they have to do those things. Gilman, the author of oft-assigned short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892), wrote frequently about women trapped by a patriarchal society. The heroines of her stories are emancipated by finding jobs, launching successful businesses, paying off their mortgages, falling in love with men who are interested in them rather than their domestic skills, and being rescued by cleverer women from the monotony of housewifery. Her writing can be heavy-handed, but her message is clear: women should be valued for who they are as people, rather than for their roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers. (Though if a woman is a natural caretaker and likes being that way, then it’s fine as long as she can make money off it, as one of her characters does when she starts a babysitting service.) Reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman now, over 100 years since she started publishing, I saw how little has changed in our society’s attitude toward women. I also recognized just how much has changed in that, as a woman (of a certain class and race) in the 21st century, I am able to work without question, to live on my own, to be as interested or disinterested in the domestic as I want to be. As a friend recently commented, it’s unlikely that we would be where we are now if women like Gilman hadn’t gotten angry and started writing or protesting. But it makes me sad when I think about how many women I know, myself included, feel far less entitled than their male counterparts, often without even realizing it.

Of the eight or so stories I read in the last week, I found “The Yellow Wallpaper” to be the standout. This isn’t surprising, as it’s Gilman’s most famous story. But what stuck with me was not the prose or her ability to create tension, but the fact that the story is not at all optimistic. The narrator, a woman who has been prescribed a rest cure while suffering from what we now know as postpartum depression, descends into a psychotic state as she imagines that the wallpaper in the room where she spends most of her time is moving. At the end of the story, she is not saved, neither by herself nor anyone else. She is mentally ill and beholden to her husband, who dismissed all of her prior warnings that she was not getting better. Where Gilman’s other stories seem like fantasies about women finding ways to have full lives outside of home and family, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is – in an extreme way – honest about how most women were dismissed by men and suffered as a result. In fact, Gilman herself famously had postpartum psychosis. “The Yellow Wallpaper” was born of that experience.

 

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What have I been reading otherwise? I liked this TNY piece on Chloe Sevigny at 40. She is, unsurprisingly, an all-time favorite of mine. (I was ecstatic to see her in the new Netflix series Bloodline, even though I thought her character was a little blah.) I also couldn’t help but read all about Lilly Pulitzer for Target. From the angry screeds on my Facebook timeline to coverage of disappointed Lilly fans to actual reviews of the Target line and the Lilly aesthetic itself, I reveled in the criticism of this brand that loomed large during my childhood and adolescence and that I myself have come to have a distaste for*. I found this Jezebel critique – ‘Wealth Accompanied by Rejection of Creativity’: Bye, Lilly Pulitzer – especially delicious. However, I’m still fascinated by – and not in a mocking way! in a very real way! – the whole Palm Beach-y, ladies of leisure lifestyle that Lilly is associated with. And for that reason, I also decided to revisit this 2003 Vanity Fair interview with Lilly Pulitzer herself. On a not unrelated note, here is a Town & Country piece on Dorrian’s Red Hand, the ultimate Upper East Side preppy bar. I’ve only been there maybe three times and have run into people from past lives on each of those trips, so their first point is at least definitely true. I’ve also been working my way through the current issue of The Paris Review, by which I mean the interviews with Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis, and Elena Ferrante. (What a boon to be able to read these three in the same issue!) I’m still “reading” Stoner and I think I might just give up soon? I’m going away for the weekend and I didn’t even bring it with me. Instead, I have Kate Bolick’s Spinster in my bag.

 

*Full disclosure: Growing up, my wardrobe featured, if not a lot of Lilly Pulitzer clothing, a not insignificant number of pieces. Also, I have worn a Lilly Pulitzer dress within the last year. (But! It’s really plain – navy blue, no pastels or cute animals or martini glasses – and my mom bought it for me for my college graduation six years ago and it somehow looks brand new and, I think, it fits my current, very un-Lilly aesthetic just fine.)
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Currently, Costume Dramas

I’ve written here before – many times – about my love of costume dramas, specifically of the British variety. I got hooked my senior year of college, in the early days of my Netflix subscription, when I returned hungover as fuck from spring break and burned through Cranford in the 24 hours before my roommates returned, crying my eyes out while watching little old ladies stir up mischief in an English market town on the brink of the industrial era. After that, I watched basically every other costume drama that was available on DVD or through Netflix’s streaming service. I now believe that I have watched…everything that falls into the costume drama category? Or most things, probably. I draw the line at some shittier or older productions. (For example, the 1995 miniseries event The Buccaneers, based on the Edith Wharton novel. I have tried and failed several times to make it past the first twenty minutes.)

Anyway, because I feel like I’ve watched everything, I am always happy when some new production based on classic literature or just set at some point in history is on TV. Right now, I’m watching Wolf Hall (a miniseries) and Call the Midwife (a series in its fourth season), both of which are airing on Sunday nights on PBS. (They are nothing at all alike, so I won’t try to compare them much, but they do share one actress. Jessica Raine, who plays Jane Rochford in Wolf Hall, starred in the first three seasons of Call the Midwife.)
Wolf Hall is based on two of my favorite novels of the past several years: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy based on the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell. The miniseries has already aired in the UK, so if you’re interested in binge watching it, I’m certain there are ways to do this. I, however, am watching Sunday nights on Masterpiece Theater because I prefer watching things as they air if I can and also, I love the little commercials for Viking River Cruises that they always show. My impression three episodes into Wolf Hall is that…it’s good! I enjoy watching it. The acting is great. (Mark Rylance especially.) The sets are great. The costumes are great. But I do not enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed reading the books. There’s something that was lost in translation, which is probably not anyone’s fault. I don’t think any adaptation would do Mantel’s prose justice. I will continue watch it because I’m still drawn in by the drama – I’ve loved anything to do with the Tudor period since I was young – and also because I don’t totally remember everything that happened in the books. When Wolf Hall is over in a few weeks, I just may start a reread.
Call the Midwife is set in a different England entirely, that of 1950s and 1960s London. The show, based on the popular memoirs of Jennifer Worth, centers on the nuns and young midwives who live in Nonnatus House, a convent in a poor area on the outskirts of the city. Together they provide the district with nursing services and prenatal care. Then there are the actual births, which are constant. (I would not recommend this show if you’re bothered by childbirth scenes.) Each week, there is usually a dangerous birth and one that’s meant to highlight some sort of social issue at the time. But sometimes, a dangerous birth can also highlight a social issue! For instance, last week, a poor Irish woman forced to live in a really filthy boarding house because no one would rent to her family gave birth prematurely because she had contracted dysentery. The show can be preachy at times and isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to making points about how difficult life was and is for women, the poor, immigrants, the elderly, and any other disenfranchised or minority population. But I don’t mind so much, because it isn’t trying to be anything other than itself, a sentimental window into the past. Not unlike many of my favorite costume drama series, Call the Midwife is a comfort, which is sometimes all I need a television show to be.
I watch a lot of TV in groups or at least discuss shows with my friends, but these two are pretty much solitary experiences for me. So, tiny but loyal audience, are you watching Wolf Hall or Call the Midwife? And do you have any other historical/costumey shows you’re watching?

Friday Roundup: All of the Things I’ve Ever Been Obsessed With

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If I consider Monday the beginning of the week, then I started this one off right, with the smoked meat sandwich pictured above from Mile End Deli. (Not pictured: poutine! Which luckily, I shared with two other people.) Presidents Day Weekend actually felt long for a long weekend. So long that I never really left weekend-mode and I am very ready for it to be the actual weekend again.

This week, I was pretty obsessed with the conversation surrounding Hilary Mantel’s recent lecture, republished here by the London Review of Books. (Her last two novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are two of my favorite books I have read in the last several years, if not ever, so I’m KIND OF a huge fan girl.) The lecture is, of course, fascinating, not only for Mantel’s commentary on the way she and the rest of the  sees – and objectifies – British royalty, but also for the way she places the current state of affairs within a larger historical context. The parallels she draws between Kate Middleton and Anne Boleyn are interesting to consider for a lot of reasons and I highly suggest reading this if you’re into British history or tabloid culture.

If you were following the press around this at all, you might have heard about how Mantel was lambasted by British publications, as well as Prime Minister David Cameron, for a few unsavory remarks she made during the lecture about Princess Catherine. The quotes used in the press were taken out of context, of course, and the ensuing madness only ended up proving her point about our – the public’s – personal relationship with royalty. I liked this piece on The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog about “the pitfalls of the public lecture”, which was less of a stating-how-obviously-wrong the initial reaction to the lecture was and more of an excuse for Ian Crouch to talk about Pnin and Lucky Jim, two of the best books ever about academia. (Lucky Jim is another one of my favorite, favorite books. This has reminded me that I really badly need to reread it soon.)

Anyway, all of this has been good for Hilary Mantel, whose books are selling like hotcakes again.

Not actually doing as well as we though? Short stories! Laura Miller’s response on Salon to the New York Times’ assertion that short stories are back “in” because of George Saunders and Kindles is excellent in that it points out that the idea that people are not reading short fiction just because they have small screens on their e-readers and smart phones. And that a market for short fiction has never existed and probably won’t just because George Saunders is on the bestseller list. (Sidenote: Should I abandon my short story collection now? I have only written like one page, anyhow.)

I read this New York Times Magazine piece on the science behind the addictiveness of junk food over two days this week. It was really enlightening and I highly recommend it.

Also, I don’t know if any of you were fans of Carnivale, but I was super excited to see this two-part interview with series creator Daniel Knauf on The AV Club. I was completely obsessed with this show but never knew much about its genesis or plans for its future beyond a few details that were released around the second season (and series) finale. Here are both parts:

Part One
Part Two

And finally, a look back at something else I was once (and still kind of am) really into. There was a short-ish documentary/verbal history about the making of Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister on Pitchfork this week. Watch it! I liked it a lot. (I have no idea if you’ll like it. There just wasn’t any way that I was going to hate it, so.)