Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, July 3, 2015

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Imagining a World of Our Own

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (born 3 July 1860)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a noted social activist and reformer, a writer and a lecturer, a sociologist and economist. Although she wrote plays and poetry and published major works on economics (Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, 1898), ethics (Social Ethics, 1914), and employment (The Home: Its Work and Influence, 1903, and Human Work, 1904), today she is best remembered for a single short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (1892) and for her utopian novel, Herland  (1914). 

Charlotte Perkins Stetson (later Gilman),
c. 1900
Charlotte Perkins was the daughter of writer and librarian Frederic Beecher Perkins (who was Harriet Beecher Stowe's nephew) and Mary Fitch Wescott.

While the Beecher connection makes Frederic Perkins worthy of his very own Wikipedia entry, there is little information available about Gilman's mother. Charlotte Perkins Gilman would later write that Mary Fitch Wescott was the "darling of an elderly father and a juvenile mother, petted, cossetted, and indulged," and that she was delicate, "beautiful, well educated, musical, and what was then termed 'spiritual minded'"--in short, she was "femininely attractive in the highest degree."

This pairing did not work well--Perkins abandoned his wife and children, leaving them in poverty. Charlotte seems more or less to have raised herself and to have educated herself, principally from reading (she attended a series of schools, was considered a poor student, and ended her formal education at the age of fifteen).

Notably, however, the abandoned Perkins family spent time with their Beecher relations, including Isabella Beecher Hooker, a key figure in the suffrage movement, Catharine Beecher, who published more than twenty books on education, slavery and abolition, families, and women's roles in society, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Charlotte Perkins married Charles Walter Stetson in 1884, gave birth to her only child, Katharine Beecher Stetson, a year later, and separated from Stetson in 1888. In between the birth of her daughter and her separation, Gilman experienced a trauma that would result in "The Yellow Wallpaper."

In 1887, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed a rest cure. The specific nature of the illness from which she was suffering is not at all clear. Describing it some twenty-five years later, Gilman wrote, “For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia—and beyond.” The twenty-seven-year-old Gilman consulted the physician Silas Weir Mitchell, widely recognized in the United States as the foremost authority on women’s health, and entered his sanitarium in Philadelphia. 

Describing her treatment there, she later wrote, “This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he sent me home with solemn advice to ‘live as domestic a life as possible,’ to ‘have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,’ and ‘never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again’ as long as I lived.” Gilman says that, like a good patient, she “went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came . . . near the borderline of utter mental ruin. . . .” 

She realized that doing nothing was the cause of her illness, not its cure and so, “using the remnants of intelligence that remained,” she ignored Mitchell’s orders: “I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite.” Returning to work, she wrote, meant “ultimately recovering some measure of power.” It is this very situation—suffering from the lack of work, with nothing to do all day, spending day after day in an isolated bedroom and night after night lying awake and aware—that we first encounter the unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Cover of an 1899 edition of
"The Yellow Wallpaper"
The second of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s most well known works is the novel Herland. Herland is an ideal female state that has developed parallel to but completely isolated from the “real” world, dominated by men. There is no strife, no bloodshed, no violence, and no “plunder” in Herland, for the simple reason that there are no men.

In this peaceful, harmonious land, there are no male gods either; rather, there is a Maternal Pantheon of female gods and, in particular, Mother Earth. The women live in harmony with their land, eating only the “fruit of motherhood”—eggs and seeds. Nor do the women of Herland need men for reproduction; the continued existence of Herland is due to parthenogenesis, or “virgin creation,” one generation of women giving birth to the next without any need for male assistance whatsoever.

But, after two thousand years of isolation and independence, Herland is suddenly invaded by three men, and what once was an all-female Paradise is changed forever.

Charlotte Perkins married Houghton Gilman in 1900. After his death in 1934, she moved to Pasadena, California, where she had lived after her separation from Stetson in 1888 and where her daughter was then living. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1932; on 17 August 1935, she committed suicide, noting in the note she left behind that she "chose chloroform over cancer."

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is widely available online, but in different versions. I recommend the text that is available through Cornell University Library's Making of America project, a scanned version of the original publication, from the 1892 New England Magazine (you can access by clicking here*). This text obviously preserves the spelling and punctuation of Gilman's original title, "The Yellow Wall-Paper." Less obviously, it preserves her breaks in the text--these sections breaks are sometimes eliminated in reprints, especially those found online, but I think they are essential to the story. Gilman’s brief essay, “Why I Wrote ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” written and published in the October 1913 issue of her Forerunner magazine, is available by clicking here

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland is also available online, accessible through Project Gutenberg, for example. There are several affordable paperback editions, often published with other Gilman texts, especially short stories. I like the very affordable Signet Classic edition edited by Barbara H. Soloman, Herland and Selected Stories. Soloman’s introduction to Gilman’s life and work is excellent, and this Gilman anthology also contains "The Yellow Wallpaper." 

It's important to note, however, that Gilman did not publish Herland as a stand-alone novel, complete in itself. Rather, she published "Herland" serially in twelve installments in The Forerunner, beginning in January 1915. The narrative of Herland is followed immediately, without a break, by "With Her in Ourland: Sequel to 'Herland'" in January 1916. The twelve installments of "Ourland" are completed in December 1916.

The first time "Herland" was published as a "novel" was in 1979--and it appeared separate from its "continuation." This publication history answers the most persistent questions raised by my students in the course of teaching this novel over several years: why would Ellador, the main female protagonist, ever decide to leave the all-female community of Herland? Why would Van have wanted her to leave rather than staying with her in Herland? What did she encounter in "our" world? 

There are various print-on-demand versions of With Her in Ourland available on Amazon, but I recommend the carefully prepared edition of Mary Jo Deegan--it has a great introduction. (You can get a new copy, but there are also used copies available). 

And, one more note: "Herland" was preceded by "Moving the Mountain," published serially in 1911 and in book form, Moving the Mountain, in the same year. While Moving the Mountain shares a utopian vision with Herland and is sometimes referred to as the first novel in Gilman's "trilogy," it has no connection with the characters and world of Gilman's more famous utopian Herland.

*This link connects you to an entire issue of the magazine--"The Yellow-Wall Paper," by Charlotte Perkins Stetson," begins on p. 647.