As a woman with a loud laugh and a problem modulating the volume of my voice, I’ve often been called “too much” (and probably worse). And I’m not alone: As Rachel Vorona Cote explains in her new book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, contemporary society is filled with distaste for women who live their lives loudly, and that disdain is rooted in Victorian times. Drawing parallels betweens Britney Spears and Jane Eyre, Lana Del Rey and gaslighting, as well as moments from her own life, Cote — who is a Victorian scholar — illustrates the myriad ways in which women — even so many years after Elizabeth Bennett was in want of a good husband — are still expected to live small, contained lives.
Refinery29 spoke with Cote about Too Much and the ways in which the Victorian trope of the “hysterical” woman continues to silence women in just those places where our voices are most needed.
Can you tell us how you become interested in the intersection of Victorian literature and contemporary popular culture?
"Rachel: As an undergraduate I took a course on the “fallen woman” in Victorian literature and on the Victorian literature of tolerance, which was very much focused on working towards inclusivity.
And then once I was in graduate school, I started reading a lot of queer theory and started recognizing my own queerness. And I think that was facilitated by the Victorian literature I was reading, where there is so much female homosocial reality and feminine intimacy. "
Why do you think that books like Little Women, and their film adaptations, still resonate with a modern audience?
" I think that Greta Gerwig really honored not only the text, but also the nuance. Louisa May Alcott, you have to remember, was writing to put food on the table, so the book can be very didactic — she needed to write what would sell to a 19th century audience. In terms of why it captures the zeitgeist, I think we go to books to look for ourselves. We go to books to figure ourselves out and we go to them for representation. And Little Women is a book that relatively young girls can read and feel encouraged by. And I think since its initial publication, readers have thought about femininity in terms of like: Are you a Jo? Are you an Amy? Which is a huge thing on the internet today with eneagrams and astrological signs or, like, Buzzfeed quizzes.
So Little Women was, for me — and I suspect for a lot of other young readers — the opportunity to see femininity rendered in a number of different ways, like: Here's some different personalities that are available. Here are certain ways that a girl might grow up into womanhood. "
Too Much is cultural criticism, but it also gets very personal — you discuss things like your divorce. How did you make that decision?
"Well, any stories that I told, were told in the service of the larger argument, and the larger inquiry I write about the dissolution of my first marriage is because I'm really interested in the idea of fallen women, and the way that “fallenness” is defined in Victorian literature is still prevalent today. Being a “fallen woman” usually implies sexuality. So if a character is divorced, if she is a sex worker, if she had a baby out of wedlock, she’s treated as inhuman.
Probably the most famous fallen woman is Tess of the D'urbervilles, who is just completely fucked over by her circumstances and by two terrible men. She’s raped and has a child as a result of that rape. And I think this is still a question that we're grappling with. When I got divorced, after not being married very long, I remember that when I was planning my second wedding, I felt as if it would be really unseemly for me to do anything fancy. I felt like I needed to be penitent.
I didn’t feel that getting my life together and remarrying someone I loved was enough [of a reason] to indulge myself; the feeling that I needed to be very “modest” is a very Victorian notion. "
Who are some of the women you see in contemporary pop culture who are considered “too much” — too loud, too sexual, too open with their feelings or desires?
"I think Lana Del Rey is so interesting. There's an extent to which she's sort of tongue in cheek about her performance. She's very aware of what she's doing. And yet there’s still a negotiation there, in the way that she presents as being a little bit of a wild woman, but not too wild, not wild in a way that would preclude her from being sexy, or, like, keeping her makeup intact, unless it was smudged in like a very erotic way. She toys very expertly with the notion of the hysterical woman.
I want to be careful when I talk about celebrities because there's so much that I don't understand in the way that somebody like Anne Helen Petersen understands about publicity and the ways the media can work different angles.
But, with that caveat, it seems to me that, when someone like Britney Spears has been in distress publicly, it doesn’t feel rehearsed or planned. And, of course, it’s quite different for Britney Spears, who is rich and wealthy and white. She's beautiful. She's famous. So she is very different from, say Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre, who is Creole. But the conversation around Brittney changed a great deal around 2007, and the narrative of her instability has endured in all sorts of ways. It’s still much harder for a woman to change that narrative, even one with as much privilege as Brittney Spears. "
A term we hear a lot lately is “gaslighting” which, if I’m correct, is a Victorian concept. Can you explain where it came from?
As a technology, gas-light is Victorian — it was the preferred means of lighting homes until electricity took over. However, the origins of the term "gaslighting" are a little murkier. They're generally traced to an English 1938 play by Patrick Hamilton, Gas Light, and even more often to the 1944 film adaptation.
But while the term itself doesn't originate in the 19th century, you're very right to refer to its Victorian origins, particularly in reference to "The Yellow Wallpaper." That story, based on [author] Charlotte Perkins Gilman's experiences being hospitalized, illuminates the ways in which 19th century women were not regarded as reliable custodians of their own bodies. Doctors treating women for "hysteria" were still operating on totally bananas theories of female anatomy. Did you know that our uteruses apparently bounce all around our bodies, and are thereby the cause of our various emotional distresses? Wild! [laughs] Women were told that intellectual endeavors, like reading and writing, were physically harmful to them, even though patients like Gilman knew that the opposite was the case.
Medicine has advanced, thankfully, but as Abby Norman details in her book Ask Me About My Uterus, basic understanding of anatomy conventionally—albeit erroneously— assigned as "female" is still insufficient. So many people live with endometriosis, and yet, as Norman writes, it can be difficult to convince doctors—especially white, straight, cisgender male doctors—that their pain is meaningful, rather than psychosomatic or totally illusory. And I do think there is an extent to which women-identified persons are enduringly regarded as suspicious. Our bodies still confound, and we are, it seems, punished for that. There is such anxiety around the option of trusting our testimonies; I suppose it would chisel away at patriarchy's scaffolding.