I’ve just finished reading Stephanie Carroll’s A White Room, a novel set in the first decade of the 20th Century. As my title suggests, one of the inspirations for the book was Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, a novella that I’ve read again and again and that I’ve encountered in completely different ways, depending upon my age, my mood, and the topics I’m most enjoying or most wrestling with in my own life.
My first encounter with The Yellow Wallpaper occurred when I was in junior high and found it in an anthology of horror stories. The story in brief as I understood it then—creepy house, the creepiness of which only the female protagonist is aware; she knew the house was trying to drive her mad, no one believed her, and the house won. The story was particularly disturbing because it hinted that this woman was not the first the house had destroyed.
I confess that when I was in junior high, photocopiers were a new technology and I had not yet figured out that one could go to a bookstore and ask that a particular title be special ordered. But I wanted, needed a copy of The Yellow Wallpaper because I relished its menace, the way the reader becomes isolated along with the protagonist as she sees her own doom while those around her deny it. So, I copied it. By hand on binder paper.
In college, when I was coming out, I read The Yellow Wallpaper as a novel about the inherent inequality in relationships between men and women—the heroine goes mad because her husband refuses to take her seriously, insists on his perception of the situation being the accurate perception, an insistence that ultimately comes at the price of his wife’s sanity.
More recently, I’ve read it as a historical piece, a documentation of the specific ways in which women were treated/tormented by the medical profession in the early 20th Century—the protagonist has the time to dwell on the house (particularly the wallpaper of the title) because she’s perceived as being in fragile health and is condemned to a “rest cure” (endless days in bed, no reading, writing or stimulation of any kind allowed) that drives her mad. This reading is, I believe, closest to Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s original purpose. She wrote The Yellow Wallpaper as a work of social criticism. The rest cure was standard medical practice at the time she was writing, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman was subjected to a rest cure herself with devastating results, so she wrote to depict the rest cure in a way so horrifying that the medical profession would be forced to abandon it.
All of this is a long preamble to my consideration of A White Room, which, given its inspiration, I can’t help but compare to The Yellow Wallpaper. A White Room initially feels like a slower, expanded remake of The Yellow Wallpaper—a woman is forced into a marriage in which she feels unloved and disrespected and in which her sense of self slowly deteriorates until she is hallucinating, imagining the house in which she lives is attempting to destroy her.
If this were all A White Room did, I would probably be telling prospective readers something along the lines of “don’t bother; stick with the original.” But Carroll is trying to do something different than Perkins Gillman did. Her protagonist descends into madness, but also finds a way out again. At this point, I don’t want to offer more summary; I don’t want this essay to be a “spoiler.” I just want to say that I enjoyed Carroll’s imagining of a positive alternative for a woman of that time.
The book is uneven. The pace in the first half is slow, slow, slow, while the second half races along in a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” fashion. It contains far too many descriptions of the protagonist’s clothing, most of which don’t contribute purposefully to the story. The characters are unevenly developed, so, while we can understand the perspectives and motivations of some, others, particularly the “villains,” are drawn with much less nuance. At times, the phrasing and word choice felt decidedly un-1900-ish—though I can’t claim expertise in this area, so it may simply be that the book didn’t meet my preconceived notions.
But despite these weaknesses, A White Room is still most definitely worth a read. It attempts to solve a problem, not just depict it, which is challenging work, indeed. It leads one to some very worthwhile consideration of the quality of women’s lives, the impact of class divisions, and the practice of medicine in the early 20th Century. So, instead of saying “stick with the original,” I’d say to give it a go. Don’t expect perfection, but do expect intellectual engagement and a worthwhile use of several hours of your time.