A Theory of Too Muchness

Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today BY Rachel Vorona Cote. Grand Central Publishing. Paperback, 352 pages. $19.
The cover of Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today

A weeping woman is a monster. So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter. Women who are one or more of these things have heard, or perhaps simply intuited, that we are repugnantly excessive, that we have taken illicit liberties to feel or fuck or eat with abandon. After bellowing like a barn animal in orgasm, hoovering a plate of mashed potatoes, or spraying out spit in the heat of expostulation, we’ve flinched in self-scorn—ugh, that was so gross. I am so gross. On rare occasions, we might revel in our excess—belting out anthems with our friends over karaoke, perhaps—but in the company of less sympathetic souls, our uncertainty always returns. A woman who meets the world with intensity is a woman who endures lashes of shame and disapproval, from within as well as without.

In Victorian England, the medical establishment would have labeled us hysterical, pathologically immoderate in emotional and physiological expression. When I was working on a doctorate in Victorian literature, inevitably, my eye always wandered to passages where female characters erupted with feeling, whether of love or defiance or fury. They were the women I preferred, and with whom I felt an affinity—the ones who wept and feverishly declared their love and rarely apologized. After a tormented resistance, Tess Durbeyfield nakedly expresses her desire for Angel Clare (who, alas, is the unworthiest of feckless assholes). Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights is cruel to the bone, but I am endlessly in awe of her uncompromising and voracious demand for adoration. Most tellingly, Maggie Tulliver of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss—impulsive, sometimes baffled by her own excesses—became my Victorian avatar, textual evidence that the vigorous pulsing of my veins was, perhaps, not wholly incompatible with life (though, if you know Maggie’s tragic story, I realize this might seem an ironic comment to make).

I detected “too muchness” in each of these characters, and in so many more—Victorian literature breeds Too Much women—though I never wrote about it directly, or even mentioned it, for that matter. Graduate school seemed inhospitable to too muchness, privileging those who endured austere conditions of intellectual labor as if training for a bookish Spartan army. What a bizarre badge of pride: the first time a professor skewered my work, I thought, “At least I didn’t cry in his office.” It would be unseemly—presumptuous—and a mark of excessive sensitivity in a context where one was expected to take her lumps with stoic submission. There was no space for Maggie Tulliver or Catherine Earnshaw in graduate school, and by that logic I often wondered whether there was room for me: someone who attempted to be who she wasn’t—measured, demure, cool—and who failed gloriously most of the time.

But gradually, I spooned meager portions of hope into a theory: that my maximalist personality, my muchness, was no reason for shame but, dare I say it, pride. I had never forgotten about muchness, the word and the notion of it, and as I began to regard its assignations with timid dignity, I considered the possibility of a reinterpretation, one that summoned greater self-regard. Perhaps what others had condemned in me, what I had condemned in myself—this muchness, or because I thought of it in terms of fundamental excess, too muchness—held promise I was only beginning to discern.

The wide-ranging scorn for “too muchness” is no coincidence or matter of social caprice. Our culture, for all its staggering toward progress, possesses a meager threshold for discomfort when faced with examples of nonnormative difference. We should not be surprised that those most often stigmatized as disagreeably or even dangerously excessive are those who contest white masculine heteronormative and capitalist ideologies. For centuries, white cisgender straight men have defined excess according to the terms that most benefit them, cementing, brick by brick, a culture that caters to their proclivities, comforts, and benefits.

In the nineteenth century, women’s too muchness underwent vigorous medical scrutiny, routinely receiving a specific, vexed verdict—one that had already dogged women for centuries and that would continue to haunt those of us who live with mental illness or who so much as manifest acute emotional intensity: hysteria. The Too Much diagnosis par excellence, hysteria became an especially ubiquitous catchall for women in the nineteenth century when doctors like French neuropsychiatrist Pierre Janet and American physician Frederick Hollick took grandiose measures to explore the so-called disease’s symptoms and treatments. Janet’s work manifests itself as an antecedent to Sigmund Freud’s mode of psychoanalysis, which catalyzed the psychological theory of hysteria. Hysteria, however, has endured in the medical and larger cultural imagination long after Freud’s hypotheses surrounding penis envy and psychosexual complexes: it was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until the third edition was printed in 1980. And even now, its influence is everywhere present, not only distorting prevailing conceptions of femininity but maintaining its antiquated status as a pre-existing medical condition—at once a symptom and a diagnosis.

To be sure, hysteria was not born with the Victorians, although, as historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has written, it is construed as “one of the classic diseases of the nineteenth century.” Victorian women carried smelling salts to revive them when they swooned: apparently the uterus disliked the pungent odor and would be enticed to meander back to its appropriate place within the loins. Men were diagnosed with hysteria too, albeit comparatively rarely; moreover, physicians, entrenched in essentialist medical ideology, debated whether one could be a hysteric if one’s biology did not include a uterus, the affliction’s perceived locus.

In 1847, Hollick published The Diseases of Woman, Their Causes and Cure Familiarly Explained; with Practical Hints for their Prevention and for the Preservation of Female Health, a book meant to become a household staple, a compendium for reference when domestic angels were, for obscure reasons, freaking out. Unsurprisingly, he devotes a lengthy entry to hysteria, with the underlying thesis that women are essentially fragile and prone to malady, particularly—but not always!—when their dispositions are emotionally sensitive, and practically everything can be read as a symptom. Predictably, he pins the site of the malady within the tricky and changeable womb:

In regard to the starting point or original seat of Hysteria, there seems to be no doubt of its being the Uterus, which becomes subject to a peculiar excitement, or disturbance, that exerts a wonderful sympathetic influence on the whole system. The Uterus, it must be remembered, is the controlling organ in the female body, being the most excitable of all, and so intimately connected, by the ramifications of its numerous nerves, with every other part.

Although Hollick’s laundry list indicates, before anything else, that the illness described is illusory—a fantasy of basic feminine subordinacy—he returns to references of heightened affective states, implying both that it is dangerous for a woman to harbor these feelings and that women who are inclined to “vivid mental emotions” are social hazards. A hysterical woman is, above all, an inappropriate one. “She becomes dejected, or melancholy, and will sigh, or burst into tears, and then as suddenly laugh in the most immoderate manner, and without any reason for it,” Hollick explains.

These archaic—and legitimately bonkers—theories have been debunked, but the anxiety underpinning them has lingered, rendering female bodies the landscape of a brutal ideological battlefield. The protracted, but ever vicious, reproductive rights debate asks whether a woman is sovereign of her body: Is she free—is she reasonable enough—to treat it as she sees fit, and should that freedom be circumscribed depending on circumstance? And for that matter, how should the body feel to the woman living in it?

It’s through literature that we gain access to Victorian female perspectives, through writers like the Brontë sisters and George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell and Christina Rossetti, all of whom, in various modes and means, contemplate the circumstances of women in an age when emotion was so viciously policed and pathologized. It’s stories like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” that articulate, with blistering focus, the individual ramifications of widespread hysteria diagnoses, and sensation novelists like Mary Elizabeth Braddon who bear out in their narratives the terror with which Victorian men regarded women, whose bodies and temperaments seemed, to them, irrevocably illegible. In order to account for the fearsome conundrum of women, men resorted to obsessive, stigmatizing taxonomies, legitimized through the medical establishment. Even novelist Thomas Hardy conveys remarkable empathy in the famously tragic Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) in which the titular woman is doggedly shamed and tortured for her desires—and for the potency of her sexual attractiveness, regarded as something of a character flaw whenever it was convenient for men to do so. As we will see, other male writers, Lewis Carroll, for instance, did not share Hardy’s insight into the structural misogyny that could render a woman’s reality a waking nightmare: instead Alice in Wonderland illuminates the anxieties surrounding female bodies that ignited the hysteria craze and conveys the abiding fear that women were, by virtue of biology, excessive in ways that could be dangerous to men if they were not soundly bridled.

Victorian literature reveals and, often, responds to an enduring principle that has since lurked in cultural understandings of femininity: women’s bodies, historical sites of male anxiety and consternation, are not trusted to register maladies in ways legible to the institution of medicine—and we, the custodians, cannot be trusted to accurately represent our interiorities. Perhaps we are Freudian hysterics or hypochondriacs or, to draw on recent conversations surrounding the #MeToo movement, perhaps our real diagnosis is anger, even bloodlust—for one man, or for cisgender men at large. Moreover, through the lenses of fear and prejudice, biological processes like menstruation and childbirth distort and appear dubiously associated with black magic—what sorts of creatures bleed for days without dying? Perhaps we are monsters after all.

Excerpted from Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Vorona Cote. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.