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The Wallpaper in our lives – Lizzie Harwood
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The Wallpaper in our lives

Lizzie Harwood / Inspiration  / The Wallpaper in our lives

The Wallpaper in our lives

Last Saturday, I bopped along to another of Toby’s wonderful literary salons. A Short 3-hr Brunch Salon for Busy People, on two brilliant short stories: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Alice Munro’s ‘Runaway’.

I regularly rocked up to Toby’s salons when she lived in Paris, but even now that she’s in London she kindly pops over to blow her/and our minds running 2 or 3 salons in one weekend. What I love about Toby’s salons is getting into the headspace of a story or work, even for a couple of hours, with others who love reading, trying to nut out what was meant or what delicious ambiguities we gleaned. You always meet new people or catch up with salon folks you haven’t seen in yonks. After we ‘did’ Ulysses by James Joyce – that took 6 months – we flew over to Dublin for Bloomsday. It’s that sort of mad group that keeps you going living in a sometimes-very-strange culture.

Toby’s a mad keen swimmer. She swims on the Heath in London even now, in the minus Celsius conditions we are living through. She said she stays in the water for 5-7 minutes. Without wetsuits, just a swimsuit and gloves. But if she stops now, her conditioning and ability to stand it will go and she won’t be able to go back in.

Talking about ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, we got onto questions of what is madness? and we found (or is it how we read – that we seek the positive endings to stories that may not have them?) that the woman in this 1899 story isn’t really mad, she’s just being her nervy, creative self. She is also every woman. She also causes her (patriarchal, condescending, alpha-male) husband to faint at the end of the story. It’s a fascinating short story. The more you look at it the more it is doing way more than you thought at first glance. Like any great wallpaper.

We got onto talking about wallpaper in our lives when Toby asked us all to say which images struck us the most. One salonista nicely described how she thought she hadn’t ever lived with wallpaper but then remembered she had – an odd childhood memory of a wallpapered bedroom where it was even on the ceiling. I loved hearing about that.

Darling Hubby had an important wallpaper in his childhood – his bedroom was papered with hot air balloons. I think this is why he left Normandy and traveled and lived outside France and even upon returning to France didn’t return to his home village. Those balloons sent him into the sky.

While, I, growing up, had a very striking wallpaper to look at: black and white 1970s tree nymphs and wood fairies who were pretty much all naked. This was in the bedroom on the island with no electricity, which I shared with big sister Jacqui and little brother Sam, whilst Mum & Dad slept in the next-door bedroom with normal black and white 1970s hibiscus flowers all over it. We got the nudity because it was a bigger bedroom. The older four were relegated to the downstairs ‘rec room’ or already floating elsewhere overseas.

The naked wallpaper was pretty haunting. I saw it in some toilet years later and turned back into a 6-9-year-old playing with lit candles, pouring the wax onto my palm to see if it really hurt, giggling until late at night instead of sleeping, running unsupervised as far as our little legs could take us on the island, getting up to mischief.

We asked ourselves in the salon, What is it that’s driving you crazy? It might just be the wallpaper. In the short story, it’s the lack of creative outlet that forces the bedridden narrator to hallucinate a creeping woman who climbs out of the yellow wallpaper… even though it’s kind of frightening to be inside this narrator’s cracked mind, it’s also exciting to be viewing the world through another lens, isn’t it? That’s why we read literature – to view the world through somebody else’s eyes.

In the salon we talked about how the term ‘madness’ is reached for when we put patterns onto people and they fail to fit into the pattern we’ve imposed.

Another salonista made a brilliant point that in our glossy magazines we’re always being told to ‘go on a detox’, or ‘get away from everything’ in some spa or retreat or bootcamp where we hang up our slippers and submit to a different world & all its rules in order to cope with our everyday lives. Strange that we are still being encouraged to step away from our regular activity and go have a little lie down.

What was really spooky in reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, which was written in 1899, was how these enforced bed rest treatments for ‘nervous’ (mad) woman also included making them use bedpans, vetoing any reading or writing or sewing or any activity. The women went mad with this treatment. But also they acquiesced and slid into a near-vegetative state where they seemed to be relieved not to participate in life and to just lie there. It’s quite mad reading how doctors treated these ‘nervous’ patients. It’s a brilliant story.

I haven’t even gotten onto ‘Runaway’. Read it, it’s incredible.

I hunted until I was nearly mad the other night for a photo of the wallpaper of my childhood, but I didn’t have the photo. My sweet niece did and she kindly sent it to me today. This is her being her genius baby self, with the naked nymphs behind her. The photo was taken in 1981. When I visited our old house in 2007, they had taken down this wallpaper. But it’s still up in my mind.


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