These comments were inspired by Susan Bailey’s post about Mac, in Louisa May Alcott’s children’s book Eight Cousins. Young Mac is forbidden to read for up to a year and must spend his time in a dark room.
“Rest in a dark room” was often prescribed for women, particularly those with depression, usually called nervous troubles or nervous prostration. Some see this as a policy to oppress uppity women, but it does not require a deliberate decision to oppress a woman or a child or a minority. It only requires acceptance of certain doctrines, conventional ones at the time. For example, during the Victorian era women were believed to be physically and emotionally fragile. They were expected to cry, to faint, to collapse. So they did — cry, faint, collapse. How much of that do you see today? Now the convention is to become depressed.
I don’t say these things are never real, but reality is reinforced by conventional belief.
As I read 19th century novels and memoirs, the assumption seems to be that each person has a certain amount of energy or life force. (Women have less than men.) When that is depleted by misfortune or illness, the remedy is to rest until the energy is restored. There is also danger is taxing one’s resources. Girls are discouraged from the demands of higher education and led to believe they are not capable of it.
Rose, speaking to her male cousins about Mac, in Eight Cousins:
Cheer him up about school, and offer to help him study by and by. You can do that better than I, because I’m only a girl, and don’t learn Greek and Latin and all sort of headachy stuff.
Boys training to be soldiers were not told to hold back and preserve their strength for battle. For men, exertion is strengthening, but it depletes the strength of women. Children are a special case, and poor Mac in Eight Cousins is treated with the traditional remedy for females: rest in a dark room. Given the drastic medical treatments of bleeding and purging, rest in a dark room is benign. Continued too long, however, it becomes more like solitary confinement.
The prescription also involved forbidding Mac to read. Reading can threaten the social order. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, girls are not taught to read and women who learned under the prior regime are expected to “forget” that skill. The Handmaid is tempted into forbidden adventures not by sex but by the promise of illicit reading. Mac is denigrated for his reading and pursuit of knowledge. The books that interest him are described as “the dry books he wished to hear.” These, of course, do not interest Rose, but she nobly perseveres:
When he fretted, she was patient; when he growled, she plowed bravely through the hard pages, not dry to her in one sense, for quiet tears dropped on them now and then….
In the picture, Mac is the one under a tree with a book.