Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today
- By Rachel Vorona Cote
- Grand Central Publishing
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- April 20, 2020
This part-scholarship, part-memoir debut explores the many charges leveled at unruly ladies through the ages.
It was simple coincidence that I happened to read Rachel Vorona Cote’s first book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, immediately after finishing Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence. The happenstance resulted in a one-two punch: I was doubly reminded of the many ways women are both silenced into invisibility and simultaneously accused of being “too much.”
Too Much defies easy categorization. It is as much a memoir as a work of impressive scholarship; it is as comfortable parsing the cultural meaning surrounding Britney Spears’ public disintegration as it is analyzing the feminine mores conveyed in obscure 18th-century texts aimed at improving girls and women.
Cote develops her unifying theory of “too muchness” through both broad and detailed exploration of European and American culture over more than two centuries. Each chapter’s one-word title — crazy, horny, loud, old — encapsulates a charge leveled against women throughout the ages, followed by an illuminating discussion on the topic that supports the author’s thesis.
Embedded in each chapter are Cote’s often harrowing memories of her own life of “too muchness”: of her struggles to contain herself within the cultural boundaries of acceptable female behavior and the fallout from that struggle, and of her eventual (perhaps ongoing) acceptance of herself and her outsized personality, boundaries be damned.
A scholar of Victorian literature, Cote uses this solid foundation to build her insightful observations on the Victorian age, as well as on modern culture. Regarding the former, she examines this:
“historical period when 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…”
The long-held cultural notion within medicine (and politics) that being a woman is, in itself, a virtual diagnosis of illness continues to plague women today. The idea is neatly summarized in the headline of an article by Christina Cauterucci in Slate from May 4, 2017: “To Trump and the GOP, Being a Woman is a Pre-Existing Condition.”
Cauterucci may as well be quoting from one of the 1850s medical journals that Cote references when she notes, “Trump and the men of the GOP have convinced themselves that manhood is the norm and womanhood is an aberration.”
For men, Cote points out, being “‘too much’ is associated with power and virility,” or is at least lumped into that tired, catchall exoneration of “boys will be boys.” For the makers of the rules, it was ever thus.
To combat this, Cote draws from a broad and eclectic mix of literary and cinematic sources to give us girls’ and women’s perspectives: from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, and J.K. Rowling’s Hermione Granger, to Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby and Pixar’s Moana.
In particular, the author’s study of Edward Rochester’s first wife and attic prisoner, Bertha Mason, in Jane Eyre, and that character’s reimagining as the gaslighted heroine in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, reminds us of the racist, xenophobic description Rochester offers Jane to excuse his behavior toward his wife, along with his palpable fear of Bertha’s mental state and disgust at her sexual appetite.
Those of us whose first literary crush was Rochester have had ample opportunity to learn the error of our ways, but Cote’s analysis helps to drive home the shame of our having once sided with Rochester against Bertha in the first place.
As insightful as her scholarship is, it is the element of memoir that forms the compelling through-line of Too Much. Cote illuminates the complex connections that form a path from the societal demands to tamp down elements of ourselves — our bodies, our emotions, our desires — to the self-criticism and even self-loathing when we fail, and the impulse to self-harm that sometimes results.
As do so many of us, the author looks forward to the day when the example set for girls by characters such as Moana — self-possessed, confident, happily accepted as a leader of people — is no longer the exception in our cultural canon or in our own experiences; when it’s no longer greeted with “Thank goodness,” but with, “Of course.”
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny writes a bi-monthly column and reviews frequently for the Independent, and serves on its board of directors. She also writes a bimonthly column for Late Last Night Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle. Previously, she served as chair of the Washington Writers Conference and as president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.