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A White Room
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Victorian Women and The Mystery of Sex
A White Room
by Stephanie Carroll
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While researching A White Room, I read a letter from a Victorian woman telling her married friend how she hadn’t known what was to happen between her and her husband on her wedding night. She explained that her mother had refused to tell her anything beyond the difference between men and women, which she had done by referencing nude art. That letter was only one example historians have detailing how prior to marriage, sex was a mystery for many Victorian women.
He slipped into the bed, and I stiffened with uncertainty. I wondered, should I tell him I was awake? Should I wait for him? What was it that I was supposed to do? I certainly couldn’t initiate without knowing. If I didn’t know, did he know how to begin? He must have known, for I surely did not. Should I reach for his hand or his lips? Or should he reach for me? My panic returned, and I lay wide awake. What was to happen? What was I supposed to do? What—then I heard a noise. I listened. John was snoring.
A White Room page 49
Something like this could remain a mystery because during the nineteenth century, it was believed that open discussion on the matter of sex or sexual matters would lead to perversion. Other topics related to the female reproductive system were also off-limits until it became absolutely necessary to speak of them. Victorians feared that even the knowledge of menstruation could destroy their child’s innocence, so mothers wouldn’t prepare their daughters for the event but would wait until it happened.
Wendy looked off blank-faced, as if she weren’t aware of the slick blood between her legs. Bright red streaked across the blanket but appeared like black smears on Wendy’s dark skin. Much of it was dry, but some glistened. I searched all over her lower body but couldn’t find anything. When I learned she had woken that way and just turned twelve, I exhaled and smiled gingerly. I explained what happens to girls when they get older and to women every month. Mothers often waited until bleeding occurred before explaining it to their daughters. When it had first happened to me, I thought I was dying. I told her she was becoming a woman. This was pleasing to little Wendy, who must have thought she was dying, too.
A White Room page 209
Even pregnancy – the most praised thing a woman could do at this time – was considered taboo for open discussion. Women had codes to refer to pregnancy such as “expecting” and “in a family way.” Once they began to show, they retreated into a seclusion known as “confinement.”
She was expecting, but continued to work despite the fact that she had begun to show. This wasn’t abnormal among working class women, but polite society considered such a delicate condition to be a private affair and even deemed it an inappropriate topic for open conversation or polite correspondence. Middle and upper class women went into confinement or took a lying-in period. They withdrew from the public and dedicated most or all of their time resting for the sake of the child and public decency.
A White Room page 53
Male doctors were beginning to practice gynecology, but refused to look at their patients’ genitalia, either working blind under the protection of a curtain or by using a mirror so their gaze was at least indirect—again to prevent perversion.
Eventually, Victorian fears evolved into the idea that the female reproductive organs themselves were in fact dangerous in other ways and not just to men but to women. Hysteria was a catch-all diagnosis for women having any kind of mental or emotional complaint and became so popular in the late nineteenth century, that some called it an epidemic. One of the prominent theories as to the cause was that the uterus detached and wondered aimlessly around the body. A surgeon developed a procedure to remove the defective organs, and this is where we get the term hysterectomy.
This makes it sound like the Victorians were a bunch of crazy prudes and for a long time historians had concluded basically the same thing. That is until 1974 when historian Carl Degler stumbled on a set of papers in the archives of Stanford University. Now called the Mosher Survey, those bound papers were a collection of questionnaires created and collected by Dr. Clelia Duel Mosher, who taught at Stanford around the turn of the twentieth century. The unpublished surveys asked Victorian women a variety of questions about sex revealing that although many were ignorant up until the wedding night, women became very well educated and even confident in the matter thereafter. The women interviewed spoke of sex as natural, healthy, and pleasurable.
This inspired a deeper look into the history of Victorian women in the home. Historians learned that married women confided in each other regarding sexual issues and relied upon one another for other secret knowledge, such as contraception and abortion. There is an entire field of study today on Victorian female friendships. One area of focus is on the fact that many of these female friendships turned into sexualized relationships, but most were simply women uniting over collective, natural needs that were shunned by their society.
Although Victorian values made sexual matters something of a mystery for young women, it also united mature women together. As time went on and more women broke out of the domestic sphere, they began to demand open discussion on feminine matters, which led to a gynecological and birth control movement in the early twentieth century. The product of the mystery of sex is comparable to a secret sisterhood, which undoubtedly played a role in women’s ultimate demand that their needs not be kept in the shadows any longer.
Advanced Praise for A White Room
“A novel of grit, independence, and determination ... An intelligent story, well told.”
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine
“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper … the thoughtful, intricate story Carroll relates is absolutely mesmerizing.”
—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego
About A White Room
At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.
John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.
Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.
A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.
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As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.
Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).
Stephanie writes The Unhinged Historian blog, exploring the dark side of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, and Unhinged & Empowered Navy Wives for conquering those little moments that make Navy Wives feel crazy. Stephanie lives in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.
A White Room is her debut novel.
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