The above images are of postcards from The Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton, which was operational between 1850 and 1939. One of its pupils was a young girl called Eirene Botting (born 1899), who later became known as Antonia White, writer of four autobiographical novels known collectively as Frost in May (also the title of the first of the four novels), among other works. The fourth novel in this collection, Beyond the Glass, contains a description of the author's own experience of what would probably now be called psychosis, following (or perhaps resulting from) a period of mania which could be interpreted as indicative of bipolar disorder. The preceding novel, The Sugar House, documents a very unhappy period immediately before that, which could be described as a depression.
Sherah Kristen Wells has stated that White represents psychosis in her writing "as a dissolution of subjectivity"* (which Wells analyses using Luce Irigaray's theories). However, she also says that "female subjectivity is positively constructed" by White, "specifically through the presentation of Catholicism"*. I am planning to make the trip up to Warwick to read the complete thesis, as only the abstract is available online.
I wonder if Wells finds a connection between the effects of a strict Catholic upbringing and mental illness. White herself writes critically of the convent and of the demands of Catholicism, and the effects of the "breaking of one's will and re-setting it in God's own way"**. In The Sugar House, for example, she relates that one of her greatest fears as a child was "dying unprepared and going to hell forever"**, an idea that was instilled in her as a very real consequence of any number of sins by both her parents and her guardians at the convent. She also describes an episode when she had broken school rules (talking too much), for which her punishment was to take her First Communion alone, months after her friends had all taken theirs together. These experiences haunted her, and she was clearly preoccupied throughout her adult life with feelings of fear, guilt and inadequacy: fear of sin, fear of and guilt about wanting to sin, fear of judgement from her elders or superiors, fear of her own pubic hair which "she thought meant she was being turned into an animal as a result of having inadvertently committed some terrible sin"**.
As far as I can find, it is not generally accepted that The Sugar House describes the signs of the onset of psychosis. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) describes these as including: a worrisome drop in performance, trouble thinking clearly, a decline in self-care or personal hygiene, spending a lot more time alone than usual, and strong, inappropriate emotions or having no feelings at all. White's experience in her first marital home (The Sugar House is the fictional name given to this real house in Chelsea, due to its "pink distempered walls", "gay colours", "primrose walls and arty rush mats") contains many of these signs: ("the paralysed lethargy", "no purpose in her mind", "impotence had spread", "her mind refused to bite on anything at all", "as if she weren't a real person"). According to the NAMI, another early sign of psychosis is hearing, seeing, tasting or believing things that others don’t, which begins in The Sugar House and continues in Beyond the Glass, often relating to interiors ("everything seemed to have a significance beyond itself"). White's fictionalised portrayal of herself, who she names Clara Batchelor, feels at times that the walls are almost imperceptibly moving inwards and that mirrors will lead to unspecified terrors. "As if it were dangerous to think too much, she jumped up from the chair. Immediately she was conscious of the number of mirrors in the tiny space. Three different angles of her head and shoulders and one full-length figure sprang towards her... For a moment it was an effort to remember that this was not... a room in a horrible story." Here the church's lasting effect on her is evident too: "on the corner of the opposite pavement was... a Catholic church... like the intrusion of a firm Nannie into the nursery. The intrusion allays panic but it reduces the magic palace once again to toy bricks" (see a coincidentally similar idea here). This "not-quite-real" environment, combined with the realisation that her new husband is childish in both his behaviour and his interests (he buys her an extremely expensive train set for her birthday, with their rent money), result in Clara beginning to perceive her home as something like a doll house (though this description is not actually used by White), and herself as trapped inside it. She begins to act accordingly, like an abandoned doll, unable to motivate herself to perform even simple tasks, and growing to hate the home she fell in love with and begged her husband to rent, though incapable of doing anything that might involve going outside it.
Wallpaper does not feature in the description of the Sugar House. I have sometimes felt that if she had had something unchanging to hold onto, an anchoring visual point, it might have helped. A trellis of damask, stretching and contracting in zigzag repeats, might have given the sweetly plastered, shifting, mirrored walls a trustworthy plane, measurable by motif and scale. Patterns can soothe in their repetition, if one focuses on counting, like I used to in my bedroom at Church Road. This focus is a type of mindfulness, anchoring the mind in the present experience of viewing, and therefore confirming subjectivity - ("I am looking"). But in writing this I remember again The Yellow Wallpaper, and how it became a stage for imagination and delusion. Patterns can also be an entryway, like in my grandparents' bathroom, where the wallpaper's pattern became three-dimensional when I relaxed my eyes, as did those Magic Eye pictures in the 90s (below). This non-focus might be more akin to dissociation, when perception alters to allow illusion, or delusion, or revelation. This could indeed be a "dissolution of subjectivity" as Wells has described*, and as Perkins Gilman has demonstrated. Patterns could lead one out of oneself. I was always able to blink hard, or shake my head, and my grandparents' bathroom wallpaper would return to the flat plane it had been before. Maybe I was lucky.
References and further reading:
* Wells, Sherah Kristen (2009) 'Another world,/its walls are thin': psychosis and Catholicism in the texts of Antonia White and Emily Holmes Coleman. PhD thesis, University of Warwick.
** Hopkinson, L. P. (1988) Nothing to Forgive: A Daughter's Life of Antonia White. London: Chatto & Windus