When I first learned of the title of Rachel Vorona Cote’s first book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, it viscerally grabbed me, evoking in me a sense of immediate recognition, before I’d read a word of its contents. I’d wager that anyone who identifies as a woman, or who was socialized as one even if they don’t identify as such now, could point to myriad ways in which the behaviors of girls and women are policed, controlled, bound. Who among us hasn’t been made to feel self-conscious, at best, or endangered, at worst, when something about our being—our body, our voice, our hair, our tears, our clothing choices—has been deemed “too much” in some way? And how often has that too-muchness been, oxymoronically, a way of telling us that we are not enough?
“A weeping woman is a monster,” Vorona Cote writes in her introduction. “So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter.” Well, isn’t she? Too emotional, taking up too much space, too desirous, too loud; people socialized as women and women-identified people are constantly being chastised for their exuberance. Indeed, as I read Too Much, contemporary versions of each and every aspect of Vorona Cote’s Victorian examples kept coming to mind. Writer Amber Sparks, for instance, made an argument on Twitter recently about the monstrosity of the “too old”: “the most terrifying villain in a Disney film is almost always a middle-aged woman,” she wrote, following this up with images of Cruella DeVille, Ursula, the Evil Queen, and others. Even more startlingly contemporary, Vorona Cote writes in the chapter “Crazy” about which behaviors associated with mental illness women were and weren’t allowed to present, and how certain restrained expressions were and still are fetishized, like the beautiful-woman-crying trope. She presents the example of George Elliot’s Middlemarch, where the character Lydgate “proposes marriage to the pretty and snobbish Rosamond Vincy after encountering her in tears… illuminat[ing] the idealized manifestation of feminine distress: something delicate, trivial, and comely—a sight to make a man fall in love, or at least to turn him on.” If anyone’s watching the current season of The Bachelor, this horny for tears dynamic will surely be recognizable.
I recently emailed with Vorona Cote to talk to her about Too Much and contemporary parallels, her book’s hybrid structure, working through the complexities of Victorian literature, and more.
The Rumpus: How did the concept of the book emerge for you? What came to you first, the realization that Victorian strictures are still around, or that contemporary strictures on women-identified people hail from the Victorian era?
Rachel Vorona Cote: I’ve spent so long ensconced in Victorian studies that my perspective is irrevocably bent towards historization. I can’t acknowledge any phenomena or ideology without tracing its lifeline, wondering how far it extends, and where to locate crucial moments and turning points. Practically everything we experience structurally exists as a persistent or recurring force. So, while of course there are ruptures and fissures, and while things change—and, ideally, improve—much of what we know in terms of social mores and cultural conventions has inevitably persisted because a powerful entity was invested in its endurance.
This is a long-winded way of saying that the concept emerged because I wanted to investigate what struck me as another ideological continuum: the pathologizing of feminine excess. It is certainly the case, however, that many of my favorite Victorian novels speak to contemporary challenges and inequities. For instance, George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss, could easily prompt a conversation about slut-shaming. Talking about the Industrial Revolution easily leads us to consider how capitalism has brought us to this perilously unsustainable place. And on the other end of things, extant strictures on women-identifying people do often strike me as Victorian legacies. Every time a female politician runs for president or another high-profile office she is scrutinized in bad faith by those who are inclined to call women-identified people hysterical. This doesn’t exonerate her from missteps or prejudices; it’s simply a fact, and not one to be ignored. The bluster that resulted from Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s (amazing) Super Bowl halftime show demands a nuanced conversation about the intersection of racism and misogyny, and that involves thinking about what to my mind was a blatant, simultaneous expression of sexual desire and priggish outrage which I’d call rather Victorian. And, of course, this bewilderment that women don’t turn into dusty fossils at age forty is nothing new.
Rumpus: Indeed! It’s not as if entertainment in Victorian Europe didn’t involve various states of undress; the cancan was popular in the 1830s onwards. Perhaps what is especially similar between that era and ours is the rhetoric about women’s bodies, minds, and agency. Laws have given women more rights, but rhetoric is trickier to measure objectively. How does turning to literature help us compare these times and measure progress?
Vorona Cote: I’m very inclined to think about cultural trends and ideologies in terms of narrative; I’m probably even a little obsessive about it. But this doesn’t make me unique. After all, humans are storytelling creatures: we cling to stories and excavate them for meaning. And we’re so bound up in language that I don’t think there’s any escaping our preoccupation with symbolism. So reading literature and looking critically at what stories are most championed, what tropes and character types we revisit and reiterate over time, and what sorts of voices are most privileged is a means of tracking not just what we believe, but also who we want to believe we are.
I learned in graduate school that when we write we’re always arguing for something and against something else, though sometimes we’re more intentional about doing so, and other times we tell on ourselves. (I’m probably always telling on myself.) This is all to say that writers like George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë were frustrated with their milieu in ways that are not so disparate from the ways women-identified persons are frustrated now. Charles Dickens was an asshole who happened to be invested in labor reform, probably due to the trauma he sustained as a child working in a blacking factory. We can also discern the kinds of blinkers obscuring these writers’ perspectives—in many cases, their circumferences are pretty broad!—and the prejudices that imbue their rhetoric. At the same time, our own prejudices influence the way we interpret historical texts, and what we see in them, so as we trace these teleologies we need to be as rigorous with ourselves as we are in our critiques of the authors we read, whether they hail from the nineteenth-century, the sixteenth-century, or the present decade.
Rumpus: Too Much is a blended genre work, one that combines memoir, literary criticism, and contemporary cultural criticism/commentary. This is very different from the academic writing I’d expect from your background in Victorian studies. How did you balance these genres and work between/through all of them?
Vorona Cote: I knew that I wanted to write a book about female excess, specifically in the context of this term “too much” that had been rattling around in my brain for several years. And I wanted to draw from my academic enthusiasms while also engaging in broader cultural conversations. As is probably quite clear, I am devoted to Victorian literature, but it is a fraught archive, one that necessitates careful examination, both for its own sake and for what it might reveal about our present moment. I also had to be honest with myself about the fact that this topic is stridently personal to me, and that I would, somehow, creep into the text. But I am not my most interesting subject, and these days I’m disinclined to write about myself if it is not in the service of a larger inquiry or argument. So I tried to be very deliberate about the memoir components. Of course there was the preeminent ethical imperative; I only share personal stories when I’m confident they are mine to tell, and when I’ve thought about how best to protect anyone who may be involved. The next most important question for me was a structural one; I only wanted to incorporate stories that facilitated my ability to make an argument, or, more accurately, to puzzle through one, and shed new light or offer nuance through my testimony. I more or less considered myself a case study in too muchness.
You’re absolutely right that this is not at all an academic book, although I am indebted to and influenced by my training. I have been fortunate to know some wonderful wordsmiths in academia, and I tried to learn from them. I do think that there is room for experimentation in scholarly writing, but not the kind that interests me most. I love generically promiscuous books, so maybe it’s not surprising that I’m most comfortable when I can weave in and out of various literary genres, namely, literary and cultural criticism, a touch of theory, and memoir. It does feel profoundly liberating after the self-regulation that academic writing required. Writing is a labor, but blending genres and resisting categories is quite playful, in its way.
Rumpus: I definitely felt that playfulness! During the process of writing it, were you worried that this genre promiscuity would be seen as too much? Are you worried about it now? Is the book’s structure a demonstration of how you’re embracing what you feel is your own too-muchness?
Vorona Cote: This is always a worry I’m trying to tame! Too often, I fall into that wretched trap of comparing myself to other writers and wondering if I come off as neurotic and messy and emotionally over the top. And I very well might! Ultimately, this is who I am. I can only write honestly, and from where I live. I can’t speak for the impact of my extant writing, but if I were to try to seem, well, chill, it would be an utterly disingenuous endeavor, and my work would suffer for it. I demand of myself rigor, always, in my thinking and, by extension, in my prose. I am determined to say it right, as it were, with as much precision as I can summon and with full empathetic honesty. It may be that the result is a book that’s too much for some people, or maybe not enough: ultimately, those disparagements are two sides of the same Janus coin. I knew in drafting the book that I couldn’t allow my anxiety over that to run wild. If I did, I’d get in my own way, and that, too, would be evident in the writing. I had to remain focused on the task, which was sussing out the shape of the book and what it seemed to need from me as I wrote my way into it.
Rumpus: There’s a tension in Too Much between your love of Victorian novels and your frustration with their authors and the choices, morals, and beauty standards they placed upon their characters. Yet you reckon with this tension, and occasionally find ways to resolve it. Is this a kind of metaphor for the way you wish we’d all view one another’s complexities outside of literature as well?
Vorona Cote: I love this question! I hadn’t thought about this metaphor before, but what an elegant connection to draw. I might just tweak it a bit because I don’t regard the limitations of Victorian literature and people’s imperfections in quite the same way. While I feel great affection for many of my favorite novels from the period, affection that often feels akin to my love of a person, their constraints cannot be overlooked the way I might overlook someone’s more aggravating attributes. Yes, it’s anachronistic—and, for that matter, unproductive—to judge Victorian literature by twenty-first century standards of progressivism. But that doesn’t mean we shrug off William Makepeace Thackeray’s racism, or the imperialist ideology running throughout Rudyard Kipling’s work, or Charles Dickens’s unsettling misogynistic mommy issues. Granted, I’m not going to overlook prejudices in a person either, and if someone espoused the sort of flagrant racism present in Vanity Fair, I’d be pretty disgusted. But books exist as they are; the text, while open to interpretation, can’t evolve with the times. People, on the other hand, are mutable and, ideally, teachable. White people—and this includes me—cannot give each other a pass because we possess good qualities together with shitty ones. We need to demand more from ourselves, to push ever harder towards inclusive, empathetic politics and compassion.
Rumpus: We may not wear corsets anymore, but women-identified people or those whose bodies are coded or read as such are still being sold literal shapewear. Meanwhile, we’re still fighting for body positivity and acceptance, for reproductive choices and justice, and for level playing fields and evaluations in the workplace and politics. We’ve made strides, yes. But how bound do you think we still are, ultimately, by rebranded or updated corsets, as it were?
Vorona Cote: I just bought two pairs of Spanx tights the other day and feel gross about it. Another corset, indeed.
I can only answer this question from the vantage point of a white cisgender woman who, because she’s very femme, possesses a hefty amount of hetero-privilege despite being queer. I cannot viscerally know the strictures imposed upon more marginalized women-identifying persons, or those who are interpolated as such, although it’s my responsibility to make myself aware. Sure, living as a white woman in 2020 is exponentially better than living as one in 1820. And yet, there is still so much that scares and infuriates me. Roe v. Wade ought to have been codified years ago, but our reproductive liberties are still vulnerable. Survivors of sexual assault still face wretched abuse when they testify against their attackers. Enduringly, we squirm under the thumb of so much stigma, all of it attached to that ubiquitous, needling question, “How should a woman be?” By this point, “woman” has become such an overdetermined category, and I persistently feel the burden of it when I’m worried that I am too emotionally expressive or insufficiently domestic or when I think about how I’m swiftly aging out of youth. And if this is what I am experiencing, with my abundant privileges, then surely we must keep working, especially for the sake of everyone else.
Photograph of Rachel Vorona Cote by Sylvie Rosokoff.