“Now, Mac, listen to me,” Rose said very earnestly, though her voice shook a little and her heart ached. “You know you have hurt your eyes reading by fire-light and in the dusk, and sitting up late, and now you’ll have to pay for it; the doctor said so. You must be careful, and do as he tells you, or you will be blind.”
This is the setting for chapter 11 (Poor Mac) of Eight Cousins. Mac is the book worm cousin. He first was struck down by sun stroke becoming very ill, and then suffered serious eye strain from his constant reading. He is now confined to a dark room, possibly for a year, to recover his eye sight: “He was forbidden to look at a book and as that was the one thing he most delighted in, it was a terrible affliction to the Worm.”
Rose reaches out to Mac, visiting him and reading to him each day. Mac is slow to warm up to Rose as he was slow to accept the seriousness of his condition, but he comes around to appreciating her.
I thought about how difficult it would be to be confined to a dark room with no activity, especially the one you love the most. While I have only read a handful of books from Louisa’s time, I do see a distinct pattern of dark rooms and invalidism (sometimes imposed, sometimes not).
The common cure-all
I found this method of cure specifically for eye strain rather interesting and tried to find out more about it but struck out. One of our readers, Nancy from the Silver Season blog mentioned to me that time in dark rooms devoid of all activity was seen as a common cure-all for many maladies. (basically it’s the medical profession throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing more they can do.. She mentioned different examples including Rochester in Jane Eyre and I loved her comment, “Why does his eyesight slowly recover? Rest and a good woman I suppose.” That certainly is the case for Mac and Rose.
Medicine was in its infancy and certainly reflected what Abba Alcott lamented regarding daughter Lizzie’s last illness: “… the system of medicine is a prolonged Guess.”
One woman’s reaction to the “rest cure”
Often these guesses took a tragic turn. Nancy referred me to a famous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written as a series of journal entries. “The Yellow Wallpaper” concerns a woman whose physician husband prescribes a “rest cure” , a common method of treating nervous disorders in women. Deprived of all activity and totally isolated from others, the writer becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in her room. She writes secretly in her journal of the wallpaper’s colors and pattens and begins to imagine seeing a woman trapped inside. She seeks to “free” the woman by ripping down the wallpaper. Becoming fearful of her husband and generally paranoid, she ends up locking herself in the room so she can finish ripping off the wallpaper and freeing the phantom woman. Her husband, upon finally gaining entry into the room faints when he sees how insane his wife has become. She crawls over him to continue her task.
Autobiographical in nature
Gilman was a patient herself and wrote the story specifically “to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (the proponent of the rest cure), and convince him of the error of his ways” (Wikipedia). Suffering from depression, Gilman nearly went insane herself after three months of the rest cure. She fought against it by taking up her activities again, and writing “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Danger in isolation
There is much that could be discussed here regarding the implications for women regarding these “rest cures.” Certainly the power wielded by her husband over this woman was disturbing. I was intrigued by this story,
knowing first hand the damage that isolation and lack of purposeful activity can do. I’ve witnessed members of my own family suffering from depression and the damage that isolation (usually self-imposed) did to them. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would be to have such isolation forced upon you, especially if no one listened to your concerns.
Mac was certainly lucky to have Rose and so many other members of his family to take care of him through this difficult time. He may still have been deprived of reading, but he had the social interaction that is so life-giving. He was one of the lucky ones!
I have to admit, reading about Mac reminded me of this classic Twilight Zone episode:
What would you do if you couldn’t read anymore?
UPDATE: Nancy posted something on her Silver Seasons blog about this subject, great post – you can read it here.
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