A few weeks ago, I held Le Salon’s first ever author event with Rachel Vorona Cote to discuss her 2020 book Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. Part historical context, part pop culture index, and part biography, I spent a lot of time nodding along to each chapter. Cote explores several themes such as female friendship, sexuality, and social expectations. Using Victorian novels, history, and conduct manuals, Cote demonstrates how expectations of femininity have changed very little over the years. Interestingly, despite looking at literature and research from the Victorian era, Cote also weaves in the experiences of women of colour, transgender persons, and queer women.
Here is a sneak peek of the great discussion we had with Cote (and the type of questions you can expect at future author events!).
Q: “I conceived the idea for this book—a critical cry of bullshit against this concept, Too Much—some years ago, during a comparatively happier presidency” (2). Can you talk us through the inspiration for Too Much?
Rachel: I could not have written it without my [academic] training. The time I spent reading and writing about Victorian literature, history, and culture absolutely shaped my thinking, my feminism, my sense of history, and theoretical thinking in profound ways.
So, the idea occurred to me really early in my graduate work when I was only reading works from the nineteenth century. I mention this in the intro [of Too Much], but I went to see the 2010 Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland (based on the 1865 work) and I thought the term ‘muchness’ was this little glimmer of brilliance, of potential. I started thinking that if I was to give that word a definition, I would have projected all my insecurities on it, being fundamentally excessive.
As these ideas do, they jangle around! When I got to the point where I was thinking about writing a book, I had been thinking about this argument that had been developing over the course of a few years. I was fortunate that the idea had been fed by these different spaces!
Q: In Too Much you mention your mother introduced you to Victorian literature, but given all the problematic material in those novels, what kept you going back to them and even spend your academic career studying them?
A: This is a good question because those novels can be such a mess! You know, I think I am such a sucker for a big bulky fat narrative. I love intimately rendered characters and their relationships and I love beautiful sentences.
As a college student, being super emotional and all over the place, I really enjoyed reading about all the big feelings that are often given so much space; there is nothing minimalist about a Victorian novel. And novels are a really interesting space for empathy, so when you have a narrator who is urging you into the consciousness of all different characters, there is something so enriching—and challenging!—in that.
There are so many problems with Victorian literature, even in how it’s often taught (white, cisgendered, straight). And, if I were to teach a Victorian literature course now, I would have no excuse for not spending a lot of time on a syllabus that pushed back against those tendencies—they need to be called out and addressed.
Q: Some of the topics you get into in the chapters of this book are very personal and certainly challenging topic-wise (ex: self-harm, marriage troubles, affairs, etc.). Did you have to fight your publisher to keep these sections of “too muchness” in the book?
A: I was really fortunate as I had tremendous editorial support! Not only was my editor deeply supportive but she also made sure everything that I was writing made a connection and played a role in the larger narrative of the book.
If I’ve decided to share something [personal] it is because I think it serves a purpose, whether that’s to help me get to a place in an argument or in developing an idea. Ultimately, I felt in control of what I was sharing. Oftentimes when we’re readers and we’re on the outside looking in it might seem that a book that shares intimate details is a ‘tell all’ but I thought very carefully about every detail and anecdote included. That doesn’t make it any easier—the telling of it, the sitting with the memories—but it allows my editor to help see how it fits into the larger picture.
Q: We’ve seen media, companies, and influencers use “flaws” as a promotional tactic (ex: #BodyPositivity, speaking to mental health in posts, openly shunning filters and photoshopping, etc.). Do you think we’re able to celebrate our “too muchness” more in 2022 or do you think it is a tactic that companies are using to tap into something that we all fundamentally feel within ourselves?
A: *Sighs* I want to try and be optimistic about this, but I think my knee-jerk is to say that capitalism ruins everything. It is interesting to see how many companies are trying to use this rhetoric of acceptance and self-love.
But there is some optimism in the sense that these corporations are obviously responding to a shift in people who are saying ‘Hey, we’ve put one very narrow type of femininity on a pedestal that no one can live up to and we’re not interested in that anymore’.
Q: Too Much references a number of fictional works. If you had to suggest three of them to read or watch after finishing your book, which would they be?
A: Oh, my goodness! Ok, well, if you haven’t read Middlemarch I do feel like I have to plug it, it really is just that good.
Audre Lorde’s ZAMI: A New Spelling of my Name, she refers to it as a biomytholography (it comes up in the Horny chapter of Too Much). It is basically a memoir and its lush and vibrant and loving.
If you haven’t read Villette by Charlotte Brontë I strongly, strongly recommend. Her Shirley is also a lot of fun, but Villette is just devastating. So those are my picks!
You can bet these works will figure into the upcoming virtual literary salon schedule!
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