Bearing vibes of novels by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) as well as movies such as The Snake Pit (1946) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), this re-issue of The Shutter of Snow, by Faber & Faber is not an easy read despite its brevity. Yet, in the light of the era of post-Covid complications, the cost of living crisis, climate change concerns and others which have taken a toll on many people’s mental wellbeing, it seems an important and uncannily appropriate novel for these difficult times.
Her only novel (at 170 pages in length perhaps more aptly called a novella), The Shutter of Snow was first published in 1930 and describes Coleman’s own experience of post-natal depression and mental illness in a state hospital following the birth of her son, John, six years earlier.
Written in the third person, from Marthe’s perspective, in a dreamlike, continuous stream-of-consciousness prose-style, without speech marks or paragraph breaks, this is ultimately a feminist text in which Marthe’s father, husband, Christopher, and the two male doctors in the account act merely as peripheral extras. This is the only significant reference to either of the men in Marthe’s life or to her child.
“She and Christopher and the baby went into shifts and coils and clouds, round and round in the same spot. There he was, her father, he came in the door and she didn’t know he was coming. She gave a loud cry to him. He was very tall and he breathed the stream where they had made the dam at the Devil’s Hole.”
The men in the male part of the hospital receive the very briefest of mentions at the end and even the child Marthe has given birth to and who is the reason she has been institutionalised is referred to, almost in passing, only at the very beginning. Later on he is not spoken about at all, not even in the final paragraphs of the narrative when Marthe’s husband comes to pick her up to take her home.
The atmosphere of the setting in a mental hospital during the 1920s is palpably obvious and the way the author captures it is impressive. Here, for example, is Marthe in her dormitory ….
“Her throat was always hot, like old bread in the sun. Her lips stood out and were cracked and there was water gushing on the other side of the wall. There was chicken wire strung up over her door.”
And here ….
“At night, when the red light was out in the hall and there was someone sitting in a chair in front of the door clearing her throat at intervals there would be the voices far down the hall mingling with sobs and shouts and the drones of those who were beginning to sleep.”
Furthermore, patients are tied up in ‘canvas bags’ to prevent harming themselves or lashing out at staff. They undergo water treatments of varying lengths and are confined to bed for long periods as punishment for getting into fights with fellow inmates. These scenes cleverly demonstrate that, well or not, there will always be some friction amongst women who are forced to live in close proximity to one another without the possibility of occasional respite.
Marthe appears to go through various stages of delusions and recovery. During the former she sees herself as God or Jesus Christ, whilst during the latter she comes across as remarkably sane and intelligent, questioning her reasons for being incarcerated, reasoning with staff that she is well enough to leave and showing genuine concern for some of her fellow patients. At other times she expresses open hatred for them. At night past memories mesh with her current volatile state of mind and she has bizarre dreams that reflect her delusional daytime thinking.
“There had been the burial. She was lying quietly in the bed and being covered over her face. She was carried quietly out and put in the casket. Down, down she went in the rectangle they had made for her. Down and the dirt fell in above. Down and the worms began to tremble in and out.”
Gorestown State Hospital, where Marthe Gail is interned, is a fictional institution based upon the mental asylum Emily Holmes Coleman was admitted to in 1924. As Claire-Louise Bennett writes in her Foreword to the reissue of Coleman’s novel, the cold, harsh treatment the author received when she was at her most vulnerable “deprived her of a voice”.
And this leads me to the eternal debate. Does one read the Introduction or Foreword before the novel itself or on completion? If there is one, I always read it first and almost inevitably regret it. In this case my regret was perhaps even greater than on other occasions. Claire-Louise Bennett’s rather patchy essay detracts more from The Shutter of Snow than it adds. There are a few good moments, but mostly it feels like a piece in which Bennett is determined to show how much more she knows than is directly relevant to the present novel.
Bennett says reading Coleman’s novel she became “increasingly confused that such unsophisticated and punitive practices were still very much in operation in the 1920s”. All I can say is, Bennett must be incredibly naive. Such practices, well documented, went on in mental institutions until at least the late 1950s and maybe even into the 1960s. She follows these thoughts with reflections on Freud, Andre Breton and Jean-Martin Charcot and how they came to influence later treatments of psychosis. Though interesting in themselves, they seem out-of-place in this particular instance.
Any Cop?: A welcome re-issue by Faber & Faber. Even almost a century after its original publication this is a classic that still feels surprisingly pertinent.