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Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today by Rachel Vorona Cote

46142949._SY475_.jpgTW: mentions of self-harm

Not only was Too Much not enough but what little it offers is wholly problematic.
This book would have made slightly more sense if it had been published in 2010 instead of 2020. Its analysis of the social norms and literature emerging from the Victorian era are far from insightful or innovative. There are so many referencers to films that are now considered outdated and of little cultural relevance. Cote’s theory of too muchness is unclear and indecisive, and her chapters do not have clear topics.
Also, rather than normalising women who are viewed or have been viewed as ‘too much’ Cote glorifies them while tearing down women who do not fall under this category. What about female solidarity?
But I could have looked past all of this. After all, feminism is ‘in’, and there is nothing wrong with jumping on the feminist bandwagonexcept that I soon picked up on something rather disconcerting: Cote romanticises and idealises mental illness and self-harming.

From my rating, and my ranty review below, you can probably guess that I disliked this book, a lot.
For those readers who want to read some interesting, and feminist, analysis of Victorian literature I thoroughly recommend you check out Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
If you have the time I also recommend Cynthia Nixon’s Be a Lady They Said in which she reads a poem about the impossible and contradictory standards society imposes on women.

My Review

In Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today Rachel Vorona Cote’s sets out to address the way in which mores and literature emerging from the Victorian era still bind women today. Combining cultural criticism with personal experiences Cote examines Victorian classics as well as fiction, films, and songs from the last and the current century. Throughout the course of Too Much Cote turns to her theory of ‘too muchness’. These perceived excesses—which range from emotional (such as crying) to the physical (from one’s physique to one’s hair)—make women undesirable within their society. Cote doesn’t clearly specify whether these excesses are seen as excess because they belong to or are originating from a woman, and would not therefore be seen as excessive in a man, or whether these excesses are a perfect response to existence in a patriarchal world.

In her introduction Cote writes that Too Much “draws significantly from nineteenth-century literature and culture, grounding its discussion in a historical period when women’s too muchness underwent vigorous medical scrutiny, routinely receiving a specific, vexed verdict” and that she will turn to Victorian works in order to gain accesses to female perspectives (Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) as these works convey the Victorian period’s anxiety regarding ‘the woman question’ (from their bodily autonomy to their legal rights and their role in a marriage dominated culture).
What I don’t understand is why Cote stresses this Victorian connection when in actuality she includes works by Jane Austen and dedicates almost an entire chapter to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels. Her introduction and the title of her book suggest that Cote will specifically compare Victorian literature and culture to ‘today’s’…why then dedicate entire chapters to Montgomery, Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), or Britney Spears?

Cote’s analysis of these Victorian classics offer no new insights into these works or their authors.
After the introduction there are two chapters, ‘Chatterbox’ and ‘Nerve’, which seem to focus on the same subject: girls who are seen as ‘passionate’ in literature (Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley). The next chapter focuses on female friendships in a rather inconclusive manner. Is Cote telling us that female friendships are bound to have an obsessive if not toxic nature? Is she criticising Noah Baumbach’s Francesca Ha? Why then add her own personal experience with a friendship with another woman which was ‘too much’? Especially since in her case she suggests that one of the reasons why this friendship ended was because of her more-than-friendly-feelings towards her friend?
Cote writes of the sisterly bonds in Goblin Market and The Woman in White, suggesting that both of them have sapphic undercurrents (while I can see why the sisters in Rossetti’s poem can be seen as being lovers, Wilkie Collin’s sisters are merely affectionate with one another). Then she seems to complain about the way in which Anglo-American society would view a close bond between two women or sisters as sexual…and yet she is doing exactly the same thing. More importantly, this chapter also includes a long winded and unnecessary analysis of Heavenly Creatures a film that is rather dated, does not portray a typical female friendship, and most importantly, was based on the 1954 Parker–Hulme murder case. Why focus on this long-forgotten film instead of more recent releases which focus on female friendships? She mentions Elena Ferrante…so why not write more about her series? Or question the trend of female doubles in domestic thrillers?
We then have a chapter on the ‘Body’, and Cote once more writes her own personal experiences, this time with the notion of being ‘too fat’. Here she examines Victorian’s romanticisation of thin female bodies and the way in which a small physique and lack of appetite often denoted one’s altruistic and morally upright nature (such as Charles Dicken’s Dorrit). Once again Cote seems to criticise Victorian’s ideal of femininity and beauty, implying that one’s physical appearance (such as one’s natural hair) should not be regarded as reflecting one’s personality…and then she goes on to praise Lena Dunham from Girls for a nude scene in an “aesthetic defiance”: Lena “someone larger than a size two” possesses a body that “is not tame” but is “thick, firm, implacable” and “try as you might to sidle next to her in a murky bar or tug her arm on a dance floor or nudge her to the side on the subway, she will not budge”.
She finishes the chapter with the following:
“But when we are fat, when our hair defies gravity, when our noses are not perfectly pinchable, we’re interpreted as wild and unruly, and often foreign. This—I know, I feel—is good. We remind all those buttressed and soothed by patriarchy that we cannot always be trusted to comply and, thus, we become threats, fuses primed to be lit.”
Throughout this chapter Cote criticises the way in which previous centuries have dictated the way in which a female body should be like maintaining the argument that women should not be judged on the basis of their appearance…and then she goes on to do exactly the same, merely flipping this idea over so that women who are not skinny, do not have perfectly symmetrical faces or bodies, or have gravity defying hair cannot be tamed: they are ‘stronger’, more unruly, more confident…women who straighten their hair, go to the gym, get plastic surgery are ‘less’, they are tame, happy to let a patriarchal society dictate the way in which they should look. It appears that Cote is judging women on the basis of their appearance. Mmh…there is something vaguely phrenological about this way of thinking.
Also, Cote seems to gloss over the fact that it is often women who police other women’s bodies+appearance…then again, she is doing exactly the same thing.
I have ‘wild’ curly hair, and I always dislike when strangers or friends assume that it is indicative of my personality. It isn’t…tis’ my hair, nothing more, nothing less.
Cote also misses out on discussing why women are made to feel so aware of their appearance and why ideals of beauty are constantly changing (apropos the Victorians she could have pointed out that small waists are back in fashion).

In the following chapter ‘Crazy’ she discusses mental health. Here she starts with an over-analysis of lyrics from Lana Del Rey’s songs, and seems to view Lana’s songs as autobiographical (why are female musicians/singers always questioned about their lyrics in a way that their male counterparts are not? Can’t women write a song that is unrelated to their own life experiences?).
You would think that Cote would mention ‘the Woman in the Attic’ trope—popularised in Victorian literature—but before writing of Jane Eyre she discusses Pride and Prejudice…which is confusing given that 1) it is not from the Victorian era, 2) does not have a ‘crazy’ female character. According to Cote however it is Mrs. Bennet who is seen as ‘crazy’….wait, what? I don’t think many readers have ever regarded Mrs. Bennet as an example of the ‘crazed’ female. Mrs. Bennet says that her ‘nerves’ are delicate but to me it seems quite clearly an excuse to get other people to do what she wanted them to (in fact she reminds of Frederick Fairlie from The Woman in White). Also, Cote seems to have forgotten that P&P is a work of satire…
When Cote finally addresses the most ‘famous’, or infamous, ‘mad’ female character from Victorian lit. her reading adds nothing new, she unearths no new depths in the implications of her portrayal. She then discusses Britney Spears…at length. She seems aware that celebrities do not reflect the experiences of a ‘normal’ person…so why spend so many pages on the “plight of Britney Spears”? Wouldn’t it have been more relevant to examine why so many women are mis-diagnosed? Or why female neurodiversity is only now being openly talked about? Why bother criticising Silver Linings Playbook because it pays more attention to its male protagonist than Jennifer Lawrence’s character? And once again discussing celebrities such as Demi Lovato? Anything and everything that a celebrity does is magnified, so surely we shouldn’t compare their experiences to the rest of the female population?
Only in the last page does Cote mention ‘positive’ portrayals of female mental illness: Crazy Ex-girlfriend, Tuca and Bertie, and Jessica Jones. What about the thousands of YA books that openly discuss mental illness and addiction? Or the rise in novels that focus on female characters who are on the autistic spectrum?
As pointed out by
Emma Sarappo in her review of Too Much, Cote seems devoted to “the cult of the difficult woman”. In this chapter Cote hints that women who are labelled as ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ experience the world more keenly than those who aren’t. Depression shouldn’t be regarded as a medal of valour or some such nonsense. Those who struggle with their mental health or substance abuse should not be shamed nor should we romanticise or fetishise their struggle. Yet Cote seems to equated ‘troubled’ with ‘special’.
Also, in this chapter Cote suggests that alcoholism is condoned in men…which…really?!

The last few chapters talk about female sexuality, cheating, ageism…and cutting. The chapter on cutting is the most problematic chapter in this book. Here once again Cote mixes her personal experiences with her analysis of Victorian classics and contemporary culture. She writes of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, and finishes off by discussing Prozac Nation, Sharp Objects, and Girl, Interrupted. Here, I was momentarily fooled because finally, Cote seemed to be praising shows that do not romanticise mental illness or self-harming. Sharp Objects and Girl, Interrupted are personal favourites of mine so I was glad to see that their portrayal of self-harming resonated with Cote. Sadly, Cote completely destroys her previous arguments—in which she stresses that self-harming should not be used as a gimmick or idealised—by writing the following:
“A confession: I cut myself in the midst of writing this chapter, old habits quickened, I suppose, by the barb of memory. I am still learning that self-harm is not narcissism. A woman who is cutting is not indulging; she is carving out a route to survival, the only one that’s perceptible to her. And although she is no culprit, although she owes neither defense nor apology, she is already ashamed.”

Let’s remember that this is not a memoir about self-harming. This book focuses on cultural criticism and Victorian literature. Cote’s personal experiences can be somewhat relevant but they should not dominate the narrative of Too Much especially if she uses them romanticise mental illness and self-harming. Surely she is aware that her audience will be mostly composed by impressionable undergraduates? Surely she knows that this last ‘wink wink, old habits die hard’ comment is wholly inappropriate? Is she suggesting that the only way to write and understand self-harming is by doing the same thing? Or that once a self-harmer, always a self-harmer? That self-harming is an understandable response to existing in a patriarchal world or being labelled ‘too much’?
After reading those lines I felt nauseated. Her words were incredibly triggering and I had to take some time off reading. When I once again picked up Too Much I merely skimmed through the last chapters.

Cote’s popcorn feminism is simplistic and superficial. She tries to keep up with today’s woke language but ends up expressing antiquated ideas: that women should be judged on the basis of their appearance, that we should idealise mental illnesses, addiction, and self-harming, that being sexually active is more empowering than being inactive….generalisation after generalisation, Cote’s theory of ‘too muchness’ does not expand on why there are so many words, in the English language, with bad connotations, which are used almost exclusively to describe women’s behaviour/attributes/traits. Not all of these words point to ‘excess’: take prudish for example. Surely, women today are not only constrained by notions of too muchness but by the possibility of not being enough. Victorian’s ideal of a woman is no longer popular. While Victorian reviewers criticised Jane Eyre for being a bad heroine, modern readers adore Jane. If anything we criticise heroines who strike us as passive, as not being enough. Yet, Cote seems stuck in the early 2000s.
There are so many shows and books shows that depict in a non-judgemental way female desire, addiction, mental illness, friendships, and even masturbation.

I’m not sure what else to add…and I have nearly run out of characters…Too Much was problematic, inconclusive, and perpetuates outdated ideas.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

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