The Disorder of Longing
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I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is The Disorder of Longing by Natasha Bauman.
Consider the hothouse. It’s a nice life. Safe. Every breath of air, every degree, warm or cool, every drop of moisture, it’s all out of your hands. All you have to do if you live in the hot house, is sit there and look pretty. Things grown specifically in hothouses can stop expending energy on protecting themselves from or involving themselves in the outside world, since there in effect is no outside world, and the inside world can just keep getting more baroque and peculiar. Orchids do very well in hothouses; it frees them to become ever more elaborate, even unnatural, in a way they never could growing on a wild hillside in the jungle someplace. Orchids do well, people, not so much.
Natasha Bauman’s The Disorder of Longing takes a look at a very peculiar time in American history, the late Victorian period, when things like women getting the right to vote, and Africans getting the right to be considered people, were no longer unheard of. I mean, women were doing things like going to college, shocking! Was there pushback? You bet. As women got their feet under them, and their corsets off (finally) the upper class man declared that the upper class lady should join his orchid collection in the hothouse. A proper lady, a decent wife, kept her eyes down and her mouth shut. She should gratefully get into the hothouse and thank a merciful God that there were men still willing to protect her from that nasty world outside. And should she get a little too excited about the world? The dread diagnosis of hysteria. (I found out hysteria originally described a uterus that makes a break for freedom and wanders around your body. Thanks, ancient Greeks!) And like an unruly plant, that troublemaking lady was due for a good pruning. Alongside being locked away and deprived of a book, a pen, a visitor, a walk outside (too stimulating for an already overstimulated female), there was another way to get that overwrought gal under control if you didn’t know the treatment for hysteria, get this: the woman was sent to the doctor for a session with a vibrator. Now, these were not your cute AAA Pink Rabbits. Wikipedia (I know, but it is useful) has a nice roundup of devices on the ‘hysteria’ page, and the first one looks more like a Silkwood shower. But let’s call it what it was: professional and sanctioned molestation ‘for her own good.’ It’s sometimes a mystery to me how we forgive men for everything they’ve done to us over the years. Natasha Bauman’s The Disorder of Longing is the story of a bad Victorian wife. Ada wants to walk around outside, she has a mind, she wants to be free in a way that was absolutely outside her social class…but Ada knows she has to get out of the hothouse.