One of the many strengths of Rachel Vorona Cote’s debut non-fiction book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, is her ability to make meaning—and light—from intersections between her own life and Victorian literature. Academically trained, Vorona Cote’s Too Much is a meticulous close-reading of texts from the Brontë sisters to Jane Eyre’s madwoman Bertha Mason to Christina Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market” to the works of theorist Michel Foucault, whose ideas she renders accessible. Though rooted in studies of Victorian literature, Vorona Cote’s line of inquiry extends far beyond. Through careful consideration of Britney Spears, Amber Rose, Lana Del Rey, Madonna, TLC, and many others, Vorona Cote illuminates the harms that befall women who are corseted by the label of “too much.”
Women, throughout history and still today, have been labeled too emotional, too soft, too fat, too promiscuous, too outspoken, too fiery, and too old. In chapters organized by theme, Vorona Cote, a cultural critic who has written about female friendships, women’s pain, and grief, among many other topics (Vorona Cote freelanced for Jezebel), explores everything ranging from infidelity to self-harm to fatness through a lens of “too muchness,” a term she coins as a means of shedding light on our culture’s “meager threshold for discomfort when faced with examples of nonnormative difference.” From the catch-all diagnosis of hysteria employed in the 19th century to the public shaming of women who dare to live their lives beyond the impossible constraints placed upon them today, Too Much demonstrates the ways in which women have remained cloistered while asking readers to embrace their voices, bodies, affections, relationships, and minds, in all of their potential “too muchness.”
To the chorus of Vorona Cote’s cat pining for affection, we spoke about everything from the influences of academia on her work, making space for empathy, literary influences, and paying attention to cultural artifacts. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
JEZEBEL: In Too Much, there’s a personal thread that runs throughout, but there’s also an abundance of cultural commentary and a lot of incisive readings of text that almost bend toward the academic in certain instances, while still remaining accessible. Were there texts that you used as a constellation to kind of point to what you might adopt in yours?
RACHEL VORONA COTE: In terms of what I wanted to do with this book, the question that guided me was: if I am to take all of my academic enthusiasms and think about their larger cultural resonances and then perhaps look at myself as a case study, then what would that look like? What would an academic adjacent—or rather, I don’t want to call it academic, though it’s obviously informed by my training—but if I were to write a book that engaged with my academic interests but did so in a way that it extended towards a broader audience, what would that look like? And how would I want it to look?
I do feel very indebted to my education, but I think that there is such gatekeeping that prevents a lot of wonderful scholarly work, and prevents it from reaching all sorts of brilliant, curious readers. The only reason it’s impenetrable or can be impenetrable to people who haven’t been in those classes is... access. There’s certain jargon, there’s certain shorthand. I do feel very strongly about making those boundaries more porous, so that was something I wanted to do, or at least contribute to.
The book, in that way, was something of an experiment, if I could pull it off.
I believe you did.
While writing, my thought was that I’m very interested in the Victorians but I wanted to draw out the “so what” of it all. I mean yes, there is all of this writing, all of this cultural history, but why does it continue to matter? And what is it telling us about our present moment?
I felt like one way to do that was to think about present-day cultural and literary examples that seem to be entangled in those sorts of ideologies that have persisted or endured. It enabled me to pull from a broader archive. Victorian literature is very white, and often pretty racist, very imperialist, and of course, it’s all of its moment, but one of the most important things to do is to think about how these ideas echo in all sorts of contexts, in all sorts of situations, and in different communities, and that there are such long ramifications for certain narratives that we have become so attached to.
I didn’t want this book to be a memoir, but because I knew that this topic was so personal to me, there was no way I could leave myself out of it. I wanted to be really rigorous and deliberate about where I entered into things. With every anecdote, the question that I asked myself was: to what extent was it furthering the argument? If my experience was helpful to the argument that I was trying to make in that chapter, if it helped me to elaborate something I was puzzling through, then I’d include it. If I included something personal, it needed, for me, to be in the service of the larger thesis, and then, of course, the ethical part of it, which is that I needed to think about what stories were mine and what it was fair for me to tell and to disclose. I think the book, at the end of the day, as must be the case for so many authors, was me trying to explain something to myself and explain me to myself. It is sort of self-indulgent in that regard.
In terms of texts that I looked to, one that I think of immediately is Briallen Hopper’s beautiful essay collection Hard to Love, which is a gorgeous weaving of literary analysis and cultural analysis and personal memoir. Hers is an essay collection, but there’s a beautiful overarching trajectory. That book came out last year and was a wonderful source for me, as well as just being a nourishing read.
I was going to say that!
Particularly The Argonauts, the blend of philosophical inquiry and memoir is just spellbinding. That sort of thing is like catnip for me.
I do tend to like books that are generically promiscuous, that sort of travel into different domains and then create something new out of it. I love to see the possibilities there, and there’s often a playfulness that I think is really bewitching. There have been a lot of really interesting experiments in these fusions of genre and I love to see them coming from women.
I think the common word here is “rigorous,” which is one I would use, in the best of ways, to characterize your book. The ways that most of these books do pull from so many different texts is fascinating. They are so research dense, but still compelling and accessible.
It’s so important to not privilege one text or one cultural artifact over another. We are missing so much if we say that the only things, the only cultural entities that demand careful consideration, are books that are part of the Western canon. In some ways, it’s overwhelming that we are so glutted by stimuli, but everywhere we look there is some sort of cultural phenomenon that is telling us something about ourselves and about the way that we think about things and the way that our society moves and the way that power works.
While reading Too Much, I got this glimpse into the history of how women have been cloistered throughout time and how we can read different texts from our present day and learn things about ourselves. I also felt like I came away from it with the tools or heightened awareness to start noticing more of what was around me, especially as it pertained to being “too much” in any circumstance. It made me feel like a reader like I had received the ultimate gift, which is that by reading I became more attuned to the world. When writing, what was your hope for readers?
I feel like advice we often get from other authors—and I think it’s good advice—is that you write the book that you want to read. Write what you’ve been looking for and haven’t found. I really did want to unpack this term “too much.” I felt as if we’ve been beginning to engage with it in really interesting ways and we’ve been able to evoke it, but I wanted to dig into it and stay for a while and pull it apart and look at it from as many angles as I could. And I wanted to do that by thinking about it historically and culturally. It felt like the right move was to think about this concept in terms of Victorian literature and culture because it is just so tethered to the idea of the hysterical woman and the hysteria diagnoses.
I don’t pretend that I’m doing anything new. My agent and I were talking about this the other day that this sort of imperative for things to be new is kind of capitalist. There are many books out there about female excessiveness, absolutely, and I’m so glad they all exist. But I think we need more. We need to keep talking and looking at this from a variety of different vantage points, and I felt like what I had to offer was some historical literary context. I also wanted to theorize a bit about the actual concept of “too much” as that terminology exists. That was how I found my roots.
Was there something about this present moment in time that spurred you on to write this book?
It feels necessary in this particular moment. I wish it didn’t. With this absolute—I don’t even know what to call him—this horror of a president who as he performs his own indulgence of his worst inclinations, he sort of encourages that in everybody else. I think we are living in a moment where women and feminine presenting persons are imperiled in a particular way, particularly in terms of our sovereignty. Roe V. Wade still hasn’t been codified. And yet there’s also the fact that none of this started with Trump, and I think that’s part of what I wanted to puzzle out.
We become attached to certain narratives that purport to tell us about why we are the way we are. Generally, the narratives that endure and thrive and influence the way medicine is practiced or the way a woman with endometriosis is treated by a doctor who isn’t listening to her, or influence a woman of color who is chastised for wearing her hair the way that she wants, or so many countless examples. These are narratives that have served to reify hegemonic power. So it has behooved them to perpetuate these narratives. Patriarchy and patriarchal perceptions of women and of men and of all of us—even though I would argue that patriarchy doesn’t help anybody—it certainly hurts some people way more than others. Certain notions about the way that we are, about what is “natural” even though nothing is natural, things are just normalized as natural, these are theories, ideologies, myths, really, that are beneficial to white straight cisgender men, the people who tend to be at the helm. And so they endure. And they become treated as fact.
Certain accounts of women being naturally predisposed to hysterics or to being more emotional—whatever that really means—these are all mythologies that have been useful to certain people. We see flare-ups of these narratives, like right now, where we are seeing spikes of misogyny and xenophobia and homophobia because people are emboldened by our current terrifying milieu. But we have been living within these strictures for a long time. It would be absolutely facile and reductive to say that we are still living like the Victorians because that’s not true at all. But it is the case that certain ideologies have persisted because they have enduringly shored up the dominance of people who want to stay and remain the most powerful.
I am far from the first woman to say that the subjugation of women is one way to ensure that power remains localized. Just as the subjugation of people of color, people of the queer community, that too is in the service of centralizing power. That’s why I think it’s important to think about things historically. Frederic Jameson says, “Always historicize,” and it’s true. I think we need to. We need a map. We need to be able to trace how we seem to be getting to the place where we are. By all means, this is not the full story. This is what I was able to muddle through and discern. There’s so much more to be said.
This makes so much sense. While reading, I found myself thinking of my own moments of feeling “too much” in different contexts—in relationships, at work, etc.
I think we still do exist in a moment where there’s this very real agitation surrounding emotional expression. I often find myself thinking it would be really lovely if we didn’t feel so awkward whenever we see somebody burst into tears or somebody who’s having a bad day and break down in public while they’re having their bad day. Even somebody like me, who is so emotional and expressive by default because I don’t have another mode—there’s no off switch—I do the best that I can with the tools that I’ve got, and even I can feel it. I absorb that shame. Even on Twitter, we feel like we have to apologize for saying something earnest, which is really fascinating to me.
Maybe this sounds a little cheesy, but I think at the base of my book is really a call for empathy and a call for greater and more rigorous practice of empathy and compassion. I think that we do have more to give of ourselves than we typically do. I hope that it’s possible for us to find ways of making shared spaces more livable for everybody. We can meet each other more on common ground. I have to believe that there is more we can do. I think this is a conversation that we need to have.
Jacqueline Alnes has published essays in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, Longreads, and elsewhere. She is working on a memoir about neurological illness and running.