It has inspired TV, stage, film – and now two new art shows. Kathryn Hughes strips back the layers of this classic tale to understand its enduring appeal

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman created feminist fireworks the moment it appeared in the January 1892 edition of the New England Magazine. The short story takes the form of a secret diary written by a young married woman who is suffering from a “temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency”. Actually, the diagnosis has been made by her husband, who also happens to be “a physician of high standing”. In line with fashionable medical practice, “John” has prescribed a radical rest cure that involves separating the narrator from her small baby and confining her to the top-floor nursery of a rented country house: “I … am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.”

Gilman was writing out of her own agonising experience: five years earlier, and felled by postnatal depression following the birth of her daughter, she had been sent for treatment to America’s leading expert in women’s mental health, Dr Silas Weir Mitchell. His punishing regime for depressed middle-class female patients involved strict bed rest with no reading, writing, painting and, if it could be managed, thinking. His theory was grounded in the pervasive belief that if modern girls stopped wanting things – education, the vote but, above all, “work” – they would become happy, which is to say docile, again. Mitchell instructed Gilman to live as domestic a life as possible “and never to touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live”. Gilman wrote later of her treatment, which felt more like a prison sentence, “I … came perilously close to losing my mind.”

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