“It feels like kind of a goofy origin story,” Rachel Vorona Cote said with a laugh. “I wish it were more romantic, but what actually happened is that in 2010 I saw Tim Burton’s adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ In the movie, all of Alice’s Wonderland friends lament that the girl has lost her ‘muchness.’ ”
The word made an immediate impact. “In the world of the film, muchness is a really unquestionably positive force: your chutzpah, your spark. It’s the thing that Alice needs to summon to find her way back to herself,” Cote said. “That knocked around my brain for a bit. I was also in graduate school studying Victorian literature. Eventually I started thinking about how the Victorian period is an interesting time to put together with an inquiry of feminine excess, this idea of too-muchness.”
In “Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today,” Cote looks at the idea of a woman being seen as “too much” — a modern expression that harkens back easily to Victorian diagnoses like hysteria. “It got me thinking about my personal investment in this idea of excess, in the larger cultural reception of emotion and how so much of that is deeply gendered.”
The book ranges from Victorian heroines to present-day pop artists who chafe against social and cultural constraints. “We’re still having this conversation about how fraught it is for a woman to be angry in public, or cry in public,” Cote said. “We still are really trying to figure out how to navigate the way we live in the world honestly and also with empathy.”
Factors such as race, gender, sexuality, and social class can shift the terms under which a woman is seen as “too much,” Cote added. “These stories about gender, about femininity, persist because they benefit those who are the most powerful,” Cote said. But she thinks there could be hope in a newly assertive younger generation. “They’re contesting these narratives.”
Rachel Vorona Cote’s local reading has been postponed, but her book can still be ordered via www.brooklinebooksmith-shop.com.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.