A Victorian Ghost Story About the Constraints of Patriarchy

Molly Pohlig, author of "The Unsuitable" on how the 19th century was bad for women's insides

ca. 1857 by Shepard Alonzo Mount
Back of a Woman (from McGuire Scrapbook) ca. 1857 by Shepard Alonzo Mount. Public domain via the Met.

In The Unsuitable, a Victorian woman, Iseult Wince, believes that the ghost of her mother—who died in childbirth—lives in a scar on her neck. In Iseult’s mind, her mother berates and encourages her, but ultimately always tries to control her. Iseult finds the only way to quiet her mother’s voice is through self-harm: wounding herself with scissors, hatpins, and penknives. “Iseult was not interested in healing. She was interested in what was underneath, what was inside.”

The Unsuitable

In Iseult’s external world, her overbearing father tries to control her in a more traditional, patriarchal way: by marrying her off. Iseult meets a string of unpleasant suitors, whom she refers to as “The Unsuitables”—”the never-ending parade of dull men who marched through the house with their insipid parents”—ultimately becoming engaged to a man with silver skin. Iseult navigates familial, social, and possibly supernatural disasters with violence, dark humor, and a fair amount of self-knowledge, realizing that “each choice was the devil’s choice: continue to live with her father, or be sold to a stranger.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and was looking forward to speaking with the author. Almost immediately after I finished reading, the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in the United States. By the time I called Molly Pohlig at her home in Brooklyn, the global situation was vastly different. Discussing coping mechanisms and mental health in the context of literature comforted me. While quarantine and sheltering-in-place are new experiences for most of us, mental health moves in tandem with the changes in our world. Over the phone, Pohlig and I talked about self-harm, oppression, quarantine, and 19th century fiction. No matter the state of the world, at least we have cold, hard, immutable facts: Thérèse Raquin would be better with vampires.

Please note that self-harm is a major theme both in the book and in the conversation.

Deirdre Coyle: So let’s just start on a real dark note. When I first read stories about Victorian and turn-of-the-century women’s self-harm practices (something I’ve done a lot of research on, for normal reasons), I was struck by these women’s ingenuity. Women swallowing needles, found full of sewing instruments, using prayer books to hammer pins into their chests. Iseult is similarly inventive in hiding her self-injury, and while people often think about period-appropriate language, or costuming, rarely do most people think about period-appropriate self-harm techniques.

How did you put yourself in that world, to imagine the kinds of things a Victorian woman would have done to enact, and then to hide, her behavior?

Molly Pohlig: I maybe didn’t even think that much about it, maybe a little bit about the period. But I thought a lot about how, if you’re a woman, many things you do will not be noticed. There was that whole theory, for a long time, that Jack the Ripper was a woman. Because she could have walked around covered in blood, and people would have been like, “Eh, it’s a lady. Whatever.” Iseult is sort of an invisible person, even to the people that she lives with. Unless [self harm is] something that’s happening, it’s not maybe something people would have been on the lookout for. The thing about women in those days is so much of their everyday lives was brutal and punishing. You’re being laced into a corset every day, horrible things are happening to your insides, and you just figure out how to bear things and make things as tolerable for yourself as possible in whatever way you can. 

Navigating the world is hard enough as a woman without pounds and pounds of clothing.

Also, there was so much fabric in those skirts. Once, when I was a kid, my sister was trying on my mom’s wedding dress. I was like 7, and she was getting married, she’s 22. I was in a very bad mood, and no one was paying attention to me, so I crawled in between the skirt and the crinoline and no one knew where I was for about 5 minutes. Having that amount of props, that you have to live with every day, is fascinating to me. Navigating the world is hard enough as a woman without pounds and pounds of clothing.

DC: I love the attention to sartorial detail in describing Iseult’s clothes, and how they hide (or fail to hide) her scars. Do you have a secret Pinterest board of Victorian outfits?

MP: No, [but] I think that I’ve watched more than my fair share of costume dramas. I probably don’t know as much as I should about the actual clothing. I love the idea of research, but I probably don’t do enough of it. I also didn’t want to get lost in technical details of what people were wearing. But I wanted clothing to be an unhappy thing for [Iseult]. I didn’t want her to be like, “Oh, I’m gonna put on a dress, I feel great!” In the one scene where she does get a new dress—in a color, which is so totally foreign to her—I wanted her to be someone who just really had no connection to what women at the time were supposed to be enjoying. Clothes and doing their hair and being paid attention to, these were all things that she was like, “No.” The worlds don’t really overlap. I wanted to show a little bit of that, but mostly I just wanted her to be out of place where she was.

DC: Iseult says at one point, “Why must pain be painful? Why couldn’t it be soothing instead?” Which I thought was sad, of course, but it’s really beautiful, and it reminded me of—going back to these turn-of-the-century self-harm cases, there’s this one case that I think about not infrequently from 1913, where a Dr. L.E. Emerson reported on a patient who cut herself, and the doctor wrote that “There are two kinds of courage or endurance: the ability to bear spiritual distress or agony, and the ability to bear physical pain. The patient was not afraid of pain, but she was unable to bear mental anguish.” Would you apply that to Iseult—unafraid of pain, but unable to bear mental anguish?

MP: Totally. This is something I’ve been through—certainly not to the extent that she [self-harms]. To me, when I’m stepping outside of it, the biggest problem is that you cannot see mental anguish. There’s a line that I’ve quoted before in an essay, but I love it so much, even though it has nothing to do with self-harm. There’s a kids’ book called Skinnybones that I really loved when I was a kid, and there’s a part when [the main character’s] best friend punches him in the arm, and he’s walking home, and he keeps looking at it to see if he’s bleeding. And he says, “If something hurts this much, the least it can do is bleed a little.”

DC: That’s beautiful.

MP: I was, like, 13 when I started [self-harming], and I think that what I was trying to do was just be like, “This hurts. I know you can’t see that this hurts, so I’m going to prove to you that this hurts.” There’s a weird form of release in it. That mental/emotional pain, you can’t get at it. You can’t touch it. You can’t ferret it out in any way. So I think making it a physical pain does make it more tolerable in some ways.

DC: I also was a teen cutter, and I think there’s this element of control, which certainly comes through in the book. Iseult is trying to control the voice of her mother through her self-harm and it’s a really interesting… I want to say balance? That’s not quite right.

MP: It makes me a little bit nervous, because I don’t want to be seen as “advocating” for self harm in any way. I wanted more to try and explain it, because I feel like the way we usually see self-harm depicted is in, like, a Lifetime movie, and it’s poorly handled. I wanted to address it in some way that didn’t seem like, “Oh, I’m a rebellious, emo teen.”

DC: “I’m the goth character on Degrassi.”

If you’re a woman, many things you do will not be noticed.

MP: ‘I’m gonna put it on my Tumblr, and all my friends are gonna be like, “Oh god, how could you, we love you so much!”’ And then they’re like, “I’ll stop!” And it’s so, so not like that. I also wanted to depict an adult doing it, because I think there’s a misconception that it is a pre-teen/teen girl sort of a thing, and you get better and it goes away. I hate the feeling of it being seen as “acting out.” This is going to sound really dorky, but it’s more like “acting in.” And that’s the other thing I’ve talked to a few people about it, and one reviewer wrote to me, and she said she had self-harmed, and she said, “I didn’t feel triggered by it, I felt understood.” I think for people who have done it, it’s somewhat comforting to be able to talk about it and not feel nuts.

DC: I certainly felt that way, too. The way that Iseult talks about self-harm is…relatable. You can see how she’s feeling trapped, and has so few options for coping mechanisms. There’s another line where she says, “When the blood had rushed out with the removal of the scissors [from her skin], all of her usual anxiety had whooshed out of her with it.” And I was like, yeah, that’s what I remember. Again, I’m also certainly not advocating for self-harm, but in the work, as you said this other reviewer wrote, it didn’t feel triggering to me, but it felt well-understood.

MP: Thank you.

DC: So shifting to Iseult’s triggers: Iseult has a lot of conversations with the ghost of her mother, Beatrice, throughout the book. To me, Beatrice’s voice really teetered between sounding like a disparaging inner voice that could be in anyone’s head, regardless of the time period or situation, but then it’s coupled with very specific information that implies it truly is a ghost. Did you always know you wanted this balance of the reader wondering if this is in Iseult’s head, or if this is a real ghost, or did it shift at all during your writing?

MP: I think I wanted the reader to doubt whether she was mad or not. I knew some of the key things I wanted to be in the book, and I knew how the book was going to end. I didn’t really have an idea of what was going to happen in the middle, I sort of just wrote through until I got to the end. And I don’t think I’ve decided what the truth was. I want it to be like, “What the fuck!” at the end, and for people to be unsure. I want it to be like, even if it is made up, even if [Iseult] is mad, she’s still sane. You can have the duality of both of those things in you. I don’t think a person is all mad or all sane. And I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I believe in ghosts, but I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in ghosts. You know?

DC: I mean, I love an explicit ghost story, and I love a non-explicit ghost story.

MP: I remember the first time I read The Turn of the Screw. I was just like, “This is the most wonderful thing ever written, and I don’t even know what’s happening.”

DC: The atmosphere of The Unsuitable is so well-realized, with the descriptions of the cloying clothes, and the suitors, and the way breaches of decorum threaten not only Iseult’s social standing but also her family’s love. Were there any particular works of 19th century fiction or gothic fiction that you read for atmospheric inspiration?

MP: I didn’t go back and read too much, but I’d read a lot in the past. If I read something while I’m writing, I can get a little too close to it, so I generally read things a little farther away. But definitely The Turn of the Screw, Wuthering Heights. I have to say, I’m a real Wuthering Heights girl. What else? I really like Thérèse Raquin by Zola.

DC: So dark. I love that book.

MP: When I was kid, my sister had me read the first paragraph in a bookstore and it’s like, “The only light that filtered down was dirty, evil light.” And I was just like, “This is amazing.” Have you ever seen the Korean movie Thirst?

DC: Yes! I love that movie.

MP: It’s the only way to make that book better.

DC: Add vampires.

MP: I know. It’s perfect.

DC: I think vampires should be added to more 19th-century fiction.

MP: Absolutely. But I feel like maybe Zola’s probably been a big influence on my writing. It’s something about the way he writes about miserable things, that it’s the unexpected details that are the most miserable. Have you read Germinale?

DC: I haven’t!

MP: So that one’s about French miners and it’s horrible, they’re grindingly poor, and there’s a cave-in, and they’re all starving to death and trapped with a dead body. But the most miserable part in the book is when they’re talking about coffee. At the beginning of the month, they get all of the food delivered, and the coffee’s great. But by the end of the month, they’re just running the grounds through again and again, so it’s just light brown water. I was just like, “Oh, that’s so much worse than the rest.” That’s the kind of detail that really, really gets me. The things you don’t necessarily think about.

DC: This is the kind of thing I worry about now, when we’re all in quarantine: what if the coffee runs out? My last couple questions are quarantine-related. Iseult’s dead mother and living father both oppress her in very different ways. If you had to choose between the two, who would you rather be quarantined with?

MP: Ooh. I think…the father. Because I feel like you could get a little bit of a break with him now and then. You could make him real mad, and he would huff off. With the mother, that would be more like, wakes you up at 2 in the morning to say, “We’re out of beans!” Yeah, I’d rather be quarantined with Mr. Wince.

DC: That would have to be my answer, too—a living person who can just walk away. So at one point, Iseult says “What an absolute dream. To be alone, but without oneself.” Extremely relatable. Also relevant to the time we’re living in now, when the blessings of introversion have become very apparent, at least for me. How do you think Iseult would fare during quarantine season? I kind of feel like she’d be okay.

MP: I feel like she would largely be okay, but I feel like it could also take one small incident, and she’d be out the window. It’s that feeling where—I mean, I hope other people are feeling this sometimes, and it’s not just me—it’s just me [in quarantine], but there are still moments where I can humiliate myself in this strange way. I think we’re all, for better or for worse, the most ourselves we’ve ever been right now. It’s a little frightening.

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