Did Elizabeth Bennet Wear Underwear?

Many movies this summer feature fantasy characters inhabiting a fantastic world created in the filmmaker’s mind. Fantasy fiction is the choice of young adult readers who pore over lengthy descriptions of future life. Oddly enough, many of the fantasy worlds of the future seem to resemble one another. The same electronic doors slide open to admit the threatening villain’s as did a generation ago in Star Trek. Human imagination, after all, has its limits and Utopian futures go through cycles often offering predictable versions of what life will be like.

More surprising than fantastic futures are the forgotten realities of the past.  “The past is Jane Austen fashiona foreign country” as L.P. Hartley wrote, but few people take the time to understand how different it was. We assume that the people who lived years ago and wore funny clothes were in fact thinking and feeling just as we do. But when we read the books and letters they wrote, we are constantly being reminded that the past is far different from what we consider normal today. Even the small things like being able to contact friends and family at a moment’s notice is something that seems natural today. How did people get along without it?

When I was researching background for my first Charlotte Edgerton book, A Death in Utopia, set in the 1840s, I found the forgotten histories of the times an amazing treasure trove of trivia that brought the past alive. It wasn’t the detailed histories of presidents and society women

A Death in Utopia Final (Small)

A Death in Utopia

that gave me a sense of what was going on, but the long-forgotten memoirs and collections of letters from ordinary people that helped. In a book called My Friends at Brook Farm (1912) I learned that the young people who lived in that Utopian community had the same desire to be in contact with their friends as today’s teenagers do. John Van de Zee Sears describes the “peculiar whistle” they used to signal to a friend that they were near, and the answering whistle the friend would use to respond. This detail made the Farm community come alive to me in a way that formal histories never could.

Letters and diaries from the past record the way people felt about other people—sometimes far differently from the way we feel today. Van de Zee Sears tells us that “racial prejudice was cherished as a virtue” so his friends who lived in upstate New York in a Dutch settlement worried when he was sent to school among strangers in Massachusetts. To the New Yorkers with their Dutch roots, the people at Brook Farm were “English, that is to say, foreigners, strangers”. For a Dutch American to live among them was a big step. Knowing that helps us understand how long it took for Americans to embrace the diverse society the country was becoming.

A recent column in the Washington Post is a good reminder that even Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers were far more provincial in their outlook than would be acceptable today. It is good to remember that the men who wrote our constitution were not 21st century men in funny clothes, but people whose lives and ideas were as different from ours as we are from the Martians in science fiction.

There are historians to meet every need. Clothes often lead us into understanding the past and appreciating the way our ancestors lived and felt. One of the most fascinating blogs that I read is written by two women who are the authors of popular regency novels. They call themselves “two nerdy history girls” and their blog posts introduce the fashions, furniture, and habits of the past. Would you like to know what underwear a Jane Austen heroine would have worn? Or how a woman wearing a hoopskirt could manage to sit down on a sofa? The nerdy history girls show us videos of how women dressed, how their clothes were made, and how they were worn. Learning about those clothes and how constricting they were helps us to know the women. After learning about the reality of everyday life, it is easier to understand why many women didn’t have the time or energy to demand rights for women.

Instead of celebrating the creators of fantasy worlds, I like to celebrate the historians who bring to life the world of the past and let us see what it was like to live in years gone by. The more we understand the past, the more we should be able to control our future. As for what Elizabeth Bennet wore—read the historians!

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A city frozen in time or on the move?

If you have ever seen the old (1999) movie Blast from the Past, you probably remember the ingenious premise. A suburban American couple in 1962 decides that an atomic war is about to begin. The husband has prepared a secret bomb shelter underneath the house for just such an occasion and he leads his pregnant wife there. For 35 years the family remains hidden and when their son finally emerges, he discovers the world has completely changed. No atomic war came, but their neighborhood has turned into a slum and the people he meets are unfriendly and greedy. In the movie this encounter leads to romance and comedy, but what would going back to an old neighborhood after 35 years really be like?

Reading David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) has reminded me of how dramatically and quickly American cities can change. Talbot’s book is a well-documented history of frozen_hippie vanSan Francisco from the 1960s until the 1990s. During that time the population of the city did not change much—hovering in the 700,000 range—but the people and the mood of the city altered sharply. New groups arrived in the city and many descendants of earlier residents drifted away.

Talbot begins his book with 1967, the Summer of Love, when San Francisco attracted crowds of young people demanding peace, love and an end to war in Vietnam. The staid citizens of the city, many of whom looked back on World War II as the proudest moment in American history could not understand why young men were unwilling to become warriors. Conflict was inevitable, but the hippies learned to provide their own services to take care of the young people flooding into the city. Eventually the war ended, the runaways went back home or settled down in the city, but San Francisco was never the same. Many memories of the city of love are still alive in the minds of city residents.

No city can remain a city of love forever and the days of love and trust faded away as drugs came into the city and with them some brutal crime sprees that shocked residents and titillated the rest of the country. The zodiac murders were especially brutal. And later came the trauma of Jonestown when hundreds of people—men, women, and children—died under the guidance of a charismatic but deluded minister. Drugs, death and destruction all became part of the indelible history of the city.

Reading Season of the Witch makes you aware of how swiftly and irrevocably a city changed over a short period of time. The gay community gradually overcame the fearfrozen_parade and resistance of many of the city’s more traditional residents. Today the city is a center of LGBTQ life. The Gay Pride parade became an emblem of the city and the movement it started spread across the country and around the world. The tragic crisis of the AIDS epidemic might have torn the city apart, but instead it seemed to bring the city together in working to heal the sick and find a cure.

All of this happened within the lifespan of one generation. Each decade brought the city another influx of people with new ideas and ambitions. And now a new wave of people have come, bringing another source of tension.  Well after the period covered by Talbot’s book, came the invasion of the “techies”, welcomed by some and hated by others, but undoubtedly a group that must be reckoned with.

The prices of houses, condos and rentals have soared, streets have become crowded with cars, bicycles, and scooters and giant buses have appeared to carry the newcomers back and forth to their jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And now developers are hoping to push height limitations on new buildings to accommodate the newcomers. Will San Francisco eventually become a city of high rises like so many other cities around the world? That remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain—it will not remain the same.

Centuries ago Heraclitus told us “There is nothing permanent but change” and it is still true.

freeze_tower

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The Royal Melting Pot

With all the bad news in world this week, there was one major event that made almost everyone happy—the royal wedding in England. Prince Harry married Megan Markle, an royal wedding photoAmerican actress. Even though Harry is 6th in line for the throne and very unlikely ever to become king, the wedding was treated as a major milestone in British history. The fact that Ms. Markle is a divorced biracial woman and an American makes her different from most people who have married royals, but the habit of marrying foreigners has a long history.

European royals have married across borders for centuries. Cultures have mingled, religions have been changed to suit the new country, and new customs spread across the continent. Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, is even credited with introducing the Christmas tree to England–an important innovation if there ever was one–although  some historians dispute his role in that.

The Georgian kings, who reigned during the 18th century, all married German princesses and brought many European ideas and customs to England. They also seem to have brought a lot of good sense too. Queen Caroline of Ansbach has been called the most intelligent consort in British history and was known in her own time as a strong political force. In fact a ballad written at the time warns her husband, George II, that she outshone him.Caroline_of_Ansbach_-_Highmore_c._1735

You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain,

We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign –

You govern no more than Don Philip of Spain.

Then if you would have us fall down and adore you,

Lock up your fat spouse, as your dad did before you.

Despite this kind of satire, Caroline was a good influence on the king and on the country. When she died, she was widely mourned by citizens who admired her strength and intelligence. At a time when monarchs had far more political influence than they do now, she was able to help shape modern England.

The importance of the royal family has dwindled since the days of the Georges, of course. The brides of all members of the royal family now seem to function mostly as fashion plates and supporters of good causes. But they still have an important role in bringing some new ideas and backgrounds to the royal household.

Megan Markle’s mixed heritage echoes much of what is going on in Britain today. The recent scandal over people from the Caribbean who were invited to move to Britain after World War II to relieve the labor shortage shows that race is still an issue. Ms. Markle’s heritage and the attention that was paid during the wedding ceremony to the African culture that is a part of the United Kingdom may help to move the country toward a greater acceptance of its broadly based cultural heritage.

Moving the country into a greater acceptance of its diversity may be the most important result of this highly-publicized wedding. That would demonstrate that even after all these years the monarchy can still be an important uniting force for the British people. It would be nice, of course, if the wedding also leads to a long and happy marriage for Harry and his bride.London crowd

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Happy Active Mother’s Day

A few days ago one of my nieces told me that she was going to spend Mother’s Day with her adult son. They would celebrate by having lunch and going for a run together. I smiled thinking how impossible it would have seemed, when I was growing up, to have considered a mother as someone who would go out for a run on Mother’s Day.

Mothers back then had white hair, sat in rocking chairs, or perhaps in the passenger seat of cars, and were taken on decorous trips for any celebration. Even their clothes were expected to be subdued. I can remember my puzzlement as a small child when I heard my grandmother mutter “mutton dressed as lamb” about some actress who was considered to dress in inappropriately youthful style.

Ideas about what is appropriate for women, and especially mature women, have certainly changed. One of the icons of our times is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme RBG workoutCourt Justice who popularized the idea of fitness for all ages. It has been a long, slow journey to the acceptance of the idea that women should keep themselves strong and able to meet the challenges of their lives. And many of the ideas that brought this change were introduced by those rigid Victorians, both men and women, who had seen the indignities of living with corsets, tight shoes, and bodies smothered by long, heavy skirts. But it was not an easy fight.

Perhaps we should make a national hero of Amelia Bloomer, the 19th century feminist who tried valiantly to make clothes serve women instead of making women slaves to clothes. Although clothing reform was not her major interest—she also campaigned for women’s right to vote and to petition the government, as well as for temperance—she recognized that the heavy, uncomfortable dresses women wore restricted their activities and the work they could do. When she saw a costume made up of loose trousers covered be a knee-length skirt, she adopted the idea and advocated it in her newspaper The Lily. It soon became known as the Bloomer costume. Women discovered that it freed thembloomer-costume from the necessity of restricting their activities. With their new freedom they could walk along the filthy streets of big cities or the mud and dust of country roads without carrying along bugs and trash clinging to their skirts. They could even ride the new-fangled bicycles and move faster and more easily than they ever had before.

It took more than a century to banish the long skirts and restricting underwear that had hampered women for centuries, but at last it has happened. The freedom to wear practical clothes started with young women who rode bicycles and went to work and eventually were allowed to participate in public life. Young mothers joined their husbands and children in active life and as they grew older, they continued to be active.

This year let’s honor all the women who keep up with their children and grandchildren as they celebrate an active life.

women exercising

 

 

 

 

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Tough Women Write Poetry–Aphra Behn

When literary people talk about women poets they often mention famous figures from the past. Emily Dickinson is the American poet who almost defined poetry for generations of schoolchildren as well as adults. Her name is familiar

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                      Emily Dickinson

to most readers, and a movie about her life, A Quiet Passion, impressed critics and moviegoers as recently as last year. The pale, reclusive Emily in her white dresses, scribbling her poems on little pieces of paper in her room seems the ideal poet.

Other women poets of the past are also well known. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, confined to her sickbed for years until rescued by Robert Browning, who took her to Italy and helped her become famous. Female poets are often associated with illness, delicacy and fragility. They are viewed as weak creatures, prone to suicide and early deaths. But not all women poets fit this pattern. Today I want to look back and honor the tough woman who proved that a woman could be both a writer and an active participant in worldly life—Aphra Behn.

One of the reasons Aphra Behn is not remembered, perhaps, is that we know little about her life. She was born, probably in 1640, almost two hundred years before Emily Dickinson in England. Her parents might have been a barber and a wet nurse, or perhaps not. One indisputable fact is that she learned to read and write, a rare privilege among working class women of her time. The gift of literacy made it possible for her to meet and mingle with people of all classes. Her introduction to aristocrats may have come through one of the families her mother met while acting as a wet nurse.

Coming of age during the restoration, when Charles II returned to the throne, gave Aphra an opportunity to become active in the world of theater and publishing. As Oliver

Aphra_Behn

Aphra Behn–sketch

Cromwell’s puritan restrictions were removed, there was an outpouring of publishing and theater. Starting out as a poet, Aphra turned to writing fiction and produced the story Oroonoko, set in Surinam, which became a long-lasting best seller. Later she turned to writing plays. She also, apparently, served as a spy for Charles II. Because she seldom discussed her background, very few facts are well established. One thing that we know for sure is that she was finally buried in Westminster Abbey—although not in the poets corner where many of her male friends and colleagues lie.

For those who would like more information about her life, I recommend a biography by Janet Todd, Aphra Behn: A Secret Life. It is long, but gives a continuously fascinating picture of a life shaped by history and secrets.

Perhaps the most important statement about Aphra Behn was made by Virginia Woolf in her essay “A Room of Her Own”.  All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.

So as we read the poetry of the delicate women poets of the 19th century during this Poetry Month, we also ought to pay tribute to a woman who came before them. She struggled with poverty and class prejudices to make her way in a man’s world and in doing so she ensured that women’s voices would eventually be heard.

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Why Are Women Still Dancing Backwards?

Almost everyone is familiar with the comment from a cartoon written by Bob Thaves about Ginger Rogers, “she did everything he [Fred Astaire] did, but she did it GingerRogersbackwards and in high heels.” That about sums up the extra requirements put on women as they move ahead in a professional world dominated by men. Often this includes the expectation that women in any field will look like models and stay as fit as athletes whether this has anything to do with their work or not. Men are usually permitted to put on a little weight (as long as they wear a well-tailored jacket to disguise it) or to let their biceps sag a bit.

A recent New York Times story described the rigid standards set for cheerleaders who work for professional sports teams  but it is not only women who perform before the public who must observe different rules depending on their gender. Female writers, artists and political figures are judged differently than the men they compete against.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, was featured in a recent Vogue magazine article looking like a model.  Although the article itself was respectful and professional, it seemed odd to have the caption label all the items of Ms. Smith’s wardrobe. Can anyone imagine Virginia Woolf allowing a magazine to inquire into the brand names of all of the clothing she wore for an interview? Tracy Smith’s poetry stands on its own as one of the treasures of American literature. Surely her readers do not need to know the details of her consumer choices.

Women who run for political office are scrutinized not only for what they say and the causes they work for, but also for the clothes they wear and the way they style their hair. Hillary Clinton’s pants suits and shoes certainly became part of the stories written about her. No one bothered to report on these items for the men who were running for office.

Some of the most glaring examples of the different ways in which professional men and women are viewed can be seen in the various TV news channels. The women who report the news on CNN all seem to have carefully made-up faces and to wear sleek, tight-fitting dresses while they report their stories. I sometimes wonder how many more hours they must spend preparing for work than their male colleagues, who go on air sometimes rumpled and tieless, but with all their flaws hidden behind a generic jacket.

It is certainly great that women are reporting the news at all. I can remember the bad old days when it was said than the TV audience would not accept serious news presented by female reporters. Still, the playing field will not be level until women are allowed to be fully human in their professional lives. They may occasionally gain a few pounds, or their hair may turn gray or white, and wrinkles can be seen as an honorable sign of a thoughtful life and knowledge gained. Until they can appear honestly—aging and changing as the years go by—will women have achieved full equality?

I think I can hear the ghost of Ginger Rogers urging us on.

 

 

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An Ambitious Aspiring Artist–May Alcott

My interest in women who were notable in their time but did not earn the recognition of an obituary in a major newspaper led me to learn more about several fascinating

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Americans. May Alcott Nieriker, sister of Louisa May Alcott, was a devoted artist, but was never became famous. At least her life was more exciting than her fictional counterpart, Amy, in Little Women.

May Alcott was born in Concord, Massachusetts on July 26, 1840 to Bronson and Abigail Alcott. As a young child she lived in the Utopian community, Fruitlands, which her father had started. The rules were strict—no animal food, not even milk for young children.  When her mother tried to milk the cow for ailing two-year-old May, her father decreed, “We don’t allow milk on this farm. Pure water is the best drink for all God’s creatures.”

“Why can’t we live the way other people do?” his wife protested. That question was one young May Alcott would ask often as she grew older, and she never found an answer.

As May grew up she was independent and ambitious.  She was determined to earn money herself and not depend on a husband’s support. It would not be easy to support herself as an artist. Many girls studied art but when they grew up, they were expected to get married and let their husbands support the family. Professional artists were almost always men. May studied art in Boston, and she gave art lessons, but made so little money that she had to turn to teaching.

May’s life was dramatically changed by the success of Louisa’s book, Little Women.  Now there was money for new clothes and books and even travel. For years May had longed to study art in Europe. The great museums and picturesque castles, churches, and cities

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Louisa May Alcott

 

of Italy and France were unlike anything in America. May had never seen famous paintings or statues. She had learned about European paintings by looking at copies made by Americans who traveled abroad. Some of the copies were good, but they were only small imitations of what the artist had created. Now at last she would be able to see the glowing colors of the originals.

Two years after the publication of Little Women, Louisa finished writing An Old Fashioned Girl. Now the two sisters had their chance to travel. On April 2, 1870, May and Louisa and their friend Alice Bartlett sailed to France. Everything was different from what they had been accustomed to in New England. Instead of fresh white clapboard houses, they saw homes, some of them centuries old, built of stone. Instead of simple wooden churches, they saw shadowy cathedrals with statues, candles, and stained glass windows. May carried her sketchbook everywhere, always ready to capture the changing sights that surprised her so much.

The study years in Europe were May’s happiest times, but she and Louisa could not remain there long. Their mother was growing old and ill; their sister Anna’s husband died. Louisa went home first to help out and then May followed. For the next several years family responsibilities tied May down. It wasn’t until 1876 that she had a chance to return to France.

This time, May went directly to Paris where she joined two friends from home, Kate and Rose Peckham. The three of them settled into comfortable lodgings and arranged for art lessons. Suitable art classes for women were not easy to find because art students learned to draw people by having live models in class. For many people the idea of women looking at people who were nude or lightly clothed was shocking. Even worse was the idea of having men and women in the same class looking at these models. Because of this, many of the famous art schools in Paris did not accept women. May was disappointed, but she made the best of her situation. She found a teacher, Monsieur Krug, who solved the problem by accepting only women in his classes.

Not only was May a successful student, but one of her paintings was chosen from among the thousands submitted for the Paris Salon exhibit of 1877. May was eager to share her triumph with her family. No longer would Louisa be the only successful Alcott. May wrote to her mother:

Who would have imagined such good fortune, and so strong a proof that Lu does not monopolize all the Alcott talent. Ha! Ha! Sister, this is the first feather plucked from your cap, and I shall endeavor to fill mine with so many waving in the breeze that you will be quite ready to lay down your pen and rest on your laurels already won.

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When the first viewing day of the Salon arrived, May went very early to see how her picture was hung. She found it was dwarfed by the huge canvases around it, but thought it held its own because the hanging committee had placed it at eye level where everyone could easily see it. Many of the artists and visitors complimented her on her painting. She felt very festive in her fashionable black silk dress and was surprised at how easily she mingled with the smart, artistic crowd. At last her patience and persistence were being rewarded. After years of being a student, she was finally being recognized as a real artist. She moved to London to pursue her career.

Meanwhile in Concord, the Alcott family was struggling with May’s mother’s failing health. Louisa wrote to urge May to come home and spend some time with her mother. May was torn between wanting to return to Concord and longing to stay abroad. She knew her mother missed her, and she wanted to be with her family at this difficult time. One day she walked to the steamship office to buy a ticket to sail to America, but when she got to the office, she turned back. She was afraid leaving Europe would mean giving up all her artistic hopes. Her dream was to return home with a strong record of artistic achievement to make her mother proud.

In November, that dream ended when May received word that her mother had died. She was overwhelmed with grief and felt guilty about her decision to remain in Europe. Although American friends were kind and helpful, May spent most of her time alone. She avoided people who came to express their sympathy, because she found it difficult to talk about her mother without crying. Instead, she took long walks through the dark, rainy London streets and spent hours in Westminster Abbey listening to organ music. She wrote to Louisa, “I try to do as she would have me and perhaps shall work the better for the real suffering I never knew till now.”

One of her boarding house friends was a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker. During the darkest days of her grief, she could hear him playing the violin in his room across the hall from hers. He knew the music cheered her, so he would leave his door open as he played.  He also offered to read to her in the evenings when her eyes were tired, or to play chess with her. He and May soon became close friends and their friendship slowly turned into love. Although he earned his living in business, Ernest was deeply interested in both art and music. May found him very congenial, and he encouraged and appreciated her work.

By March, there was another artistic triumph to celebrate. May had two pictures accepted at the Ladies Exhibition in London. But soon she had an even greater event to write home about. Ernest asked her to marry him! He was several years younger than she was, but they shared a love of music and art. Best of all, Ernest encouraged May to continue her artistic career.

May’s father and sisters were astonished at this sudden engagement, but even more startling news was soon to come. Within a few days of their engagement, Ernest received unexpected news. He would have to leave London for at least a year to work for his business in either France or Russia. May and Ernest were unhappy at the thought of being separated for such a long time and Ernest made a bold suggestion:

Why should we not have this year together? Life seems too short to lose so much. If you will consent to forego a fine wedding and fine trousseau and begin with me now, we can enjoy so much together.   

And so May’s life took another turn for the better. The young couple was very happy and soon May was pregnant. She looked forward to having a child and to continuing her artistic career with Ernest’s help. Once again things went wrong. May died a few weeks after the birth of her healthy daughter.

Despite her early death, which meant that she was never able to fully realize her talents and achieve her goals her life serves as a model for many women who came later. She faithfully pursued her goals and tried to achieve success without sacrificing her family or the people she loved. Surely she deserves to be remembered.

 

 

 

 

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