Monthly Archives: June 2018

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!

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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

3 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, San Francisco events