The Ragtag Daily Prompt this morning is ANACHRONISM. Ah! One writing topic about which I frequently
harangue caution younger writers.
One area that comes to mind is words and expressions. How many readers know what KEELHAUL means? Likewise, when I see something that comes from a 70s or 80s sit-com being said by a character in the 1930s, it grates. The expression, “Been there; done that,” didn’t exist in my youth. As to our prompt yesterday, EMBIGGEN, please don’t use it in your 1920s mystery or WWII story!
Another area that comes to mind is how effective birth control has changed society.
Grandma had 14 children, spread out over 28 years — the youngest born when she was 48. Her daughter Helen had 17. We once visited a family that had eleven–the youngest six months old and the oldest almost fourteen. As I do family tree research I see evidence of this same prolificacy, even if infant mortality was high.
I also see evidence that some writers born after the 1960s seem to have little idea how things worked before the Pill. They create promiscuous girls and put them in a setting where a young lady wouldn’t have dared. Girls have affairs with no consequences. Fat chance!
Social mores kept most girls on the straight and narrow–abstinence being the only sure means of birth control. Should a girl lose her purity she risked falling pregnant. Especially before the 1920s she’d risk becoming a social outcast, tainting her family with scandal–especially her sisters–and losing hope for a decent marriage. You see this in Pride and Prejudice, where Lydia’s whole family would have been disgraced by the scandal of her running off with Wickham. Only the hasty forced marriage of those two allowed her sister Elizabeth to wed Mr Darcy.
Seldom mattered if the girl had consented or not, she was blamed. If a victim spoke up, lawyers would tear her life to shreds in court. “Shotgun weddings” were many. Thousands, if not millions, of young women lost their lives in botched back-street abortions. Babies were born in secret and confined to orphanages. (Read Oliver Twist.) Anyone who wants to write about illicit affairs in the pre-Pill era and get a good picture of the mindset back then should read the first half of Ben Wicks’ compilation, Yesterday They Took My Baby.
We had such a situation in our clan. Grandma’s sister went to teach school in a small SK town and met and became engaged to a young man. I know not the intimate details, but when she fell pregnant he left for parts unknown. Took off, as we say, and left her to face the music. She died giving birth to twins and Grandma had to go bring her body home. On her 1904 death registration “cause of death” was left blank. Great-Grandma would have nothing to do with this “fallen daughter” and wouldn’t allow her to be buried in the family plot because she’d disgraced them. The twins were given to relatives–a childless couple.
And the fellow? Apart from whatever twinges of conscience he may have felt, it was no problem for him! No, the double standard seems so unfair, but that’s how it was. A writer can’t correct history by freeing her female characters from the normal consequences women did face. Prior to WWI few young women had money, or even the means to earn any, so running away from parental wrath often meant putting yourself out on the street and into the hands of “white slavers.” Even when I was young, an uneducated woman could barely manage to pull in a wage that would house and feed her.
I see in my family tree there were a few small families, perhaps because the couple worked out some birth control, but more often because of health issues. For single girls of that era, perhaps a botched abortion might render a young woman infertile. Even so, the talk! Communities were closer; everyone knew. The gossip, upturned noses and social rejection were serious. Some families would rally round, some would cast out the sinner. Some parents quickly married off the wretched girl to whoever would have her. Some girls took that option themselves.
This is not 1800s stuff; this was the scene when I was a girl in the 1950s. Writers need to research the social mores of the area in which they’re setting their story. Please, rid your work of post-Pill anachronisms and make your stories as true to their times as you can.