You’ve come a long way, baby!
I recently read a debut novel by one of my fellow members in the Historical Novel Society. The book relates the story of a young women struggling against prejudice and hypocrisy in the 1800s, but it equally applies to women today.
As I read the book, I recalled the saying, “But, for the grace of God, there go I,” because indeed, this girl’s life could have been mine… or yours.
This month I would like to share a review I wrote for her book and I hope you will all be inspired to read it. I’m sure you’ll be as moved as I was, and still am.
Nan A. Talese
Picture yourself in a theater. The lights begin to dim and the audience quiets. A paper crinkles as the last candy is unwrapped. Overhead, a beam casts its glow on the stage and illuminates a Quaker woman seated in a plain, high back wooden chair, a baby nestled against her breast. The woman begins to speak and her soft even tone hypnotizes you. When her eyes find you, it might as well be you in the spotlight because her words expose and reveal the attitudes and prejudices in your heart.
Such is the power of Janet Benton’s novel, Lilli de Jong.
In mesmerizing detail, like a friend relating a most intimate story, we personally hear and are moved by a young woman’s encounter with the realities of her time, while Janet Benton’s tender and elegant prose carry us protectively through the most heart-rending scenes.
“Home” ceases to exist. Men, and women alike, take advantage of her misfortunes. Society has no place or tolerance for “fallen” women. And religion, a refuge for the soul, provides no compassionate haven for women “like her.”
Janet Benton tells a compelling story of the plight of unwed mothers; situations, unfortunately, as real and relevant today as in the 1800s, the time period in which the story unfolds. As far as society has progressed, difficulties still persist, as mothers who are single-parents will attest, in terms of finding employment, child-care, housing, and… honor and respect.
Lilli’s story ends. The audience solemnly exits the theater.
And this reader hopes that each of us will be more inclined toward mercy than judgement, and earnestly look for opportunities to extend a helping hand.
See you next time on September 22nd.
Manager, Educator, and former High School Social Studies teacher, Veronica credits her love of history to the potpourri of cultures that make up her own life and to her upbringing in diverse Brooklyn, New York. Her genres of choice are Historical Fiction where she always makes new discoveries and Children’s Picture Books because there are so many wonderful worlds yet to be imagined and visited. She currently resides in Macungie, PA.
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble,… “the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
The quote above is generally attributed to Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, published serially 1837-39, per Bartleby though Dickens may have copied it from a 17th century play, Revenge for Honour by George Chapman. (See http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/the-law-is-an-ass.html) Whatever the origin of the phrase, it makes a fair point. (The word ass, of course, refers to a donkey.)
Nineteenth-century women were likely to agree with Mr. Bumble, when one considers the treatment of women under the laws of the period. I covered a bit of this during my recent talk on Herstory at Orange County RWA in August, though women weren’t the only people treated badly by the law. The nineteenth century saw a number of reform movements, from abolitionism to the fight for women’s suffrage. The latter was kicked off in July 19-20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The first two resolutions passed at the convention concern legal matters:
Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and of no validity; for this is “superior in obligation to any other.
Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.
It wasn’t just that women weren’t allowed to vote, though that was a primary focus for reform. For several centuries, a legal practice called coverture was in place in England and the U.S. whereby a woman gave up all rights when she married. Her husband controlled any money or property she brought to the union. Single women, including widows, could own property and enter into contracts without male approval. Thanks to suffragist activism, laws were passed abolishing this practice in the late 19th century.
Current law is confusing enough, but when you’re writing historical romance, the law can be a veritable minefield of potential blunders. Research your time period and location if legal matters play a part in your plot. What kind of legal system was in place at the time? English common law, the Napoleonic Code, church canonical law? In the U.S., laws vary from state to state, but that isn’t always the case in other countries.
British laws were enforced throughout England and Wales, but didn’t necessarily apply to Scotland. For instance, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the age of consent for marriage was substantially lower in Scotland than the one-and-twenty years required in England, encouraging couples without parental approval to elope across the border. The Gretna Green marriage is common plot device in Regency romances. The 1753 Marriage Act was also the first law to require a formal ceremony. It also required weddings to take place in the morning, hence the wedding breakfast to follow.
Getting out of a marriage was even more difficult. Prior to the mid-19th century when judicial divorce was authorized, it was extremely difficult if not impossible to get a divorce in Britain. In Regency times, one had to petition Parliament for a divorce. Can you imagine having to ask Congress to agree to let someone divorce? Yikes! Even then it was more like a legal separation than a true divorce. Annulments weren’t necessarily easy to obtain either. A law permitting judicial divorce, the Matrimonial Causes Act, finally passed in 1857.
More information on marriage and divorce laws can be found at these sites:
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