Friday, February 24, 2012


As a scholar of the nineteenth century, and a reader who has spent loads of time in earlier centuries as well, I've often imagined life -- my life, the lives of my family and friends -- at a different time.

When I was twelve years old and reading Dickens, I thought I'd been born too late. Too late to marry him, that is. Or better yet, his fictional self, David Copperfield. (I did not know then what I later learned about Dickens -- I would not have been his wife for a million bucks. David? Yeah, of course. He's pretty nice and pretty hot, except when he's trying out being a dandy, walking around in a corset and tiny boots. Don't ask.)

Anyway, I remember telling my dad that I'd been born too late, and he set me straight. "You would not want to have diabetes, or cancer, or a bad back, in 1840," he said. These days I would add to that, "You would not want to have a baby then, either."

Just think of it: if you'd had what was thought to be breast cancer, before about 1846, you'd have a choice: a mastectomy without anesthesia (the author Fanny Burney made this choice in the 18th century) or death. Great options, right?

If you had a mental health disorder -- and sometimes even if you didn't, especially if you were female -- you could end up in a "lunatic asylum." Look at the last plate in William Hogarth's series "A Rake's Progress" and you'll get a sense of what that was like in the 18th century.

Not only were conditions barbaric but the public could pay a couple of shillings on a Sunday afternoon and gawk at the crazies (see those well-dressed ladies all lit up, with the fans?). All in a day's entertainment, folks.

Imagine if your child had autism. Or Tourette's syndrome. I can just imagine what would have happened to the person with the tics in Salem in the 17th century -- can't you? Imagine if you slipped a disc, but you were a farmer and had to labor in the fields if your family was going to eat. Have you ever felt the pain of a ruptured disc? I have, and I feel damn lucky to live in the age of Vicodin and Percocet, not to mention general anesthesia.

If I had lived in the nineteenth century and been  married to Dickens, there would be a good chance I'd die of "child bed fever" (puerperal fever) after giving birth to one of his innumerable children (actually, there might only have been one! Catherine Dickens got lucky). That's because middle-class women began having their babies in hospitals instead of at home in the mid-Victorian era -- but too bad for them, because doctors did not know they had to WASH THEIR HANDS after leaving morgue for the maternity ward. Germ theory wouldn't fully be in place until later in the century.

So don't you feel lucky to live when you do? For all its crappiness, the twenty-first century is a pretty good time to be alive. (Hello? iPhones!) My Aspie, anxious and depressed son, my husband with the slipped disc, me with my own broken gene (BRCA-1, the breast cancer gene), my mother who had a scary encounter with global transient amnesia (she completely lost her short-term memory for 24 hours), my dad who had prostate cancer 20 years ago -- we are all LUCKY we live now, and not then.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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