I think the Victorians in this picture would seriously get the vapours if they heard my 4 year old daughter’s question. They wouldn’t realise how alien they look; how they don’t look like they do anything as mundane as wee!
I suppose the past is so easy to romanticise; we do it, but our children maybe do it even more. And the more I think about it, the more I think we construct a false idea of history and then learn from it.
I read an article recently where someone was passionately asserting, as if there could be no contradiction, that things are so much harder for children today than ever before. Terrorism and the “media” were the main reasons given. And I don’t minimise either the fear and threat of Terrorism, nor the terrifying power of the internet: something I feel very strongly about.
But, I do think we have both romanticised our view of history and perhaps even ‘romanticised’ our current reality: are we really living like we’re people on the brink of an apocalypse?
What about the day-in-day-out terrorism of class prejudice which, while still a major and under-recognised issue today, was acutely relevant to daily economics, politics and social pressures not even a hundred years ago. In London slums in Victorian times more than half of the babies died before their first birthday. It could be more like 75% in areas where epidemics were taking hold (Museum of London/British Library). Tuberculosis, small pox, cholera and death in childbirth dominated daily life.
Is it the idea of strong family units that makes us “nostalgic” for life back then? The idea that there was an extended family that helped with mugs of bovril and a raging fire on the range? It is a lovely image, but it doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. What exactly would your life be like as a Mum aged 13 sharing the cramped family home with your Mum/Aunt/Grandma bringing up your own child with a secrecy born of shame?
And this is the model we judge our own society against? Strong family values, helping people against all the odds, grinning and bearing it, coping, putting family first? Sure, but what would you write about if you were blogging around the turn of the century? I’m not saying everything’s better now – it obviously isn’t and there are huge pressures on our children today, not least through an increasingly bullying social media and a potentially threatening world wide web inevitably escaping control.
The idea that we learn from history is parroted ad absurdum. If we do, it’s not clear what we’re learning from and therefore what we’re learning. I don’t think we were innocent then and I don’t think we are now. We construct history, put it out there and then use it to judge ourselves pretty unfairly in the process.
So the next time you feel you don’t come up to scratch as an earth mother, resorting to a DVD or a can of baked beans…or you look at your not very 2.4 family and think you’re grandmother would be turning in her grave, just remember the Mothers who weren’t allowed to love their own children, the fathers who weren’t allowed to marry the mothers of their children, and the children who weren’t allowed to know the love…or even the names of their own parents.
And the next time you meet someone who – like me – had a medically prescribed C-section, not being too posh to push, too lazy, too….pick your adjective because non C section Mums have had a whole store chucked at them…. remember the Mums who died or were left incontinent for the rest of their insanitary lives, and be proud you live in a world which is, on many levels, so much safer than it was.
I’d love to wear those ethereal ’20s dresses sported at the Ritz by Lady Mary in Downton Abbey. I’d love to have a good old fashioned Knees up Mother Brown and pint of stout at a good old East End boozer in Call the Midwife.
But even aside from the tragic disadvantages of a less medically advanced society, the people in those stories are not inoculated against emotional pain. They fall out of love, they cheat on each other, they fight with their parents and siblings and they see their dreams fade – this is what it means to be human. But for every one that falls out of love, someone falls in….someone is faithful, someone is a good friend through it all and someone sees dreams come true.
If our children pick up from us the “good old days” mantra, they’ll carry it on their shoulders just as I reckon we do. We shouldn’t be judged by another era, but neither should we judge those other eras more favourably than we judge our own. Humans mess up and humans do wonderful things. It’s important our children realise the similarities as much as the differences across the generations. History today seems to focus far more on the differences, as if electricity changed the running of the human heart.
What do you think? Do we give our children a romanticised view of history? How does our view of history affect how we live our lives? What impact might that have on our children? Please share.