There is an inherent nostalgia to inhabitants of the British Isles. It's as if the weight of all that history, and of all those dead, hangs so heavy it forces us to contemplate the past. With that contemplation comes the false glow that memory affords. The past seems a kinder, less harsh place than the one we live in now. 'The good old days' are often harked back to, and the idea that there was a gentler, more innocent time in comparison to the brash and brute world we now populate.
Of course, there was no gentler time. There were different times, that's all, each with its benefits and disadvantages. Much of the research for my books has been done in the recent past, and it is clear we have never been healthier, safer, more tolerant or wealthier than we are now. Though admittedly this does not mean we are any happier. Yet these facts don't halt the nostalgia industry and the columnists and commentators who make their money by claiming we're going to hell in a handcart, and the scaremongering newspapers who see only demons, and create a sense of a mythic Golden Age. In turn, people do actually end up believing there was some halcyon time when life was better.
|Florence at 17|
Of course, young women have always fallen pregnant out of wedlock. Often they were forced to marry the father of their child. Millions of unhappy marriages began thus (and many happy ones too. My grandmother gave birth to my father four months before he was born and not, we later found out, four years like she told everyone). If the father did a 'runner', some were blessed with families who rallied round and supported them. Others, like Florence McClellan, were viewed as having brought shame and were banished from the home. She was put in an asylum. Not because she was mad. Simply because her family were ashamed of her. You see, in the 'good old days' women were often locked up in institutions for no good medical reason. People just wanted them swept out of the way. No reminders, no shame, no problem. Many of these women were merely suffering from what we would now call depression (I can hear the nostalgists shrieking now: 'Depression? Depression? In my day, you didn't get depressed, you just got on with it...') Post-natal depression was actually seen as a form of mania, and many young women found themselves imprisoned in gloomy gothic buildings, alone and afraid, their baby snatched from them. Many never made it back out.
Florence did. Her child had been given up for adoption and after six months in an asylum she escaped. She couldn't go back home to the people who had cast her out, so she ran to London, scared, bewildered yet free. She set up home in the Angel, Islington - something about the name appealed and she was due some 'help from above' - took a few jobs, met a man, had children and started a new life under a different name.
Fifty years on and the past, as is its wont, would not be denied. On a building site near her old home in Manchester, workmen found a skeleton which belonged to a woman estimated to be be between 16 and 30 years old when she died half a century ago. The police issued a public appeal for any missing persons. Florence's surviving family, who had often wondered what had become of her, came forward and expressed their fears that it might be her. The detectives investigated, took some DNA samples, and eventually traced Florence to her home in Islington.
|Florence, today, and one of her sons|
Here's hoping she does. I would like to think the fools who start spouting about the 'shamelessness' of young women who become pregnant and expect to be supported by the state, think of this tragic story before they engage their mouths. For a start, the idea that young women get in the 'family way' in order to extract money is a myth of its own. Secondly, it is much better to live in a world where women aren't banished to mental institutions for youthful indiscretions.
Not that I'm against the concept of shame. There are a few bankers and politicians and newspaper columnists who should be introduced to it. And banished too, come to think of it.
Dan - Friday