Who’s left holding the Baby? – Class & Contraception in the 1920s

By Fiona Veitch Smith, author of The Art Fiasco and other books, (see bottom of this page for more details)

In The Art Fiasco, the fifth in my 1920s murder mysteries, Poppy Denby encounters a number of women who have varying experiences of motherhood, sexual exploitation and sexual freedom. If readers look beyond the fun, fashion and mystery they will find an exploration of how access to contraception and dealing with the consequences of conception outside (and inside) marriage, impacted upon career opportunities for working and middle class women in the early 20th Century.

For thousands of years women have inserted fruit acids, jellies, pastes and various mixtures into their vagina in an attempt to prevent conception. Environments that are either sharply acidic or alkaline are hostile to sperm and therefore these methods may have had some effect.

In 1885 the first commercial vaginal suppository using cocoa butter and quinine sulphate was developed by Walter Rendell, an English pharmacist. This was later replaced by hydroquinine, a more potent spermicide, and sponges soaked in quinine sulphate. In 1906 Friedrich Merz developed the first known commercially produced spermicidal jelly, called Patentex. Female barrier methods became from the 1880s with the diaphragm and later the Dutch cap coming onto the market, and later in the early 1900s, female condoms became available. The male condom, in its various forms, had been around for millenia, but for the first time contraceptive choice was given to the female partner, leading, in no small way, to the increased emancipation of women by allowing them to control their own fertility.

So, who were the women using contraception in the 1910s and 20s, and where did they obtain it? Well, as they could only be purchased from certain pharmacies or prescribed at private clinics, they were primarily available to the middle and upper class. Free sexual health services were still a thing of the future. In The Cairo Brief,Poppy notes that her sexually free friend Delilah Marconi might very well have ended up at the home for unwed mothers that they visit in the course of their investigation, if it hadn’t have been for her contraceptive know-how and wealth. Of course, the barrier method still sometimes failed, but even then women with more wealth were able to make arrangements to travel away out of public view to disguise their pregnancy. Assuming they did not have an abortion. That was an option, with varying degrees of safety, illegally available to both middle-class and working-class women. But the more an abortionist could be paid, the better the chance of survival.

Issues of childcare were also class dependent. In the 1920s, career opportunities were opening for women, but many of them – even if they were educated well enough to qualify – were unable to pursue these paths due to childcare constraints. Who was going to look after the baby? Wealthier women could afford nannies. In The Cairo Brief we see a miner’s wife worrying how she is going to look after yet another baby. And then we see Yasmin Reece-Lansdale, a wealthy barrister (now married to Poppy’s editor Rollo), blithely managing to have twins and return to work.

The law, too, was also a barrier to career advancement with The Marriage Bar in place in certain professions, such as teaching, that legally required women to resign if they were to get married.

Societal convention, religious belief, social and domestic conservatism, unequal educational opportunities, male opposition and political legislation all had a role to play in limiting women’s career advancement, but access to contraception was pivotally important. The 1920s saw a rise in demands for better access to birth control and the first free clinics were opened by Marie Stopes. Stopes is more usually remembered as a provider of safe abortion (and her eugenicist views) but her main thrust at the beginning of her career was the provision of contraception to married women. In the next book in the series, as Poppy is contemplating the possibility of marriage and what it might mean to her career, these issues become vitally important. But that’s another story…

Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates novels, Golden Age-style murder mysteries set in the 1920s (Lion Fiction). The first book, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger, while subsequent books have been shortlisted for the Foreword Review Mystery Novel of the Year and the People’s Book Prize. Book 5, The Art Fiasco, is out now. www.poppydenby.com

Crime and Punishment in Life and Lit: as featured in The Archers

Happy Families: who sees?
Happy Families: who sees?

Excuse me, if you don’t live in the UK, for talking about a British soap opera, one which probably won’t appear, like Downton, on your TV screens.
I’ve always used The Archers as nice quiet lunch break entertainment.

But for the past 2 years it’s become instead a nail biting tension-raiser.  I’m not about to rant about that. I’m thinking about how we writers draw in our readers.

If you read crime novels, why do you love them? 

Most people seem to enjoy crime fiction for what offers in terms of ‘who (and how) dunnit?’ The crafty patterning. The pleasure of trying to beat the author in uncovering the answers to the detective’s questions. The skill in writing crime is similar to the skill of composing/solving a crossword puzzle. A classic crime story usually doesn’t spend time on deeply developing the characters, since the pleasure of reading, and the essence of page-turning, isn’t primarily rooted in, well, rooting for them. Though of course it can, if there is an element of  adventure, or if rather than focusing on the solving the crime the story involves ‘woman’ (or child, or even man) ‘in jeopardy’.

So what’s interesting and why?

 Here we have a quiet, jogging-along sort of serial story. The Archers suddenly builds up and pursues a storyline where there is a vile villain, a woman jeopardy, and a very real social situation.  Contrast readers’/hearers’ emotional involvement with typical crime stories and this tale’s use of already-developed, well-known characters.

Maybe you (follower or casual reader of the blog) don’t listen to The Archers. Or maybe you do. Maybe you liked Helen, Henry, and Helen’s parents and other relatives already. Or maybe you found Helen boring and slightly neurotic, and Henry a sickeningly drippy kid: the received wisdom has tended towards ‘the awful Henry’. Whichever, we who listen have been taken through the stages of domestic abuse over time with these characters, and far from standing back and studying the patterning of the storyline, we’ve been sucked right in. I found myself caring about Helen as if she was a friend. Willing her to wake up and smell the coffee – or rather, taste the the deception, savour the distastefulness, and perceive the whole false flattery and fantasy that horrible Rob has been throwing over her from the very start of his wooing.

The reader/listener as helpless friend

Why the hell, we think, didn’t she realise what marital rape was? Face up to that sex on the sofa which wasn’t romance, it was a deliberate attack. To ‘get her pregnant’. How can she not hate and long to be rid of the foetus she realises was planted by that act of rape? What makes her willingly/unwillingly submissive? Can she be feeling anything but fear of this man in her life, her house, her bed?

Evidently, yes. She does. Why else did she swear her brother and her friend to secrecy: and so land herself with no witnesses to the true awfulness of her life?

And why do we care – she’s only a voice on the radio, an actress in a studio, expertly using a script.

Writing and acting to a high standard – even though it’s a soap

But, we do care. Or we can. I have. Could feel my  heart beating, my blood pressure rising, as I listened this past few weeks. When Rob derided her. When he lured Henry increasingly into his foul net of lies and promises and deceits. When he separated Helen from her family and brought in his mother as replacement. And finally, when he mocked and derided her and bawled at Henry, after handing Helen a weapon to do the deed (did he hope she would wound him, and thus prove herself psychotic?). What were his plans for poor Henry, long term?

Helen, predictably, protectively, snapped and hit back when he began to abuse her child, and now she’s been arrested. I am caught. I care as if she were real. I am also horrified that a woman so abused and traumatised is being put through arrest and interrogation by the police. Does she deserve punishment? Doesn’t he?

Because I know this is being written as true to life as possible?

Not only that. 

Because I know what they don’t know: the  background to everything. I was there. They were not. I was a fly on the wall throughout.

A practical lesson in writing

 The characters have been carefully built up so we care. Each scene of Helen’s torture by Rob has been carefully crafted. Each declaration of his ‘love and caring’ with expensive presents. Each odd occurrence, for example that secret wedding replacing Helen’s plans. The time frame has been real, and the situations well researched.

The impact of  characterisation well done grips the listener/reader. As I wrote before, writing a series involves getting to really know your characters … and their developing over time…

May Love You to the Moon (the work in progress) grip like this!

It is also a warning

This is the face of ‘non-violent’ domestic abuse. The stuff of taunting, and control. It is also (to my mind) the reason why the whole idea of women’s being expected to be ‘submissive’ in a relationship is, and has always been, so wrong. The reason why ‘obey’ is now so rightly out of the Church of England marriage service, and hopefully all marriage ceremonies. In my opinion, anyway. Control has no place in intimate relationships.

P1120634
Happy Families: who sees?

AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second  Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all dayat Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold Village setting 

 

 

 

Mothers’ Day, Mothering Sunday, who do we include?

Anyone who’s read my books, Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year

Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon ...)
Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon …)

will know they feature families and several different kinds of mothers. Professional women struggling to juggle the work and the family; a pastor’s wife expected to mother the congregation as well as her five growing children; a mother who has escaped a violent teenage marriage, been forced to abandon her child,  and worked in a women’s refuge … Though all are western mothers, and only one has suffered the trauma of the stillbirth of a malformed baby.

This Sunday is Mothers’ Day

or as it used to be known, Mothering Sunday. The middle Sunday in Lent, when (as you may already know), domestic servants had a day off to go and visit Mother.

Hedgerow spring flowers
Hedgerow spring flowers

Many of them would be just kids, really: girls the age we now count legally as children, girls who’d now be in school, girls too young to marry, and who we count as being too young to be seduced into sex. Sent out to earn a living as young teens, some as young as twelve, living in a servants’ attic, eating in the servants’ kitchen surrounded by adults. A visit home to Mother and the sisters and brothers was a real treat. They might take Mother a bunch of flowers, picked from a hedgerow along the way …

In fact, it’s a day about showing love.

So, here we are on Mothers’ Day

Me and my daughter, summer 1981

with cards, shop windows and catalogues of possible gifts, and for churchgoers a service where little  bunches of flowers are given out to the mums.

The churches have also, so as not to leave out the childless, so as to be inclusive, led the way to this becoming an all-women’s day.

It’s a good intention: but is there actually a reasonable argument for keeping this day to specially celebrate and be thankful for mothers? For what they do, for what they go through to produce, nurture, and protect, children? Hoping not to hurt anyone’s feelings, I think there is.

Every-Mothers’ Day

We might up-date celebrating mothers by being aware of mothers world-wide.

Well off, well educated, mothers in Western countries, aren’t in the majority of women on the planet. And we have health care to ensure that (usually) pregnancy, birth, and the post-natal days are safer than ever before. Clean water, a warm home, an income, maternity leave, all work towards happy motherhood. Postnatal depression can be treated.   

Most young girls here have not gone through FGM, with all that does to intercourse and giving birth. 

Most have not, at puberty, had an arranged marriage, which nicely puts an end to education, can lead to pregnancy  before they are fully grown and developed, can lead to dangerous childbirth, or at worst to death.

Most western women do not develop a fistula from going through complicated, protracted labour and delivery in a poverty stricken area without enough doctors, nurses, or trained midwives: for us, the minority, there are maternity units with skilled staff who can perform a safe caesarean.

But all these events give a very realistic picture of being a mother in, say, somewhere like Afghanistan, or many African countries..

Mums in the refugee camps in Europe

Remember this? But most are in camps under makeshift shelters
Remember this? But most are in camps under makeshift shelters

Having fled war, mothers living in makeshift shelters are having keep an eye on their young girls. Living in a tent, or substandard group housing, girls are vulnerable to abduction, presumably to be used for sex. It isn’t nice: it’s a terrible worry for parents. Especially for mothers, who know what sex with an older, maybe roughly forceful, man would be like for their young girls.

So, it’s a day about love?

I would really love to see Mothers’ Day become a day when we think about the reality of being  mothers. While being thankful to our mothers, and for our own safe birth, let’s do more than that. 

That’s not to say we need to deny ourselves giving and receiving flowers, chocs and hugs … But whether or not we are mothers, inclusivity might mean showing empathy to mothers less fortunate: giving to an organisation which cares for women as mothers.Let’s make Mothers Day about love and generous inclusivity 

Find out about fistula, FGM, and other related topics:

Information on FGM, and other related topics

What is a fistula, how are they caused, why are they so dangerous and excluding? 

AUTHOR EVENT:

Celebrate books and reading:

It will soon be time for the second 

 Hawkesbury LitFest … Saturday 23rd April, all day

at Hawkesbury Upton … author readings,

talks, poetry, children’s activities … in a Cotswold

Village setting 

Writing a series: re-connecting with a vision of my characters

 Cambridge: Clare College bridge
Clare College, Cambridge: the bridge

So – when I began Baby, Baby, and even when I decided there was more to tell, and embarked on The Labyrinth Year, series were popular.  But I hadn’t thought in terms of a series. Love you to the Moon (the ‘work in progress’, novel 3 of the Mullins Family saga) now finds Max and Jenny as long-established professionals, into their forties, and parents of teens. It is 2007, and daughter Alice is almost the age Jenny is in some of the backstory scenes of Baby, Baby.

Sennen Village Primary School
Sennen Village Primary School

This is where the writer must skilfully re-connect with the characters, and imagine them forwards through the maturity (or not) that comes with time. Construct a backstory: career events, giving birth and raising kids, all that makes a family saga real for the reader. I shudder at the character changes we’re sometimes presented with by TV soaps – just to fit in the latest cliff-hanger story-line, and I dread falling into that myself!

Clare College entrance, where Jenny met Max
Clare College entrance, where Jenny met Max

Part of me even tries to suggest that this mis-matched pair would surely have parted by now?

If you, reading this, are a writer, I wonder how you would embark on re-finding Jenny, age 42? Last time I knew her, she was barefoot on the beach at Sennen, ten years younger, exiting a labyrinth drawn in the sand by her stepsister Daisy (known as Daze).

01/09/2004 11:23
The sand at Whitesands Bay, Sennen Cove

Daisy’s idea was that everyone walked the labyrinth, carrying a stone or other object to represent something they will leave behind as they move on…

 

Jy's stone 2
Jenny kept the stone which she’d forgotten to leave in the centre of the Labyrinth

… But Jenny finds, as she leaves the path, that she’s still carrying her stone. It feels heavy in her hand.

This led me to say, There is more, here … we should continue the  journey…

Like Daze, I’m a visual artist, so I’ve turned to studying the photos I’ve taken, over time, of the key places in Jenny’s life so far …

Lobster boats, Sennen Cove
Lobster boats, Sennen Cove

… the journey from Sennen Primary School, where she was the new girl in Year 2, after her parents separated …

 

 

 

Camb market
Cambridge Market (where Jenny unexpectedly meets Daisy, pregnant …)

to the local Cape Cornwall secondary school in nearby St Just…

 

to studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge

Typical lab desk, Oxford University Dept. of Pharmacology
Typical lab desk, Oxford University Dept. of Pharmacology

 

 

and her career as a research  scientist in Oxford …

Where next, Jenny? And who with?

 

 

Who are your friends and mentors, what is happening back in West Cornwall, and how is it for you, being a career scientist, a wife, and Mum to two bright teenage girls? Is there drama in this – and, who’s perception of love will drive them to despair?

 

 

DSC04335.JPG
 Oxford Canal

The Labyrinth Year begins with a narrowboat holiday,

 

 

and takes Jenny to speak at a conference in California,

 

 

then ends with her career as an Oxford scientist in jeopardy ..

Oxford University science area from the Parks
Oxford University science area from the Parks

N Ben's garden 2008 - 2

And who is trying to take over the storytelling next?

Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon ...)
Available from the Hodge website (www.hodgepublishing.com) (or Amazon …)

Writers in real life …

Vintage, retro, call-it-what-you-will

Last week I so liked Debbie Young’s piece on her lovely Village Shop that I re-blogged it. The story of the warm sheltering shop for the kids waiting for the school bus; the concept of a shop serving a small community; a place people can meet and connect with others without travelling there first; the delicious display of new bread … The very fact that Hawkesbury Upton, unlike many, is a village which has a shop where residents can not only buy useful items but chat and relate … Too tempting to compare that with living on the outskirts of a city with appalling traffic,  more estate agents than most people know what to do with, and franchised coffee shops …

When there was room for a cat

Can’t have it all ways

However … back then, in retro-land, and for decades of the past, ordinary women did not, (on the whole) figure much in the creative arts.  (Who knows what wonderful stories of daily life we’d otherwise have, by people who didn’t live in grand houses, travel by carriage, or attend balls at the Assembly Rooms?) We are in the age of  ‘thing-led’ modern living. The almost-universal ownership of household appliances has freed  us as much as any Equality Acts. With the laundry spinning away in a machine I multi-task daily at my computer … writing, relating, researching … Having that satisfying feeling of the Good Housekeeper as well, as the load flaps later on the line … a writer and a painter …

Until something happens that demonstrates our utter dependence on electricity, on-line shopping, deliverymen, and worst of all the computer! I am now without a washing machine. Ours ended the wash Saturday a week ago, with a drum of soaking wet clothes and an “F-21” display on it digital face. (Along with an ironic smile perhaps?) Just as we were about to go walking with friends.

Off at last!
Me behind the camera as ever!

So now, piles of washing in the basket … no space for the cat! And the store just rang today to say due to computer problems, they now can’t deliver the (abundantly necessary) new machine t ill April 1st …March 14 – April 1st in old money, washing-wise.

Thankfully, I know how to hand-wash, I only had to watch my Mum throughout my childhood.

Simple technology…

And I don’t throw things away … we love this, even though it’s ancient, hideous, and clutters up the utility room. It’s a spin dryer, circa 1973 …

And then there’s been the kindness of friends, the load done in the neighbour’s machine … a blessing, (though maybe less amicable than down by a river, bashing the clothes on a stone?)

The ‘too busy’ that we all are

Looking back, how’ve I confidently become so busy? Middle of trying to promote Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, my 2 Indie-

Two colourful Book Covers
Two colourful Book Covers

published novels, (getting the hang of Amazon and Goodreads’ more obtuse and hidden-away pages, where you the author can promote your writing …); making notes about number 3 in the series. Then the family remember there’s an unpublished one, and in an area which has become a hot topic now. We rescue it from the attic: it’s good. It’s well written in a previous style and comes with positive comments from my creative writing teacher of many years ago. (A short course I’d forgotten about.) It’s highly controversial. It’ll need to be published under a different name.

For a few days, it is horribly tempting …  it needs a revised ending … but …

Sticking to the plan

Whatever: I’ve also committed myself to the Indie Author Fair at Foyleshttp://allianceindependentauthors.org/  – time to also meet other ALLi authors).

HawkesburyUpton advert
http://hulitfest.com/

And to the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. Beguiled not only by the chance for publicity and to read from my books but … the concept. A LitFest in a rural setting, run by locals, small enough to really meet other authors and even potential readers.

One of life’s puzzles …

2 of life's puzzles
2 of life’s puzzles

With all the automated living in the world, choices still have to be made. I’ve chosen IAF and Hawkesbury Upton …

What would you chose … if your old novel found in the attic might’ve hit the headlines, but at the expense of destroying relations with readers of your first two? Just not ruthless enough, I guess

Mothers’ day or others’ day?

Me and my daughter, June 1981

 

 

A very quick post at the end of reading Facebook tributes to lovely Mums … and sad posts from people who have reasons to be sad today.

 

Mothers are universal: everyone has a mother, whether she is/was good of horribly bad at mothering. Like Russian dolls, we al come here from our mother. And they say that mothers retain cells from the babies they carried, circulating forever in their bloodstream, settling even in their brains.

Mothering is hard: pregnancy take sit out of you (not just the loss of a slim figure, but the physical strain pregnancy and giving birth, and yes, if you breastfeed, feeding, puts on every part of mothers).

Mothers have a lot expected of them: and they can get a lot of flack for doing their best.

Mothers need the encouragement of their ‘Day’.

But …

Mariella Sakilariou Wheeler & Ephrosyne: Mariella was a lady’s maid before she was a mum

I wrestle with this problem: years ago, Mothering Sunday (a Sunday in the middle of the 40-day-long season of Lent) was the day when young people in domestic service were given a day off to visit Mum back home. Mum was probably the mother of a host of children, and lived a life of hard work and many pregnancies. It must’ve been special for her and for her probably teenage children to be back home on a visit, but it also probably had no commercial value.

Alice and Mary: Alice worked as a housekeeper before she was a mum
Alice and Mary: Alice worked as a housekeeper before she was a mum

Possibly few people would regret they were not mothers back then, before birth control, before giving birth was relatively safe, when keeping house and caring for a family involved manual labour…when women didn’t have the vote, the chances of education to chose a life of independence, travel, home ownership, and generally of choice. In many places, mothers lives are much the same: work, pregnancy, and being a second-class person.

So, I suspect that my ideal for Mothering Sunday/Mothers Day would be not that we try, somehow, to include all the people who aren’t mothers, for whatever reason (even that physically they are men). Instead of that, I’d like us to celebrate mothers world-wide, and count it as special day for women who are mothers everywhere, to remember the amazing job they do, and to think what we can do to support (even if only by giving) organisations which work to make women’s lives  better: to stop FGM, to see that women in places like Africa and India can obtain sanitary protection, decent toilets, antenatal care, safe births, and safety from sexual harassment and attacks.

Or is that too much to ask?

(Photos copyright, all from the family albums…)