Friday, December 11, 2009

Child Rearing, circa 1554

Cover of The Writing on the HearthA few months ago, I read three books by Cynthia Harnett, who wrote six historical novels for a youth audience between the 1940s and her death in 1981. (I hesitate to call them young adult novels, because they don't really fit into that category as it is thought of today.)

I've long been a fan of her peers in British historical fiction, particularly Rosemary Sutcliff and Barbara Willard, but I had never heard of Harnett, perhaps because her books are less widely available in the U.S. (I got the books at the June antiquarian book sale at the State Fairgrounds, thanks to Mary from Funyetta Books.)

The books are not as well-suited to an American youth audience as Sutcliff's or Willard's, but I enjoyed them. They are not directly related to each other, though they have overlapping characters from one book to the next. I read them in chronological order (which is the opposite of the order she wrote them in).

First was The Writing on the Hearth, set in the mid-1400s early in the reign of Henry the VI. It concerns an orphaned boy who gets mixed up on the edges of political intrigue and supposed witchcraft.

Cover of the Cargo of the MadalenaSecond was The Cargo of the Madalena (originally published as The Load of Unicorn), which was probably my favorite of the three. Again, the main character is a boy, this time the son of a "scrivener" whose family business is losing out to the new-fangled technology of movable type and printing, as embodied in the person of William Caxton.

The book contains some vivid depictions of daily life in London and Westminster in 1482, during a lull in the War of Roses. Best of all is the glimpse it gives of the tensions between people as technology changes -- even if the new technology is one that we take for granted.

Finally, I read Stars of Fortune, set in 1554 at the country estate of the Washingtons -- yes, these are the forebearers of George Washington. And their cousins the Spencers are, I believe, the ones from whom Princess Diana was descended. It's a small world among the English gentry.

The main characters in this last book are both a boy and a girl, twins, who are part of a large family. The plot revolves around intrigue related to the Princess Elizabeth during the reign of her sister, Mary I (Bloody Mary). The book sheds some interesting light on what life may have been like for regular people during this period, when Henry VIII's ban on the Catholic Church had been reversed. As a reader, I knew that the ban was soon to be enforced again when the Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth.

Cover of Stars of FortuneBut most interesting of all in this book were the references to child rearing and gender expectations. The book begins with the birth of a new baby brother, the tenth child. Harnett writes, "Father would be pleased about the baby. Father always said that the Washington family was like a lizard. It started off well with four good legs -- Robert, Laurie [Laurence], Francis and Anne, for though Anne was a girl she was the first girl, and being Francis' twin grew up with the boys. But after that the lizard became just a long tail, five more little girls, with the tail growing smaller all the time" (page 2). The five younger girls are then referred to throughout the rest of the book as "The Tail."

There are constant references to children being beaten (although none ever actually experience it in the course of the narrative). When the twins fear their father will find out the older brothers have gone to Woodstock where Princess Elizabeth is semi-imprisoned, Anne says "If Father sees them come in, he's sure to ask where they've been and they'll get the most awful beating..." (page 10). Later, when their father does find out where they were, "Anne held her breath: Were the boys about to get a beating?" (page 28).

When another member of the gentry arranges for his nephew to be taught with the Washington boys, the teacher asks, "I have your leave to beat him if I have cause?" To which the uncle replies, "Beat him and welcome. It will doubtless do him good" (page 36). Later, the teacher meets the nephew's grandfather, who says, "I hope you will beat him well, sir. He needs it badly" (pages 64-65).

It's not just men who speak casually of beating the children. When several of the younger children traipse through the pig stie and track malodorous droppings throughout the rushes on the house floor, mother Washington says, "You every one of you deserve a beating." Later, when one of the younger girls steals some plum jam, the mother says, "A pretty story I shall have to tell your father when he comes home to-morrow. She will have to be whipped for it. Such wickedness must be beaten out of her."

Soon father Washington is exclaiming to a family friend, "Great heavens, man, what would you do with such a family? I warrant you'd beat them until you were weary." And as the book concludes with more intrigue involving the Princess Elizabeth, she "wrung from Father an undertaking that there should be no beatings or punishments for anybody." Despite this, Father proclaims, "There is nothing I should like better than to beat the lot of you as you have never been beaten before." But he holds to his promise to the princess and does not beat them.

I've never read so many references to beating children in my life! From what I found out about Harnett on the interweb, her characters are thought to be more true to the cultural and behavioral conventions of their times than those of some (unnamed) writers of historical fiction. According to an essay by Belinda Copson on, "Her characters are not modern boys and girls in costume, but behave in period, accepting parental discipline, arranged betrothals, expected roles or religious duties in the mindset of the time."

I guess that's why I like historical fiction, especially writers like Harnett. She brings many parts of the past alive, even ones I'm glad I didn't have to experience first-hand.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

Venting frustration and anger on children has been a time-honored tradition in every age. Thankfully some people are becoming more enlightened about violence in the home. Its negative effects have been amply demonstrated in today's society. Heaven save us from abused kids!