Monday, September 26, 2016

Did Shakespeare’s Wife Get Stressed Out?

One of the things that occurred to me, in considering the cautions we’ve received as soon-to-be first-time parents, is the implausibility of such cautions being delivered in another era.  In some other eras, perhaps: I could see Glencora just-made-Palliser being taken aside by some well-meaning aunt and counseled as to how her life would soon change EVEN MORE once that pregnancy corset came off and the baby inside came out.

Then again, the counsel probably wouldn’t do much for Glencora,
and Glencora is probably in more need of it than many a heroine of her era.
(P.S. No, this is not Victorian fashion.
For some reason, the Victorians didnt do the showing-off the-bump thing.)

But I can’t for the life of me imagine friends gathering around Ma Ingalls (pre-Mary) or Laura Wilder (pre-Rose) to tell them how tough things would be when the baby didn’t sleep through the night.  Nor, for that matter, can I imagine anyone telling Anne (née Hathaway) Shakespeare to Be Prepared.

Think about your average Renaissance Englishwoman for a moment.  Think about Wolf Hall.  (Actually, don’t think about Wolf Hall.  It’s too depressing.)  There are rushes on the floor.  This always seemed silly to me when reading historical novels as a child—until I realized that a lot of the floors were dirt, and actually, having sweet flag to cover that was probably better than, well, just walking in the dirt all the time.  (And if you’re thinking that maybe those rushes would have had their own inconveniences, there’s a theory for that.)

So: rushes (or rush mats) on the floor.  They keep down dirt, smell, cold … Ah, yes, cold.  Let me say a few words about cold.  Sometimes we think they wore a lot of clothing back then.  This is true.  It might have something to do with the fact that they were in the middle of the so-called Little Ice Age, when global temperatures were relatively low enough to freeze the Thames on occasion.  In other words: it got cold outside.  Also inside, because there was no central heating, and while fireplaces had been invented, the Franklin stove (a much more efficient bit of artifice) had not.

Admittedly, being in Florida makes me look at these pictures with nostalgia.
But then again—I have central heating and wood stoves.

Then there was food.  Techniques of drying, oil-packing, and salting were available; but in many places (despite the cold winters) you couldn’t reliably freeze things to preserve them.  Fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish where all seasonal items.  Nuts, grains, and cheese and milk (because God made cows like mothers to produce milk on demand) could plausibly be eaten all year round.

Oh, and did I mention that the bathrooms were oftentimes outside (unless you wanted a chamber pot in your bedroom), and the animals were sometimes inside?  Probably not in the bedroom, though (in this regard, early modern folks may have been a little smarter than some of their twentieth-century descendants), unless your only room WAS the bedroom.

Just let your imaginations dwell on that picture for a while.

The fact is, in previous ages people dealt with a much more physical discomfort on a day-to-day and year-to-year basis than we did.  The additional hardship of adding a squalling newborn to the mix might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some; but for many I suspect it was just one more facet of life-ain’t-easy-get-used-to-it.  And this particular facet, while it made just as much mess as the animals, smelled so much nicer (at least for the first few weeks)!

Meanwhile, here I sit in southern Florida, in a  climate-and-humidity-controlled apartment—infested with pestiferous boxes, to be sure (finally cleaned up, hurrah!)—wearing soft, stretchy clothing (elastic is my new best friend)—near a refrigerator full of food—well, hm, not that full; maybe it’s time to hop in my gasoline-burning miracle and go to the nearest Walmart?  Oh, and if I’m worried that the new absence of manual labor in my life may result in a subpar birth experience, I can head for the also climate-controlled gym, or better still hop onto YouTube (metaphorically) and go through that pre-natal Pilates video again.  (Complete with an instructor who is almost exactly as pregnant as I am, which is … inspiring? embarrassing?)

To unfairly borrow the words of Yum-Yum, herself facing the culturally-distinct prospect of burial alive, “You see my difficulty!”  I have it quite easy, compared to my female ancestresses.  Everything around me is tailored to my comfort, my convenience, my needs; really, tailored to my preferences.

OK, well, maybe not being in Florida itself.  Because Zika. 
And humidity.  And having to stay indoors.  But still!

I’m hardly complaining about the situation.  But it does mean that the permanent presence of a baby will make this the first time in a couple of years that I’ve had to tailor my daily life around anything but the preferences of myself and one other rational adult.  And—especially if one’s memory of parents’ doing the same is faded or non-existent—I can see how that adjustment would be dramatic, not to say traumatic.  In this one regard, at least; in not having so great an adjustment to make, Shakespeares Wife had it easy.

P.S. One more advantage that our ancestors may well have had in the matter of child-rearing: sleep habits.  New scholarship is suggesting that divided sleep cycles were not unusual prior to the last century or so.  In other words: Anne Shakespeare may already have been up once or twice a night, before little Susanna came along.


  1. In more ways than one, telling someone about impending troubles the most zero-help action available. You know, if they're not Jonnah in Nineveh. It might even be negative help... And my inner nostalgist likes to hope that Mme. Shakespeare's ladyfriends and cousines and neighbourettes who wanted to help would show up now and then to be helpful, maybe with a ham, or a tater pie; while also leaving well enough alone when that was most sensible.

    Is that silly of me? Does this betray my historical unperspective (or my Man's unperspective?)

    But we live in a world of talk radio and talk television (sometimes of the variety called "reality", which are more about talking than the stupid things people do for them to talk about) and the most cheerful regular World News items for decades have been Peace Talks...

    Well. Enough ekatalk from me; Take care! May you be blessed with sensible neighbours!

    1. I suspect you're right about the tater pie and ham--and yes, we have neighbors who will do that too!

      I hadn't thought about the talkiness of modernity--point. Though I think women have always been this way--having a tendency to rehash their experiences with each other. But there are helpful and unhelpful versions of this ...