Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The fear of shame and disgrace

I watched a documentary the other night about a couple who had a child out of wedlock in the 60's. The woman, a teenager at the time, was sent far from her home to an institution for young women in that situation. It was terrible to hear how these girls (and they were girls) were treated, especially while in labor - as if they were sluts of the worse sort. Despite that, the woman and her then-boyfriend wanted to keep the baby. Unfortunately, their families were not supportive of that at all and the baby was given up for adoption. Then the couple was basically forced asunder and parted ways. Years later, at a high school reunion, they met, reconnected and married a short time afterward. They then went searching for their daughter and eventually found her.

One thing was made very clear throughout the documentary: how shame and disgrace, and the fear of shame and disgrace and social ostracism, motivated the families and the girls (although in the girls' cases, it was often the fear of what their children would face than concern for themselves).

I'm old enough to remember that yes, that's how it often was then. For a girl to bear a child out of wedlock was terrible. Absolutely disgraceful. She would be a sort of social leper. And this was before we had any notion about "date rape," so even if the girl had been forced, it was still her fault. Yes, hers. The guy was often excused because, well, boys will be boys.

I'm not saying this is right or as it should be in any way. I'm simply saying, that's how it often was.

And that's why I have a real problem when it comes to many historical romances being written today. Even though the heroines are supposedly living in a time before easy access to birth control, and when a woman bearing a child out of wedlock was treated with scorn, derision, and outright cruelty - and her child would face a similar social stigma - they seem to have no worries at all about the possible consequences if their pre-marital sexual activity is discovered and even if they don't get pregnant.

Now, I know that pre-marital sex has been happening forever. That's why they had homes for unwed mothers, as they were called, although it doesn't sound as if there was anything very home-y about them. So I'm not saying historical romance heroines shouldn't have pre-marital sex. After all, I've written heroines who have. However, I do expect the author to at least have the heroine give it a moment's thought, as in, "If I do this and someone else finds out, there could be some very serious and unpleasant social consequences for me."

If not? Well, I don't think it means the book's terrible or the author's a dope. It does mean I don't quite buy the character, though - it's as if she's an actress playing a part. She may be doing a heck of a job, but she's not as real to me as she could be, either.


Anonymous said...

Hi. When my sister graduated high school back in 1966, we lived in Ft. Leavenworth, KS. She told me that the valedictorian was not allowed to give a speech, or even walk accross the stage to get her diploma because she was pregnant. The valedictorian was 20 years old, and had been married to an enlisted man for four years. Still, the school board consisdered it to be "inappropriate" to have her in the ceremony.

Just to show how much things changed in just a few years, I graduated in 1983. Two of my classmates had babies (and yes, shotgun weddings) during the schoolyear, and both got to walk accross the stage to get their diplomas.


Rebecca Lynn said...

I agree that it takes me out of the story when writers try to insert 21st century values into historical characters.

I also think that it was probably common for women to be afraid of the social (and religious) consequences of premarital sex, but still be caught up in a moment of lust, just like women do today (maybe, for a lot of women, minus the religious consequences).

However, for women in cultures where shame (or, for me, honor) was more important than self-gratification, I think a lot of historical novels that feature premarital sex are highly unrealistic. It's interesting, though, that while most of the historical romance books I've read feature sex quite heavily, most of them wait until the hero and heroine are within the confines of a marital relationship to consummate. I find it really interesting that, while the values of the culture don't necessarily line up with "wait until marriage", most romance novels are still holding on to both the idea that sex shouldn't exist outside of marriage, and the idea that (at least) women should be virgins when they get married. I guess I just find that very interesting.

Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Still, it generally is the rule.