For the month of December–with bonus posts on November 30 and January 1!–I am delighted to welcome a wonderful assortment of guest bloggers to take over the helm. Please enjoy their generous contributions to the blog this month. My own bloggery will resume January 2. I wish you and yours happiness and health this holiday season. Please note: comments are disabled until my return.
What did your children receive this Holiday season? A humungous set of Lego? Or a bike? Perhaps even a cell phone or other piece of modern technology? Many agree that Christmas has become so commercialized it hardly resembles the Yule of its origins, but a resurgence of homemade gifts and activity based celebrations is starting to reclaim the Christmases of old. However, with all the talk of returning to simpler holidays, I wonder if modern people are really willing to go back to the Victorian Christmas where kids were lucky to receive an orange, or more likely an apple in their stockings, where a single box sat waiting for them, sometimes holding little more than a pair of hand knit mittens.
I’m not talking about the well-to-do aristocracy, though even their Christmas celebrations would have been more subdued compared to the modern image. What I would like to focus on is the plight of the Victorian child who lived and died in great numbers during a time of pageantry and excess amongst the uber rich of the Victorian age.
My forth coming book, THE DEAD AMONG US, due out in spring 2014, has been by far my most research intensive book to date and most of it centers around the Victorian child. Children, once out of babyhood, were viewed as little adults. They were expected to contribute to the family finances, taking jobs where ever they could. The casual labour market, especially at the docks of the east end, relied on the willingness of children who would perform back breaking, hand numbing work for pennies a day. If a child were on the legal side of the law he or she could earn a few pennies sweeping the streets in front of a wealthy business man. On the illegal side of things, a child could be recruited as a sympathy card for adult beggars, who would sometimes blind or maim the otherwise healthy children to get more money.
If you have read Sarah Waters’ amazing book, Fingersmith, then you know about baby farmers. Operating in a gray area of the law, women would advertise themselves to unfortunate mothers as ‘adoption agencies’ who could place children born out of wedlock with middle class families. A baby farmer would do this for a fee of course, and subdue the number of children in her care with alcohol or narcotics. Some baby farmers had even been found guilty of infanticide, having killed the babies almost as soon as they received them or after a time when finding homes for them became more difficult. If a farmed baby survived to toddlerhood, they’d be surrendered to an orphanage or worse, led to an unknown part of the city and simply abandoned.
Children were not sheltered from anything in Victorian society. If not born behind bars, children could be sent to prison with their mothers if there was no one else to care for them. If old enough, and I use that term loosely, girls often became prostitutes overseen by a madam who only saw the profits that could be made and not a child. Children’s aid societies in the sense we know of them, did not exist for the Victorian child and anti-slavery laws did not yet apply to children.
While writing my book, THE DEAD AMONG US, I had to educate myself on all these realities and more. I wanted Dr. Peter Ainsley’s conscience to grapple with the hypocrisies of the world he lived in and I wanted him to feel helpless against the vast number of youth dying in his city. His sister, Margaret, born into a wealthy family and enjoying the limited liberties it gave her, struggles as well, knowing her society approved efforts to help the children were merely drops in a rather large bucket of social issues. While writing this book I have come to realize my Victorian mysteries are more than just crime novels set before an aristocratic backdrop. I am trying to recreate a world that I will never truly know or understand because the mindset and belief systems are so vastly different.
As romantic as the Victorian age is to us we will never be able to recreate it. Society’s views have change drastically. Our plight for equal rights for all has altered our conscience and I believe has made things better despite our commercialized world. The desire to ‘return to our roots’ and create a Christmas based on ‘simpler times’, though good intentioned, is really just wishful thinking. There was no simpler time. It did not exist in the Victorian era and it certainly did not exist for the Victorian child.
So during you Holiday Celebrations, remember the children of the Victorian age and their Christmas as it really was and maybe then we can be truly grateful for how far we have come.
For an extensive list of foundling homes and London-based charities, check out this detailed webpage: http://www.victorianlondon.org/dickens/dickens-charities.htm The sheer number is mind boggling.
A former journalist, TRACY L. WARD is the historical mystery writer behind the Peter Ainsley Mystery series featuring Victorian morgue surgeon Peter Ainsley and his highborn sister, Margaret Marshall. The first book in the series, Chorus of the Dead, was released in July 2012 and its sequel, Dead Silent, was published earlier this year. Tracy is finishing up the final details of the third installment, The Dead Among Us, which will be available in spring 2014. She lives near Toronto with her husband, two kids and a dog named Watson.
Her website can be found at www.gothicmysterywriter.blogspot.com or you can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TracyWard.Author