Thursday, May 2, 2013

Speaking of Illegitimacy...

Does anybody anymore?

One of the the great contrasts for Miles in Up, Back, and Away, between life in 1928 and his life back home in contemporary America is the difference in moral attitudes toward sex.  Of course, whenever this topic comes up these days, it is the evolving (now in some corners fully evolved), attitude toward homosexuality.  But Miles finds himself grappling with the (now) dull, old-fashioned issue of what is still technically known as fornication - that is, sex out of wedlock.  I think it is next to impossible for young people today, at least those who live in mainstream America, to grasp the risk that unmarried women took when they "gave in."  The great terror was of pregnancy.  At least for middle class people, illegitimacy was a shame of Biblical proportions and one that contorted many women's lives into terrible shapes.

 I am a great admirer of the writing of Dorothy L. Sayers' - although (oddly) I haven't really found the mystery story that moves me.  My admiration is chiefly for her book The Mind of the Maker which is (in its quiet, reflective way) a thrilling bit of philosophy. (And believe me when I tell you I am not one who normally reads for anything but fun).

Sayers' personal story, along with the ideas she articulates in M of M,  was very much on my mind as I was writing my own book.  I don't think people today have any sense at all of the absolute crushing scandal that illegitimacy caused in those days, at least for middle-class people.  Dorothy Sayers was the daughter of clergyman and her family was nothing if not respectful.   When she was a young woman in the early 1920s, she became pregnant by her married lover.  She went into seclusion until after the baby was born, with all the secrecy that could be managed.  The baby, John Anthony, was was sent to live with a cousin of Sayers's who ran a foster home.  While Sayers remained part of his life for all of the rest of her life, the truth of his birth was never publicly discussed.  (For a nice blogpost detailing Dorothy Sayers life and career, click here).  In my own family, we found out only after my mother's older sister died a few years ago that she'd had a child out-of-wedlock in the 1950s.  It had never been spoken of, even among family.  My mother had no idea about it it at all, though she was in her 60s when her sister passed, and her parents (my grandparents) had never gotten over it, and really, had never forgiven my aunt.

My poor aunt's hard experience, and Sayers' herculean efforts to hide her relationship to her child, provide just a couple examples of how drastic the change in social mores have been in the last 100 or so years (and which account for attitudes and codes of conduct that baffle Miles).

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