Sunday, November 22, 2009

Love and Marriage Victorian style.


Left. Young Flo, circa 1905, and a friend, with the expansive Eastern Townships landscape behind her. With its rolling hills, the ET is gorgeous. Pretty sure, I have the top she is wearing somewhere. I found it at the bottom of the Nicholson trunk, a coarse wool green yellow tartan. It was so tiny and short, I wondered if it were Regency Period. I took some pictures and sent to an expert. It was 1904 style, she said. (And it was machine sewn, of course.) I put it away, it smelled. Now I have to find it.

I didn't write any Flo in the City yesterday. It was Saturday. Made a beef stew in a slow cooker and vacuumed with my Super Duper Dyson as I have to do - at least every second day - because of all my cats and dogs. I swear, I pick up two handfuls of animal fur each sweep, and that's just from the upstair's carpet.

In the evening, my husband and I and a mutual friend went to see the movie Pirate Radio. The Megaplex was crammed with young people lining up for Twilight. which was playing in four theatres.

No fears of catching H1n1 in suburban Montreal.

Pirate Radio was a good movie, but suffered terribly for not starring any handsome actors. Well, except for a very young kid - and that doesn't count.

Richard Curtis (Love Actually) is famous for putting ordinary-looking people in his films, but this being a story 'about a bunch of ugly men on an ugly boat' (60's disk jockies) he really over did it.

And of course the movie was filled with stunning young actresses, Gemma Arterton, for one, all in peripheral roles. Their revved up sixties dress styles were the only eye-catching element in the film. (Arterton, with that twinkle in her eye, can play Edith in the film version of Flo in the City ;)

So a good - but very sexist film (with the excuse that it was about a sexist time and sexist industry). Curtis films usually have a icky element. Love Actually had a 'fantasy' for every gender, inclination,and age group, but my son tells me that a 'survey' of his dorm at college revealed that the Colin Firth part was the favorite.

Anyway , without a beautiful male actor to hinge my eyes onto during the boring bits my mind wondered a bit. Bill Nighy was wonderful, by the way -he gives a droll subversive performance- and the best looking older guy in the film. See what I mean?

And all these radiant young women sleeping with these homely guys. I worked in radio: This did not happen. (Although it was a terribly sexist place to work: I could tell you stories...) To give Curtis credit, without the gorgeous groupies, the ending falls apart. And his attitude toward sex is refreshingly open and unjudgmental.

O.K. What's this got to do with Flo in the City? Plenty. The story all about the mating game -the REAL mating game, and how it mixes in with the Bigger political Picture.

As I wrote in my last post, the older Nicholson women had lots of beaus. There are many pictures of Edith and Flo 'fooling around' with their boyfriends in the Tighsolas photo album.

But finding someone to marry was an entirely other issue - as you will see as Flo and the City unfolds.

Middle class men, in those days, married fairly old. They had to make something of themselves before they were able to keep a wife, as they say.

Margaret, the mom, born 1854, only married at 29 years of age! She had worked as a telegraph operator in the Eastern Townships.

Her autograph book contains a poem from 1874 that I have posted on Tighsolas:

May your cheeks retain their roses,
May your heart beat just as gay,
Til some manly voice shall whisper,
Maggie, dear, name the day.

But Norman has another poem in his diary which tells the other side of the story:

When the courting at midnight has ended,
And he stands with his hat in his fist,
While she lovingly lingers beside her,
To bid him 'ta ta' and be kissed,
How busy the thoughts of the future
You bet you his thoughts he don't speak
He's wondering how they manage
To live on six dollars a week.

In the 1860s, farms in the Eastern Townships weren't very productive. So only one son could inherit the farm (in this case Norman's brother Gilbert) and other sons had to find other careers. Norman was 'educated' in that he finished high school. (It cost money to go to high school then.)

He wandered the ET doing odd jobs in the 1870's, selling turkeys, collecting debts for doctors, and then got into the hemlock bark industry.

Hemlock bark was used in the tanning business so harvesting that commodity was a major industry of the Eastern Townships. The good railway system allowed the bark to be shipped easily to tanneries in Montreal and New England.

Only then, in 1883, did Norman marry, as he was doing very well. ( I have his account books.) He kept detailed records of his household expenses, too: Upon getting married he spent 83 dollars on furniture, 5 dollars on a ring and 10 cents for a frying pan.

Unfortunately, by 1900, the hemlock bark industry fell through and so began the financial downfall of the Nicholsons.

In 1907, the Nicholsons were disinherited by a rich spinster aunt. And the stock market crashed. These events very seriously diminished the marriage prospects of the Nicholson women.

So, in that year Norman petitioned his friend and MP. E. W. Tobin for a job on the Transcontinental Railway. He was 57.

He got the job, but only after the Quebec Bridge collapsed and the government likely put on more inspectors. As I ended my my First Draft of the First Chapter of Flo in the City (Do I Dare Eat A Peach blog) Margaret is preparing to visit Norman at 'end of steel' in La Tuque.

She is likely very worried and wants to see for herself that Norman is not in any danger. Railway jobs, at the time, were notoriously unsafe. And if 'the world's biggest bridge' could collapse, well, what could you trust?

Margaret was a devoted wife who supported her husband through thick and thin. (Her only lament in hard times, was that she couldn't earn her own living. That's why she wanted her daughters to be educated.)

Yet, one day she let this slip to a grandchild: If she had known how hairy Norman was under his clothes, she would never have married him.