Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Push-Pull of Biology and Ambition

Left: The young men of Eastern Townships, Quebec, circa 1908.

I am writing a book, Flo in the City, based on the real life letters of Flora Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, posted at

The novel will cover the years 1908, when Flora was a naive, over-protected schoolgirl of 15, who froze at examination time, living in a posh neighborhood of a quiet town, to 1913, when she was a teacher, with diploma, working in a city slum with some of the most deprived children in the entire Western World - all about to live through a Great War.

These five years were particularly pivotal when put in historical perspective.

Henry Ford perfected the manufacturing of his Model-T between 1908 and 1913 and D. W. Griffith created his many many silent film shorts in those years.

The automobile and the motion picture show, among other era innovations, changed the way people lived, big time.

(Coincidentally, Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, by a Boston Publisher.

The iconic novel has since spawned an entire industry and become a key focus of tourism in Canada.

Last September I took my first trip to PEI, or Prince Edward island. I bought an Anne Shirley doll at the Welcome Centre of that picturesque province, and it now sits on my mantle between the two art nouveau vases I inherited from my mother's family.

These are portrait vases of pretty girls in the Rembrandt style, gold on black with a greenish tinge, so the lovely little souvenir doll, dressed in green with a cap of glistening golden-red hair, fits in quite nicely.)

As it happens, we are experiencing something similar, right now, although, this time, the changes are happening so fast it is quite possible that we are morphing into a completely different animal.

Not that some things about us will stay the same. That's why it is so important to consult history when making assessments of 'the present',

Take dating, or 'courtship' - as scholars might call it. (Not a classic 'history' topic, but why not?) From what I can see, not much has changed about the way young people 'feel' about 'the art of love' since 1910.

Marion sounds like a typical young woman in her 1907 diary as she experiences the perplexing push-pull of biology and ambition.

Flora, too, is similarly ambivalent about her desires for the future. At least, this is what I am trying to convey in my opening chapter Just a Change of Colour, which I started to compose in the previous blog, Do I Dare Eat A Peach?

Flora can't get the phrase "Just a Change of Colour" out of her mind. Why? Because it relates to marriage and love, the biological imperative. And even ambitious 'new women' of the 1910 era like Marion and Flora, have sex on the brain.

Flora has more pressing issues to attend to. Indeed, her future career may be hanging in the balance - for she is failing at school, but, alas, Mother Nature cannot be denied.

Why do novels like Pride and Prejudice and Anne of Green Gables endure in the hearts of women while other once popular works fade to black in the collective unconscious? Because they deal with this very dilemma.

One remark I'd like to make about the Nicholsons and dating. From movies and such we are all aware that young women of that era from good families couldn't consort with men except under the watchful eye of a chaperone.

Well, this doesn't appear to be the rule with the Nicholsons, even though they came from a very respectable middle class family.

From pictures I have in the Tighsolas 1900 photo album, the girls were afforded quite a lot of freedom when dating. Richmond was such a close knit community, it is unlikely young people could get away with much, even if unchaperoned.

Still, it seems to me, if a young man had 'serious' designs on a young woman, he showed it by walking her to church. I guess, in this way, her entire family, the entire community, could see what was happening.

The photo above is one of many 'goofy' ones featuring young men.