Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Marriage Then and Now

Richmond Quebec today. In 1910, the place was bustling.

If I didn't have Mrs. Coy, I'd have to invent her. Mrs. Coy is the friend (probably a relation) who lived in Framingham Massachusetts in the 1910 era and who had no daughters, only a sad-sack son and an ailing husband.

I have three letters from her in the period, all rather pathetic, as she is complaining about how hard her life is, cleaning up after these men.

Of course, she is likely venting, so it's a bit unfair to say her life was miserable 24-7,but I'm inclined to believe it was.

Mrs. Coy wants to marry off her son, Chester, - and she'd like it to be a Nicholson girl. "Chester's The Man these days," Marion writes.She thinks Margaret is so lucky to have three daughters to help her around the house. And, no doubt, she is, although the Nicholson Saga, the fodder for Flo in the City, reveals she does not have it easy.

I found a 1911 article in Maclean's about Kill Joys in Marriage. The title is deceptive, as the article is about the 'abusive' husband, the kind of husband who feels that as long as he is supporting his family and 'not hitting his wife', he is being a 'good' husband.

Odd article, since men's magazines learned a long time ago to avoid relationship articles, and articles that scold husbands for their thoughtless ways, well, you'd never see one in Esquire, I imagine. (Television, since the 50's, tended to provide this kind of instruction to men using Ralph Cramden and George Jetson and Archie Bunker as conduits.)

Anyway, the article says nothing new: be kind, attentive and thoughtful to your wife. Empathize with her life (realize the bubbly young girl you married is still inside there somewhere) and take her out places and buy her things.


Norman Nicholson of Tighsolas was broke in 1910 but he did give his wife what he could, kind words.. and in spades. Margaret Nicholson had a good husband - and in return she stroked his ego when times got hard. (I do get the impression that she liked him to be away, it gave her more freedom.)

This particular Maclean's article says nothing about sex (but it was a most prudish time) and it is very easy on the distaff side, as they liked to say back then (only making a passing reference to the bitchy wife) because it was widely believed -at that time- that women were born homemakers and if given a good and happy home any woman would thrive.

There is one paragraph that stands out, at least to me. It discusses how hard it is for women to be confined in a home all day (while the man goes out in the world and has such 'variety' in his life.) True, and hence we have the miserable (at least in her letters) Mrs. Coy.

But in 1910, at least in the towns, middle class women tended to have a thriving social life, as the Nicholson letters at http://www.tighsolas.ca/ reveal. In 1910, Margaret still had 'her day at home.' And if you had no company, you could always go to church, twice or three times a day, if you wanted to, and hear all 'the local news'.

Some things change and some things stay the same. There are some dynamics of marriage that remain constant through time -as the great literature proves.

Sticking two human beings in a room for 20 years and having them depend on each other, will lead to similar behaviors, similar frustrations, in Ovid's Greece or in Neil Simon's New York City. I hate to be single, but traditional marriage tends to kill joy.

The social context does change however. Today, middle class women don't have to rely on their husbands for financial support (to the extent as they did in yesteryear) and as Margaret did in 1910 which led to her great frustration, (although finances are still a major pressure in marriage) but they do have to live together in a confined space and they do rely on each other for emotional support - more than ever.
In today's world, we live almost entirely privatized existences. We have little extended family around us (as in the past) and we hardly know our neighbours. Our social life consists of going to the cinema and sitting in a room with strangers and leaving, or going to a restaurant and kibbitzing with the waitress or sitting on the telephone for 2 hours to fix a mistake in a telephone bill and talking to "Joe" in Bangalore.
For the most part...And in most marriages, from what I see, it's women who have outside interests and friends, if they are older and have the time. Men tend to be reclusive outside of work. So look who is frustrated now.

The new technologies have allowed this to happen. As long as we can pay our bills, as long as we have a job, we don't need anyone else. (So the unemployed today are especially isolated.) But that puts more pressure on the man/woman (or woman/woman or man/man) married relationship than ever.