Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nella Last's 1950's and Home and Hearth

My Edwardian living room. Nella Last`s War and Peace have a place of honour on a little secretary I recently inherited. I have a few Edwardian pieces, which I will soon tire of, they are so lugubrious. But I had Ikea most of my married life. Mr. Darcy, my hound, decided to pose for me. That`s a framed picture of Marion Nicholson above, the first picture on this blog, the one where she is taking tea in her white dress.
An 1910 tenement room in New York from Technical World Magazine.

I received my pre-ordered copy of Nella Last in the 1950's (edited by Canadian historians Patricia and Robert Malcolmson)and was happy to get it. I've written here how MUCH I have enjoyed Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace. I first heard "Peace" serialized on BBC Radio Four, was blown away, bought the book and then bought War and I have lent the books to everyone I know.

I assumed Nella Last in the 1950's would be weaker than the first two, but I have read the first bit and I am pleasantly surprised. No, there's no war going on, but there is a marriage going on, and, well, it's hard not to identify with Nella, even if she is an (extraordinary!) Edwardian woman and her husband, a very typical Edwardian middle class man. Nella tells how her husband literally got sick one time when she and her sons re-decorated the house while he was away , although they were careful to replace everything as before. But at least she had a home. I guess that's the point. Hmm. My husband hates when I re-decorate. The difference, I consider it my right and I do it without guilt. I'd change the decor every day, if I could. And after 25 years, he's starting to get into it.

Fact is, I know many Boomers whose marriages are like Nella's, so there's something universal in her experience.(And she is so wise.) Nella Last, in this latest volume, is an empty nester, who has devoted her life to her kids and now has to spend the rest of her life in a small house with her ill and brooding husband (when in other circumstances, say, had she been born among the Bloomsbury set, she very likely would have become a famous writer, a famous writer earlier, while alive, that is.)

Nella, who was born in the North of England, 1889, (just five years before my own grandmother, who was born in Teesdale, County Durham and just 3 years before Flora Nicholson of Flo in the City, my novel in progress based on the letters of describes family life in the country in her childhood as being very difficult: "There was poverty, wife-beating, misery, drunkeness, lads running off to sea, more sickness."

No doubt, there was the same in Richmond, Quebec in the 1890`s. But not in Tighsolas. Norman and Margaret were happily married, devoted to their family, and well off - for a while.

And in the cities in North America life was very hard for many. New York had well-known housing issues. The picture above is from the 1910 Technical World. It is of a 'windowless room' There are over 100,000 dwellings with no light or airflow in New York in that era.

Well, Montreal had by-laws against such rooms, but I found a 1908 Gazette article that said NEW housing for the working class was being built, where bedrooms had no windows and, consequently, no light or fresh air.

The blurb from the pamphlet of the child welfare exhibit in 1912 had this bit in it: The exhibit on housing shows photographs of some of the bad spots in Montreal. As one of the pictures was being taken, the woman who lived in the house, remarked "every spring when the thaw begins our rooms are flooded with several inches of water. How are people, who are forced through poverty to live in places of this sort, bring up healthy children?" One of the worst features of Montreal housing is the inner court and the rear tenement. One lot is often occupied by two houses, the one at the rear being approached through a dark alley. There is little light and less air in those places. They are breeding spots for tuberculosis. Places like this sort also furnish a large proportion of juvenile delinquents. Poverty, lack of privacy in the home, lack of a place for children to play, these are all causes for misery and delinquency..

A few days ago, on Thanksgiving the local CTV news ran a story about the Old Brewery Mission, claiming (I think I recall correctly) that there are 12,000 homeless people in Montreal. Can it be? The Mission regularly feeds homeless men. I know there are many soup kitchens in Montreal, but they do not only feed homeless people. People on social assistance or people on low incomes, part time etc, also must eat there. The welfare cheque hardly pays the rent. And with the cost of food SKYROCKETING in Montreal lately, it must only be getting worse.

I found another article in the 1908 Gazette that said Dr. Louis Laberge wanted the homeless missions of that era closed, for sanitation purposes. One of the owners of these establishments, who charged 10 cents to those who could afford it, said there were 500 homeless men in Montreal, with 350 of them too poor to pay the 10 cents a night for shelter. (I'm not sure if they got food too.)