Thursday, March 17, 2011

Privileged Girls, Imperfect Lives

Tiny Envelope (3 inches by 1/ 1/2 inches) containing tinier envelope, with Easter Greetings from Hugh Blair to Miss Marion Nicholson, so definitely 1912, or 1913.
I found a 1935 letter from Edith to her mother, that speaks a great deal about the Nicholsons- and what makes them so special as a family. In 1935 Edith is Assistant Warden at McGill's Royal Victoria College. She keeps that job for a long time, as her great niece, born in 1944 recalls visiting her at graduation time and seeing all the graduating women in red robes lined with gold.

Flo in the City is my book in progress about a girl coming of age in 1910 in Canada. It's based on the Nicholson Family Letters of 1908-1913.

The Nicholsons were struggling financially in that era. Indeed, their entire life was a struggle.

Royal Victoria College

November 16, 1 am.

So glad to get your letter and to hear you had such a good trip. We all enjoyed having you for the weekend.

I intended writing you early in the evening, but have had visitors all the time. First the French Mlles (mademoiselles) and then one of the students, an English girl, in her second year.
Came to tell me her troubles.
She had a letter from her mother today to say that she was getting a divorce from Father.

This was not really a surprise, but she had hoped things would be settled between them, poor girl (only 21).
She was terribly upset. She told me the whole story and, of course, there were two sides to the case. And she sees that. She is fond of both parents.

This is a strange world. And when you live in an institution like this, you see and hear many strange and sad things.

I cannot help but think, that the greatest heritage one can have is a happy family life such as ours, one where love and affection were the mainspring.
But having had such a heritage, it makes you feel you have done little or nothing to deserve it. When you see such distress as I saw tonight.

So, you see, in 1935 Canadian couples got divorced. (In 1910, divorces were rare (only a few registered in Canada a year) although there was mention in the Nicholson letters of couples 'breaking up housekeeping'. You had to apply to Parliament for a divorce. The Nicholsons knew of one such person. Of course, some people, like my husband's grandmother on the other side of his family tree, just left one husband for another, without getting any divorce and pretended to be widowed..Imagine, bigamy! But she was a rich woman and the rich have always done what they want.)

BBC recently replayed a story about the new no fault divorce law introduced in late 1960's.. 69, I think, which caused divorces in the UK to quadruple over night, with mostly women applying.

The 'presenter' (as they call it) interviewed a group of women involved in women's advocacy in the 1960's (all divorced themselves) and she also replayed bits from a groundbreaking era documentary about divorce.
Divorce in the days before the new law, we're talking the 50's and 60's, was difficult to come by. Judges just could not grant a divorce unless one partner proved that the other partner was a very bad person. And these judges were also, it seems, very sanctimonious. (I guess they all had "perfect marriages" no mistresses and such ;))

Most mothers applying for divorce would automatically lose her children, so they just didn't apply, until the law changed.

Despite being married to a nice man, I'm not a great fan of the marriage institution, although all of these women activists interviewed for this BBC radio program said they thought marriage was a good thing and many thought divorce a bad thing and one bad-mouthed 'feminists' as per usual.
The presenter suggested that in a world with no birth control, pregnancies forced many into unsuitable marriages, right from the onset.1/4 of all brides were already pregnant in 1960. (I think it was pretty much the same in Edwardian Times and up to double that the century before in the UK at least! Men wanted to make sure their wife was fertile before marrying.)
Anyway, Edith, who never married, was a 'wise woman who lived a life out in the wider world, so she had the opportunity to learn about 'the real world'.

She knew that with divorce, as with any other conflict, there are two sides to the story. So, no one partner is evil and no one partner is a saint.
These college girls coming to Edith for solace would have been from the privileged classes.
And, yet, their lives were not perfect. Imagine that!