Wednesday 15 October 2014

Childhood in the Past by Marie-Louise Jensen

A few things have made me reflect on the concept of childhood in the last few days, so I thought I'd muse a little here.

I'm aware that childhood in its present form in Western industrialised society is a modern construct. The idea that childhood should be protected, a time for learning and development is recent. And sadly it's not the case for many children world-wide.
In the past, of course, even in Europe, things were very different. Take the age of 15. Thinking specifically of girls, in many eras in the past they would be married or at least thinking of marriage if they were well off. If they were poor they would have been working for years.

When I wrote Daughter of Fire and Ice, my first Viking novel, I discovered that many girls of standing were married off very young indeed. Some were so young, it was considered normal that they took their toys with them to their new home. I found that rather heartbreaking. Although I didn't use that particular information in the book, it helped shape my understanding of how my 15-year-old protagonist would have seen life.

It's especially interesting given that wives of householders in the Viking age were in charge of the store cupboard. They decided how much food could be taken for household use and when and held the key. This was an incredibly responsible job in a world without shops or regular markets - if you misjudged, the whole household could starve before spring; something that does nearly happen in my story.

Wives were also left in charge of the farmstead when the husband was away trading or raiding - sometimes for a season, sometimes for years. What a responsibility for a young wife.

Throughout the ages girls have shouldered responsibilities very young; managing long working hours, providing competent labour, running households, caring for children. In war years, women and girls stepped up and did men's work while they were away fighting. Particularly on the land, girls would often do a full day's heavy work from a very young age.
This is perhaps one of the things that makes teen historical fiction so very different from the other genres. In the past, only the very wealthy would have been able to indulge in the kind of stroppy, sassy, self-indulgent behaviour that is portrayed in some contemporary teen fiction.

When a historical novelist writes about the girl of the same age, the weight of adulthood is already resting firmly on her shoulders in the way that perhaps only child-carers face in contemporary Europe. It's a very different proposition to write about such girls and make it possible for today's teens to relate to their place in the world, their concerns and their ambitions. But so important, I feel, for today's girls to be aware of how much things have changed.


Sue Purkiss said...

A very interesting point - it links rather well with yesterday's post on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure (see link on sidebar) which is about teen fiction for today's teens.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Sue. I've been across and read Anne's piece - very interesting.

Susan Price said...

Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post, Marie-Louise.

Perhaps in some ways, young people in the past, with what we now consider to be adult responsibilities, were happier, more grounded?

I don't meant to glamourise what was often a life 'nasty, brutal and short,' - but they weren't, as modern single mothers and carers are, comparing themselves to peers who lead an easier life. What they had - whether working for a living, or managing a household - was their life, and they just got on with it.

Being landed with such responsbilities must have been challenging and often daunting - but also a source of self-respect and achievement.

Penny Dolan said...

A thoughtful post, and maybe why the past is so attractive to write about.

Times perhaps when, despite so many less-than-good aspects, children and teens had an economic worth in society not just a "consumer" worth?

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I don't know. I don't think I'd want to turn back any clocks. And of course lots of teens do have jobs as well as school and plenty of sense of responsibilty. They just aren't often the ones you often read about perhaps because there's nothing exciting in that. I do firmly believe in childhood being a protected time for learning and developmen and wish it was for more children around the world. But that's not at all the same thing as being indulged. Perhaps teens need to be taken more seriously and the contemptuous dismissing of YA lit is syptomatic of society's disdain for young people. I don't know. This is a bigger subject than I thought it was!

Susan Price said...

I didn't mean that I want to see five year olds working down mines again! Nor would I want a 12 year old to be responsible for the welfare of his entire family, including his parents - as happened to my own grandfather.

But I do think that the capabilities of young people are often underestimated and that many could - with gusto - do much more than is usually allowed today.

Something that makes life so awful for many of today's young carers is, I think, the isolation. In the past, few people had or expected as much privacy as we have. Famiies lived much closer together, viking farmsteads housed small communities, and a lot of village life was communual.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Yes, both your points are true. Teens love a certain amount of responsibility and respond really well to it on the whole. I can't help thinking the excessive drinking culture among the young is exacerbated by lack of responsibilities which can help ground and mature youngsters. And more community could be a really good thing. It can be restrictive but also endlessly supportive.

Ann Turnbull said...

I would imagine - or hope! - that those young brides who were suddenly given the keys and put in charge of everything would have had the help and advice of an older woman servant. As Sue points out, you were not so alone in the past. Privacy may have been harder to find, but at least you had people around to support you.