Perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learn while reading about the past is the simple fact that we tend to look at the past with our own eyes and our own thoughts on how we ourselves would react under similar circumstances.
Gracie commented that she felt it would have been difficult to be a wet nurse for instance...surely your mothering instincts would come to the fore and you'd not want to part with a child you'd fed from your own breast.
But Gracie was looking at it from her point of view, as do we all...she would find parting with a baby with whom she'd built a close bond incredibly hard...but I doubt a professional wet nurse would have seen her charges in the same way. They were there for her to earn money so she could pay her rent and put food on the table for her own babies.
Empathy and sympathy are essential traits for a human to have...being able to put yourself in another's shoes and to view the world through their eyes lift us above the world of the psychopathic personality who is devoid of such emotions.
But...a couple of hundred years or so ago the times were different and the way people led their lives were different...their social attitudes were not the ones we have today. They allowed and encouraged small children to work long hours in sweatshops producing everything from clothing to ropes in conditions which would horrify us...now we just let the small children in foreign countries produce our goods under the same set of conditions we once condemned...the only difference being they don't live in our street nowadays.
The Victorians saw no harm in shoving small boys up chimneys and neither did they see any harm in child pornography...it wasn't called that then...it was considered artistic to take photographs of naked boys and girls in provocative poses and then sell the photos in gentlemen's clubs and on street corners.
It is we who look back on the photographs taken by Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, with tight-lipped horror at the semi-naked pictures he took of Alice.
Lesbians simply didn't exist...it was Queen Victoria who refused to envisage two women falling in love and wanting to be together so women did...and referred to each other as 'wife' and there was no stigma attached to their relationship whatsoever.
What do we do now? We have to have support groups and go on marches and campaign and wear t-shirts supporting our gay friends and protest and make a fuss so that our lesbian sisters have the perfect right to be acknowledged.
It was also Gracie who was astounded when I wrote about the boys enlisting in the First World War as suffering from malnutrition...surely working on farms meant they were well fed and nourished.
It didn't. Farm workers were very low paid...their homes were cottages tied to the job they were doing, so if they lost their job they lost their home and remember that families were very much bigger then than nowadays...ten children was virtually the norm. And all those mouths needed to be fed on basic foodstuffs...bread, potatoes and ham from the pig washed down with weak ale or black tea.
The penalties for poaching were severe...even if it was only a couple of rabbits caught with snares you could find yourself in prison and your family out of their home with nowhere to go.
I rather think we have our view of life as a farm worker heavily coloured by the bucolic paintings of the day...chickens pecking grain while a happy milkmaid strolls across a yard filled with fat geese and a friendly looking horse peers over his stable door. The reality was of cold muddy fields picking up potatoes and hoeing sugar beets by hand for hour upon hour in the blazing sun...yard work of shifting tons of muck from stables to fields or the farmers garden and the sheer hard labour of rebuilding stone walls and handling truculent pigs and cattle.
The farmers were not being deliberately cruel nor were they conscious of being unkind or unforgiving to their workers...it was how it was then. Your labourers worked the land...they lived in tiny squalid cottages on a pittance of a wage because at the turn of the century on the eve of the First War that was how it was.
You remember I wrote sometimes of my friend Felicity who lived in the Big House? When she was a young woman and first married, her tenants were not allowed to hang out their washing on a Sunday. They certainly never set foot on the main drive up to the house...there is another driveway which went to the kitchen window...that was the way they went. And their wages were handed out to them via a hatch in the window...so they'd line up on a Friday night...in order...the groom and team-man first...right down to the under gardeners boy who was the very last to be given his money.
When Felicity was an old lady she had a chap called Willie who still did odd jobs about the place. Now Willie knew his place...he'd sit in the kitchen with a mug of tea but would never ever have joined Felicity in her little sitting room...she told me once that she so wished he would...it's not because I haven't asked him to, because I have on countless occasions she told me...Felicity had grown lonely in her old age and wished for company from an equally old man she'd known all her life...but the divide between the 'ruling class' and the worker was too much for Willie to breach.
It would be easy enough to perhaps mock Felicity a little and tell her she ought to have been kinder to her tenants all those years ago...it would be very easy indeed to criticise the Victorians for handing out packages of photos of naked children...and it's certainly easy to hold our hands up in horror at Victorian sweatshops employing little children to work all the hours god sends to make goods they couldn't afford to buy themselves.
We think those stout well fed farmers really ought to have treated their workers more kindly and we are alarmed by which say young men enlisting were mal nourished...
Now have a think about child pornography nowadays...freely available for anyone willing to find it on the net...no longer confined to a select few who could afford to buy the images, apparently even savvy children can access photos of children having sex with animals and adults.
Young men were mal-nourished back in 1914...how many young men of today would be totally free of illicit drugs should enlistment happen again...
Sweatshops employing children? Not where you live perhaps, but how do you think your cell phone was so cheap to buy or that new frock you bought for a party...produced in a sweat shop in some far off country you'd be hard put to pin point on a map.
Times are different...aren't they?