History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

10 October 2007

A Reason for My Obsession!

Note: Names have been abbreviated to protect the relatives.

A few weeks ago, Kathrynn posted a blog about uppity women. Most of you probably know that my favorite topic of research is scandalous women, so I eagerly read her post. Personally, I'm a huge fan of heroines who act "out of character" for their times, as long as the responses of people around them are realistic. But there are many others-- maybe even most of you-- who don’t feel that way. Some people believe that women of the past wouldn’t have even thought of behaving outside the norm, especially before marriage. The dangers of indiscretion were just too great to risk. They were raised differently than we were. There was even the intimation that only under a set of extraordinary, very specific circumstances would a woman have risked scandal.

Something about this really bothered me. I wasn’t sure why. I actually laid in bed the night after Kathrynn’s post, trying to figure out why I was ALWAYS bothered by these sorts of assertions. I’m not an expert in historical women, and I’ll never claim to be, I promise. But even if I were, what do we really know about their personal lives? We know about the public scandals, but how many of our private passions are laid out for the world to see? If there are things we shouldn’t be doing, we usually keep them quiet. There are diaries and contemporary letters, to be sure, but I’ve never set my deepest secrets down in writing, I can assure you. And a diary? Well, that would have to be made public by a family member, if it survived longer than the author. So, again, what do we truly know about these women as private individuals?

Tossing and turning that night, I started thinking about my grandmothers’ lives. Both of my grandmothers were raised in the same tiny midwestern town of about 2000 people, a conservative farming town to say the least. They were both raised by respectable, stable families during the same generation, and they both lived "in town" as opposed to on the farm. Society expected the same thing from them, and each person in that town was raised with the kind of scrutiny that every small community brings.

And these two women couldn't have turned out more different.

From what I can tell, Grandma L did what was expected of her. After volunteering in the war effort, she married my grandfather and moved into a sweet little house to settle into being a wife. She taught Sunday school and volunteered at the church. She was quiet and respectable and her garden always looked beautiful.

My Grandma W, on the other hand... She wasn’t the least bit interested in doing what was expected of her. She didn’t want kids or a husband, and she managed to hold out until she was nearly thirty before she married. There is talk of bootlegging and big bands. I’ve got pictures of her from a photo booth at the county fair, and in each of the three sets of photo, she’s with a different young man, laughing and grinning. She worked in a clothing store to support herself and spent her weekends making the rounds of speak-easies. And when she finally did marry... Well, I have a picture of her on her honeymoon, camping in the woods. She’s wearing nothing but long-johns. And the back flap is open.

Ironically, Grandma W (later to be referred to by my friends as The Naked Grandma, but I won’t go into that here) had five children and Grandma L had only one. Actually Grandma W not only had five kids, but when her husband died, she married a widower with four children. She settled down into being a wife and mother, though she may have been more outspoken and ornery than most. She always wore lipstick and earrings before she went out in public. She even went to church sometimes. But before she died this year she made quite clear that she was not to have a church funeral because she didn’t want "those old biddies" talking about her in the church kitchen. Her services were held at the funeral home instead, and when the reverend (NOT the one my grandma liked) invited family and friends to stand up and say a word about her, he added, "I understand that she was quite a colorful character, so I’ll ask you to keep your stories respectable and dignified." No one stood up. Not one of us. We just rolled our eyes at the ridiculousness of the man and saved our stories to be told over drinks that night, just as she would’ve liked.

Was she ostracized by the community? Rejected by suitors? Hardly. And if she had been... Well, that just wasn’t the most important thing in the world to her. She wanted to be free, and she was for a time, regardless of what society expected.

Guess which grandma I was fascinated by? Guess who’s story I’d want to read? Perhaps she’s the one who started my fascination with rebellious, slightly scandalous women. Because if I’d grown up in the twenties and thirties, I’d have wanted to be her, working in a men’s clothing store and going to speak-easies out on dark country roads with whichever beau I liked best that month.

A hundred years from now, will anyone know these things about her? She didn’t keep a diary, and I’ve never heard anything about scandalous letters. There is just a record of a marriage that came late in life and perhaps a census entry describing her as a store clerk. The biography handed out at her funeral doesn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary. But she wasn’t ordinary, not at all, and that’s the thing I loved best about her, just as it’s the thing I love best about the heroines I write about now.

Later this month, I’m going to address the myth of the perfect Victorian lady. I’ll even use research! But I wanted to post this first, to give you some insight into my fascination with the idea that no matter what the year or place, women have secrets and dreams and desires. They have needs that don’t fit within the strictures of their worlds. Environment doesn’t stamp us into little automatons, no matter how much some societies would like that to be true.

Btw, my Grandma W died at 92 this year. She was married almost fifty years to her second husband, the man I called Grandpa. And he was a great hero: strong and silent, upstanding and hard-working... and deeply in love with "Mama," as he called her despite the fact that they had no children together. It was an unlikely love story, and isn’t that the best kind? It still makes me happy to think of them sitting in their easy chairs, holding hands and watching TV together.

So do you have any scandalous women in your family tree? Anyone who inspired you to think beyond the expected?


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I don't have any scandalous women per se, although I write about them. My mother however, managed to raise 3 kids after her first husband left, while working two jobs until she finally met my dad, got married again and had me. She was also a man's woman, smoked constantly, liked a good gin martini, and once grabbed Telly Savalas out in the street and planted a kiss on him. She was kind of nutty and outrageous, and used to embarrass me utterly when I was a kid. But she always encouraged me to have dreams and to not settle. She believed in me more than anyone.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Thank you so much for sharing, Elizabeth!!! What a great story!

My mom was also on her own... left with five kids in a time when divorce wasn't common.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Oh, I've got some scandalous women in my family ... I love them, too, which is why I'm having so much fun with my ROYAL AFFAIRS wip.

My favorite is my great-auntie Deb, a nice Jewish girl from Harlem, who died her hair fire-engine red at the age of 15 and ran away from home to become a flapper and Ziegfeld Follies girl. She performed with Mae West in "Diamond Lil" and married a boozing Irishman who was a vaudeville headliner, and when their performing careers began to tank, they opened a tap-dancing school in the Bronx.

Deb loved her spirits, too -- in her New York accent she would ask my father for "Boy-bun" when she came to visit and he offered her a drink.

Aunt Debby was part of the inspiration for the character of "Gram" in my contemporary novel TEMPORARY INSANITY, a nonagenarian former showgirl.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Sarah, my sainted great-grandmother on my mother's side, had to raise 4 kids on her own. One day (probably during the early 19-teens) her husband went out for the proverbial quart of milk or pack of cigarettes and never returned.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post, Vicki. It's not that I dislike books with heroines who behave out of the norm, it's that I dislike books with heroines who behave like MODERN women, or who make choices that make no sense in the context of their lives. Plenty of women, in all eras, behave/d outside the "norm".

My maternal grandmother is a great example IMO. She divorced her first husband after less than 6 months of marriage (boy would I LOVE to get the details of that, but she won't give them up), then she packed all her worldly goods and moved from Little Rock to Santa Barbara! There she met my grandfather and married him two weeks later (grandpa said he KNEW she was the one the second he saw her; grandma says it took her a bit longer *grin*). They were married 50+ years (right up till grandpa died, four years ago).

Grandma is still going strong in her 80s. She's clearly the family member I take after most . . .

12:55 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

What great stories!!! Kalen, you have got to get your grandma drunk or something. I can't believe she won't spill the story!

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, as far as women outside the norm. You all seem pretty odd. heehee

1:15 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I didn't even know that gramps was hubby #2 until a few years ago. LOL! Whenever I ask she just says hubby #1 was a louse and I don't want to hear such boring and old stuff.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Great stories, inspiring. My maternal grandmother's name was Mawmaw Bill. I never thought it was strange until my husband pointed it out. She too, spent years bootlegging and playing the piano in honkey tonks, until she got religion and turned into a gospel singer.

My paternal grandmother lived a grand life---she had servants and the photos I have her show her always dressed in pinafores with big white bows in her hair. She took me to the ballet and to garden parties, and taught me to paint. She grew up in what I'd call the ton at the turn of the century.

Needless to say, Mawmaw B and Grandma D didn't get along. ;-)

Oh, if could have been a fly on the wall when they had their "discussions."

4:03 PM  
Blogger Georgie Lee said...

I have a few scandalous women in my family. They range from a 1960s burlesque aunt to a great-grandmother making bathtub gin. I think historians tend to view the past with too logical an eye. They decide that there were rules and everyone must have followed them or suffered the consequence. However, life is never that simple and because life is unexpected we all have women in our families who didn't follow the rules.

5:53 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

These are great stories, ladies!My maternal grandmother (full-blooded Creek Indian)raised nine kids on her own despite the fact that she had a mean drunk full-blooded Cherokee husband. He had a white woman on the other side of the tracks. He only came home when he needed money. Every time he left she was broke and pregnant. After my uncle was born (last of nine) he came home one night and started to beat one of my older uncles. He had not done that before, and there is a reason. Less than a week after having a baby she grabbed a shovel and beat my grandfather in the head with it. Beat him out onto the porch, beat him backwards off the porch and told him if he ever came back she would kill him. He believed her. Caused quite a scandal in a very tiny Alabama town. The sheriff called it "damned Indian trouble" and refused to arrest my grandmother in spite of my grandfather's white girlfriend demanding it. My grandmother raised a terrific family of kids. She passed away twenty years ago and her funeral was packed. The whole town came. She worked in the high school cafeteria because that was one of the few jobs and non-white woman could get in the 40s. She was an amazing woman.huqjde

7:33 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

All these stories are SO GREAT! This was so much fun!

Thanks for reading about my Grandma. It meant a lot to me to be able to tell a little of her story.

7:43 PM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Actually, I do have a, well not "scandalous" exactly, but a very unusual grandmother. Thanks to this blog, I've got a new
idea for a story.

10:16 AM  

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