Would you have made it?

sybilSometimes the right book can really get you thinking about a question. In this case, the right book was actually a novella, Danelle Harmon’s The Admiral’s Heart. The premise is that the heroine ends her relationship with the hero when they are both young – without explaining why - because she’s allergic to dogs. He has a beloved dog, and she doesn’t want to force him to choose between them. This got me thinking about not only about the idea of choosing between a pet and a highly allergic person, but also about people with allergies and how they might have fared in a more rural society.

I can’t think of too many historical romances that mention people with allergies. In fact, besides the Harmon heroine, the only one I could come up with was the father of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family, who I am fairly sure died of an allergic reaction to a bee sting (though it’s been a few years, so I’m not 100% sure on that). I don’t know whether people have more allergies now or we just hear about them more. Or perhaps people who had severe allergies were just considered “sickly” and no one knew what was wrong? Either way, it’s not something you read about often.

But it also led me to wonder whether my family would have survived eighteenth (or nineteenth, or even early twentieth) century life. My youngest son is allergic to horses and hay (this, by the way, is a great thing to find out when you are in the middle of nowhere at a family reunion…and your cabin borders a corral). I’m not sure how well he’d have done being raised on a farm. My husband, with his asthmatic childhood that included many trips to the emergency room, would probably not have fared so well. But I suppose the cats he is very allergic to could have all stayed outside. I think I probably would have fared pretty well. I haven’t had any major illnesses, all of my pregnancies were healthy, and I even gave birth without drugs or anesthesia every time. My one pregnancy complication – a child who decided to flip himself around three days before he was born so he was going the wrong way (and if you knew him, you’d see how this is totally the kind of thing he’d do) – was resolved by methods available in the nineteenth century and before: They turned him around.

The fact is, though, that childbirth was dangerous and childhood was dangerous. Just like poor Sybil, women died in childbirth all the time. And I don’t think I even know anyone who has never taken antibiotics. A bout of pneumonia, totally not serious in 1997 when I last had it, could have been life-threatening in 1797. My kids have never had measles or mumps, and the youngest two didn’t even have chicken pox. I don’t think I’ve even met anyone who had polio. If you look at old graveyards, it’s pretty sad to see how many graves belong to children.

Though I admit to occasionally envying our historical romance heroines their beautiful ball gowns, I think on the balance I’ll take modern medicine…and maxi dresses.

– Blythe Barnhill

24 thoughts on “Would you have made it?

  1. Without modern dentistry and orthodontia, my teeth would have been so out of place it’s likely I would not have been able to chew. I wear incredibly strong contact lenses. The future is a great place to live!

  2. My father had polio and was paralyzed for part of his childhood. It is a very different world now and that is in large part due to vaccines and antibiotics. I am grateful for the advantages that we have now, even though it can be hard to see what didn’t happen to us. If you look at U.S. Census records from 1910 and 1920, the Downton Abbey era, you see most adult women had 6-12 children born and half that number of the children were still living.

    And yes to Nana’s comment on glasses. Lasik surgery is wonderful!

  3. I definitely would have been “sickly,” with asthma and rather major allergies. I’m also a two-time cancer survivor. Thanks to medical advances, both of my cancers were found very early, in Stage I. Had this happened hundreds of, or even fifty, years ago, both would have advanced to deadly stages. Despite sometimes complaining about the world today, I’m always grateful for the medical and technological advances we have.

  4. I have a physical condition that means I can’t give birth naturally. Both my children were born by C-Section. What is a routine operation now would have left me one of the many women who died in childbirth in days gone by.

  5. My understanding – and I am no medical expert – is that more kids today have asthma and allergies than ever before. Some scientists blame this on our obsessive cleanliness and not building up our immune systems. I am hardly going to experiment with my child so I say phoey. Also, anyone who has survived public school has had to have some immune system building. Those buildings virtually breathe infection.

    I wouldn’t have made it in the olden days I don’t think. I have asthma and allergies. :-)

    • maggie b.: My understanding – and I am no medical expert – is that more kids today have asthma and allergies than ever before. Some scientists blame this on our obsessive cleanliness and not building up our immune systems.

      And I always have to wonder about the education of those scientists because most doctors and medical professionals would also have to point out that we have better diagnostics now which is why we have more diagnosed diseases and conditions now than we ever did before.

      Sometimes the simplest explanation IS actually the most likely.

  6. I had measles and chicken pox when I was young (but received a mumps vaccine) so if I survived those in the olden days, I think I would have been okay. I hope!

  7. Well…none of us are going to get out of this alive anyway so whether it was 1613, 1713 or 1813 somehow we would have “made it” until we didn’t. In saying that I am most grateful for a shower and the ease of which we can obtain our necessities.

  8. My mother-in-law lost a baby (a twin) at birth who would, if born today, now survive. Back then (mid 1960s) they didn’t have the ability to diagnose and fix the problem but they do in current times. So it’s amazing what a difference even a few decades can make.

    As far as allergies, I could be very, very wrong, but it seems to me that allergies are so much more prevalent today than they ever were. Perhaps it’s that allergies are now identified whereas in the past they were just considered an overall tendency to illness, as Blythe says in her post. Or perhaps those with allergies just died off at an earlier age. But I firmly believe that some aspect of our modern life has caused an increase in allergies. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to adapt to those things that today seem to cause the most problems. Or perhaps we’re exposed to different toxins that incite allergic reactions more often. It just seems too common to be the normal course of things.

  9. I survived measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox. Polio, tetanus and smallpox were the only vaccines I remember getting as a child. However, I did have antibiotic for various infections as I was growing up, including pneumonia. I also have rather severe scoliosis which would have been a problem if not for the back brace I wore for four years growing up.

    Death during childbirth increased dramatically when they started moving women to the hospitals to give birth. At home, there was less cross-infection, but before the germ theory was accepted, doctors would go from treating infectious patients to helping women give birth without washing their hands. In fact, most doctors scoffed at the idea that dirty hands had anything to do with infection and death rates. It’s interesting to read how strongly doctors of the time fought against basic sanitary procedures being put into place. Many women died of “childbed fever” who would have survived in other circumstances. It’s true giving birth was a lot more dangerous in past centuries, but some of the stats are skewed by this move of women out of their homes and into the very unsanitary hospitals of the time.

  10. We had major complications — I would absolutely have died in childbirth. My son might just possibly have survived the birth but would likely have died afterwards.

  11. While I probably would have survived — I am pretty healthy with a good immune system– I am not sure I would want to live without hot water, contact lenses and modern feminine products. Even the awesome ball gowns wouldn’t have made it worth it!

  12. I was pretty healthy as a kid – came through Chicken Pox and Whoping Cough okay… but I’ve suffered from an allergy to dust and animal fur since my mid-20s, and a few years back was diagnosed with adult-onset asthma which landed me in hospital.

    I’m also terribly short-sighted, so would probably have spent most of my life not being able to see very well!

    I had complications with both my pregnancies though, which meant both my daughters were born by C-section and my youngest had to be delivered almost 4 weeks early. But for modern medicine, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the second pregnancy.

    So yeah, while there are times I lament the lack of courtesy/refinement/whatever in modern society, things like this make me glad I’m living now and not 100, 200 years ago.

  13. Modern medicine aside, I never assume I’m the sort of person who’d have been lucky enough to wear those dresses. More likely I’d have been cleaning out chamber pots. ;-)

  14. I had an English prof. in my undergraduate studies that wanted to teach a course on drafty houses in British novels. She introduced this topic by having us observe how often Mr. Woodhouse in Austen’s _Emma_ complains about drafty houses causing mayhem and death. If you read 19th-century novels though, you’ll start noticing how often authors mention something that probably seems so trivial to modern audiences. Fear of colds and infections abound in them.

    • I totally agree! As I sit here typing warm and comfy in my fleece with heat running throughout the house, I am reminded when I read and fantasize about living in the past, I do it in bed burrowed in my comforter. Without the technologies and the resources we take for granted today, I would be too busy adding layers on top of my ball gown…

    • Blackjack1: I had an English prof. in my undergraduate studies that wanted to teach a course on drafty houses in British novels.She introduced this topic by having us observe how often Mr. Woodhouse in Austen’s _Emma_ complains about drafty houses causing mayhem and death.

      I think drafts in houses were often equated with ghosts and spirits as well, weren’t they? Which would make sense.

  15. If you walk around lots of cemeteries (and I have!), you see from the ‘age at death’ that there are two basic eras of human existence: before antibiotics (in the USA, up to the mid-1930s) and after antibiotics (post ~1950).

  16. BTW, I’ve read that less than one of every 200 Victorian era childbirths resulted in the death of the mother. Understand, though, that in the 19th century, women averaged bearing seven (1800) to four (1900) children during their reproductive years. The greatest chance of dying of course came during a woman’s final pregnancy. (!)

    I think romance authors use the ‘first wife died in childbirth’ trope (if I can say that without being thought of as callous) is it brings along a special poignancy that isn’t felt with dying from cancer, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, diphtheria, pneumonia, rheumatic fever, influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera, measles, whooping cough…

    • If I can make a comment without also seeming callous … death in childbirth is what you might call a complications free plot device. Some of the other causes of death you mention can have rather far reaching effects. Small pox for instance would rarely be an isolated case. And most of the others are unlikely to be isolated. Many other people probably died in the same epidemic along with the unwanted (sorry!) wife. If, as an author, you are looking for a relatively hassle-free way to off a character, then child birth is handy. I opted for a wasp sting once. Child birth didn’t occur to me since it didn’t fit the plot at all. But I did look at a lot of the other COD’s suggested. Most of them caused a lot of problems in the plot. (Believe it or not I spent a whole day reading up on small pox before realising the plot disaster potential!) Maybe not so much the case if the death happened some time ago, but I can still see them being more hassle prone. Just my thoughts.

      And yeah – funny about that final pregnancy being the kicker! LOL! Shouldn’t laugh, really. I had two caesareans, so probably wouldn’t have made it:(

  17. I suffer from chronic a-typical migraines. I imagine I wouldn’t have made it in an earlier time because I’d probably be dead from a morphine or other drug overdose. Even as late as the 90s many neurologists threw heavy narcotics like Stadol at migraines (and patients) in the hopes that patients would shut up and go away because treating migraines is not easy and rather frustrating. Imagine treating and/or being a patient in the day when migraines were blamed on being an overly emotional or hysterical woman? Oh wait, that can still happen.

  18. People who lived in the era of gas lamps, hoop skirts and horse drawn carriages didn’t know anything about our modern conveniences and probably thought they lived fairly well. But I’ve lived with good healthcare, electric lights, computers and my all time favorite, in-door plumbing and some how I just can’t imagine living with an out-door privy, running outside to a pump everytime I wanted water or going a whole week without a shower. Even if I were wealthy in the 18th or 19th century, I still would not have decent medical or dental care and as a woman, many professions would be closed to me. I couldn’t vote. If I divorced my husband I’d lose everything, including my children. So, no as a spoiled woman of the 21st century I doubt I could go back and live in the age of corsets and petticoats.

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