Friday, April 24, 2009

FaceBook Manners

Oh boy, I just LMAO at this ...


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Salad days

At the moment, my crazy-busy life means my writing looks suspiciously like a yet-to-be assembled coleslaw - little bits of diced carrot over here, chunks of diced cabbage over there, the unifying mayonnaise dressing a long way off being done. Choppy, choppy, choppy! 

But my time is limited; it's the best I can do. 

Someone pass the salad servers, please!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


My book is set in 1864, about the time the crinoline was nearing its apex as the must have fashion item of the Second Empire. Championed by the French Empress Eugenie, consort of Napoleon III, all the most  fashionable ladies wore them beneath their skirts; but crinolines were also popular amongst working class women, with maids and factory girls wearing smaller versions of the huge hoops worn by their wealthier, upper class counterparts. I find the devotion to this fashion accessory absolutely fascinating - they may have made one's skirts look fabulous (and were quite useful for smuggling pigeons beneath whilst traveling by train, a feat attempted by one intrepid crinoline wearer according to the author of Gossip from Paris) but their width placed their wearers at risk of being set alight by lamps, or being pulled into machinery. And many a maid received a scolding (or worse) when her wide skirts knocked over a precious vase.

It seems I'm not alone in my fascination. The Galliera Museum in Paris is currently holding an exhibition devoted entirely to crinolines - SOUS L'EMPIRE DES CRINOLINES. If like me, your schedule is so full (and your purse so empty!) that you simply cannot attend, then head over to Le Canape instead, where you'll find pictures plus a video (in French)  of the exhibition. Plenty of crinolines, of course, but also many beautiful gowns, gorgeous silk slippers, and decorated fans to swoon over.  


Saturday, April 4, 2009


I'm beat.

I've been going like the clappers all day; correction, I've been going like the clappers for the past two weeks, with hardly a minute to spare between the tasks that currently are my life. 

There are so many things I should be doing right now: writing, responding to a bunch of Forum posts, finishing up a manuscript I'm beta-reading (and I really want to find out how this one ends!), unloading the dishwasher, folding the mountain of washing that glares at me when I dare venture into the laundry. But you know what? I'm not going to do any of those things.

What I am going to do is something I've not done in eons - get into bed at the decadent time of 8.30pm, open up the novel I began last week and read, and read, and read, until I fall asleep.

Ahhh. Bliss.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Female - who'd be one?

Nineteenth century contraception   was recently discussed over on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. It's a fascinating topic, one I've researched in depth in order to convincingly (I hope!) write the main character of my book,  a nineteenth century physician who practices in the slums of Paris and sees the grim reality of the lives of working class mothers and their children. 

In nineteenth century Paris, nothing really worked as far as contraception was concerned, especially not for poor women. Condoms were very expensive (about 50 centimes, more than twice the price of a loaf of bread) and were negatively viewed as the accoutrement of prostitutes.  The rhythm method was not widely known, and many who practiced it incorrectly believed a woman's fertile time was during menstruation. Cervical sponges soaked in lemon juice were a little more effective, but overall the most commonly used method to control fertility was coitus interruptus; which, human beings being only human, was highly unreliable.

For many poor, working class women an unwanted pregnancy was a catastrophe. If a mother was unable to work due to pregnancy or while recovering from childbirth, she inevitably lost her job. This in turn threatened her survival and that of any existing children. And without a sufficient family income, how was an extra mouth to be fed?

Miscarriage  frequently solved this dilemma. Common amongst working class women, miscarriage was caused by malnutrition or by diseases such as syphilis, small pox, typhoid, cholera, measles. Industrial toxins also played a role, with many female factory workers miscarrying from exposure to mercury, phosphorous, antimony or lead.

But for those women who did not miscarry, and for whom yet another pregnancy would push them and their families into grinding poverty, abortion was the terrible yet logical answer. The fact it was a crime did not deter; nor did the bizarre and dangerous methods employed by abortionists. White wine brewed with absinthe and rue was a commonly prescribed but mostly ineffective abortificant. Yew, savin, and ergot were also used, but were of such toxicity that even the slightest overdose would result in the death of the mother. The most common, and most effective, method of abortion was the injection of liquid (usually hot or cold water) into the uterus, sometimes with irritants such as soap. Unsurprisingly, many women who sought the services of an "angel maker" died as a result. 

The sad tale does not end there. The babies of those women for whom abortion was not an option, or for whom the procedure simply did not work, were sent to wet nurses within days of their birth. In fact, there was a thriving business in exporting babies to wet nurses in rural areas outside of Paris, with menuers and midwives acting as intermediaries to place babies with wet nurses -  for a fee, of course. Cartloads of newborns were sent off to the countryside where many subsequently died of malnutrition, disease, or plain old neglect (wet nurses could have as many as half a dozen babies to care for and feed at once.) A report of 1866, cited in "Metro Stop Paris", gives a chilling description of the journey these babies set out on:
  "I have never travelled on the roads of the Perche without being overcome with emotion, seeing these huge meneurs' wagons in which nurses and nurslings returning from Paris are piled in pell-mell like animals returning from market. This revolting vehicle in known aptly as a Purgatory."

Another option for mothers unable to care for their babies was "le tour", a small, revolving door in the wall of the convent of the Daughters of Charity, the order established by Saint Vincent de Paul in the 1600s. Mothers would place their babies in le tour (occasionally with a note that named the child or explained the circumstances of their abandonment, but not often), ring the bell, then leave. This practice went on from the mid-1600s to 1863. 

In an effort to alleviate all this suffering, charitable creches were established in Paris to care for babies and thus enable their mothers to continue to work without giving up their children. Public Assistance was also available but, for a great deal of the nineteenth century, welfare was tied to marital status - only single mothers threatening to abandon their newborns, or threatening suicide, were eligible - and the bureaucratic wheels turned slowly, so it was often weeks before any aid was actually received.

All rather depressing, isn't it?

It makes me marvel at the strength of the women who had so many babies and somehow continued to work for the pittance that was barely enough to keep their families alive. It also makes me grieve for those women and their babies for whom abortion or abandonment was the only option for survival. 

But above all,  it makes me feel profoundly grateful to live in an era in which women - not all women, but many more than ever before- have the ability to decide whether or not to bear children.

If you're at all interested in this topic, I highly recommend POOR & PREGNANT IN PARIS by Rachel Fuchs, and METRO STOP PARIS by Gregor Dallas.