The larger houses themselves had long since been broken up into lodgings, their gardens disappearing beneath a warren of shanties and hovels threaded by a narrow byway half-filled with heaps of ashes and steaming rubbish piles.
And then there were the screams.The screams of the despairing, the mad, the sick and the dying, mingled with the plaintive cries of women being taken by force.
I was discussing the book with a friend of mine who has recently read it and one of the things we both commented on was the fate of women in this era.
Sebastian found himself thinking about two other children, one named Huey, the other Tom. And about their mother, a simple but devout widow, out of work and thrown onto the streets with two children to feed. For her as for untold thousands of women in such a situation, the choices were simple but stark: starvation, theft or prostitution. Tom's mother had chosen theft and earned herself a one-way voyage to Botany Bay. Prostitution might have brought her disease and an early death, but it wasn't a capital crime. Stealing to feed your starving children was.
A woman could scrub clothes until her hands bled, and still she wouldn't be able to earn enough to feed a family of ten.
Which in turn reminded me of the scene in Pride & Prejudice (the movie version) in which Chalotte is explaining to Lizzie why she accepted Mr Collins' hand in marriage:
Not all of us can afford to be romantic. I've been offered a comfortable home, and protection. There's a lot to be thankful for...I'm 27 years old; I've no money, no prospects. I'm already a burden to my parents, and I'm frightened.
It is scary to think, regardless of status, how truly dependent women have been, throughout history, on men...and how limited their options were. Last month I read a historical romance - The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount (Julia London) - and what struck me the most was not the actual romance but the off-screen attempt by two heroes from the earlier books in the trilogy to pass a law in the House of Lords allowing women to work...and the response of other characters to their attempt. (I'm sorry, I would have included a quote for completeness, but all the copies are currently out) at my local library, which I guess is the downside of borrowing not buying your books.)
I know I've barely scratched the surface of the topic, but it has made me think about how far women's rights have come...and how lucky I am to be living in the era that I do and the country that I do...