On Sexuality in 1884


(A waymarker commemorating Canada’s first birth control clinic, circa 1931. The sign can be found in the City of Hamilton. The photograph is courtesy Waymarking.com)

Most reviews are useful. Even the uncomplimentary ones. Consider the tale of these two reviews of my latest novel, The Young City

On the web site KidsWWwrite, Koryn (age 11) writes:

I really liked the first two books, The Unwritten Girl and Fathom Five, because of the enjoyable fantasy-science fiction setting and the friendship that eventually goes romantic. Both are beautifully woven tales of drama and fantasy that are well written, and great books for girls who like to read. But, I DID NOT like the third book, because it did not encourage healthy lifestyle choices. The romance in this book was almost disgusting and the situations in which they find themselves in 1884 were uncomfortable to read about. I was quite disappointed with The Young City because I really liked The Unwritten Girl and Fathom Five.

Intriguing. As Dundurn publicist Erin Winzer noted when she pointed me to this review, “I think the assessment of The Young City was too harsh, but perhaps that is because the reviewer is 11.” That was my fear. If you remember, The Unwritten Girl was written with twelve-year-old protagonists while Fathom Five aged them to fifteen, and The Young City to eighteen. You are a very different person at eighteen than you are at twelve, and I did have some fear that incorporating that into a series might leave behind a young reader who read all three books at once.

But now compare the above review with this two-star review by teen librarian Miss Cellaneous over at GoodReads:

What teens, in a world of their own where everyone thinks they are married, wouldn’t be going at it like rabbits? Hormones, hello.

I think that I can be confident that I did the right thing playing things down the middle so well that Koryn is forced to say “Peter and Rosemary are sharing an apartment together, sleeping in the same bed?! Ewww! Gross!” while Miss Cellaneous is forced to say “Peter and Rosemary are sleeping in the same bed, but they don’t end up doing it?! How unrealistic is that?”

I don’t know Miss Cellaneous from Adam. Her profile lists her as a “teen librarian” in the Greater Toronto Area. The way she writes her review suggests someone fairly young — certainly one in touch with her teen self. But I wonder if she really thought through her assessment of Peter and Rosemary’s actions in The Young City, as they are forced to pose as a married couple, and share a one-room, one-bed apartment for a period of about four months… in 1884.

I did a fair amount of research into the history of the period when writing The Young City, and while I tried not to belabour the reader with it (the Turkey City Lexicon calls such acts “I Suffered For My Art, and Now it’s Your Turn”), a number of themes came up again and again which contributed to the story’s plotline. The big one, of course, is the fact that Faith Watson is studying to be a medical doctor about six years after Miss Stowe and Miss Trout broke several barriers (some of them physical) in doing the same. The considerable adjustment that Rosemary is forced to make to her ambitions as a woman facing life in 1884 is at the core of this novel, I think. There is much about the growth of Toronto and the impact it had on the area’s ecology. And then there was the sex.

I couldn’t speak too explicitly about it because The Young City is supposed to be a young adult novel and there are some boundary issues, here. But I would counter Miss Cellaneous’ comment by asking her, if she were Rosemary and her boyfriend was Peter, and she were sent back in time to face a similar situation, would you really be “going at it like rabbits” considering your access to birth control is virtually nil? That changes the situation somewhat, doesn’t it? Rosemary and Peter are sensible individuals, and while they are very much in love, and (as stated in the book) giving some thought about taking their relationship further, the fact that such an act could now have far more serious consequences would certainly weigh on their minds, I think.

I gave some serious thought about addressing this issue as I wrote the book. I wondered whether I should put Rosemary on the pill, and have her contemplate her dwindling supply and what that meant. Erin suggested that Rosemary might get help from Faith who is, after all, a medical student. But it is quite possible that just disseminating medical information about birth control would have risked jail time for Faith (and certainly expulsion from the Toronto medical school) had she been caught. Certainly, an 1892 statute declared birth control itself to be “obscene” with advocacy thereof punishable by a 2-year jail sentence. Remember, Canada was quite a conservative country at this time, and Toronto was Presbyterian Central. Chemical birth control was not legalized in Canada until 1969 (the pill was prescribed by doctors in order to (ahem) “regulate the menstrual cycle”, nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and it certainly hadn’t been invented by 1884. Latex condoms were available by the 1840s, but were definitely sold “under the table” if at all.

I could have gone somewhere with this story element, perhaps. Though Faith might have been shocked by Rosemary’s request to find her a supply of birth control, Faith would care passionately enough about the issue to try and circumvent the law, and from there all manner of potential drama arises. But that quickly overshadows the story that I wanted to tell within The Young City, and so I decided not to pursue this intriguing thread. I might come back to it, however. Faith is a character that still interests me and who, I believe, deserves her own book, but that’s not for now, I think. Maybe in the future.

However, I believe that this understanding remains in the book, and that tempered Rosemary and Peter’s actions towards each other, however harried their hormones might have been. So, I believe that Peter and Rosemary acted pretty responsibly. Not encouraging healthy lifestyle choices? I suppose finding yourself and your loved one back in 1884 and deciding to pose as a married couple in order to stay together and avoid the mean streets of Toronto, living celibately in a one-room, one-bed apartment until the moment you decide to marry each other, having lost all hope of returning home, might be somewhat unhealthy. After all, those hormones have got to go somewhere. Keeping them tamped down can be stressful.

Though probably not nearly as stressful to informed teenagers as the prospect of being young, pregnant and pretty much alone in 1884. Take your pick.

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