How the legacy of Victorian times still looms over single mothers

No single mother I’ve known could be called a "shirker" - and yet the discriminatory influence of the 19th century continues.

When I was 12 years old, I was told “You’re the man of the house now. It’s up to you to fix the problems here.” My mam was and is a fascinating creature - a combination of every kind of traditionally “masculine” and “feminine” aspect you can think of: naive; strong; offensive; a sensitive soul; racist; loving; fierce; “spiritual”; belligerent; a carer; Darwinian; disabled; and so much more. It was she who told me “It’s up to you...” 

This might seem like a very strange thing for a mother to say to a 12-year-old boy. However, she had her reasons, and they weren’t necessarily all under her control. The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. And it’s up to us to put them to sleep.

My mam and her mother never saw eye to eye, and she was sent to boarding school at an early age. My mam only had sixteen years to form a sense of self and a moral compass, after that she was a parent. Being pregnant at sixteen meant the mother that sent her to boarding school shunned her whether or not she was married. Soon after, she was a single mother.

Growing up with her in Wales, my mother maintained that everything had to give the impression of being “respectable.” She’d never let us go to school looking shabby; she’d never let friends come over without a week’s warning; she’d never go drinking for fear of being branded a harlot. This last thing she told me once over a new year’s drink, just us, watching the countdown on TV when I was sixteen. Of course, however much she tried, we often went to school looking shabby.

Even at thirteen, I knew my mam’s moral compass was Victorian. I remember thinking the nuns and her mam must have really done a number on her, but now I know, of course, it was far more than that: there is a lack of feminism in the British political and mainstream understanding of women. It’s been here since the Victorian era imposed radical, impossible expectations on women. And that era isn’t so long ago.

Think about your grandparents. Their parents were Victorians. It is so close, there is living memory of it - it’s under our noses and under our skin. No more so than in popular media. I can’t watch the TV show Little Britain without wanting to kick the TV far enough to smack Matt Lucas’s smug face. It demeans each one of the characters it plays on for laughs - play isn’t even the word, it crushes them for laughs. Its depiction of Vicky Pollard, though, grotesque enough for some to see through, subconsciously influences the way we think about single and young mothers.

J K Rowling has written of how she was treated when she was a single mother on benefits. No single mother I’ve known could be called a ‘shirker’. We can talk about the wonders of the 21st century until we’re lying in tech-landfill, but until we’re another century away from the Dickensian era, there will still be mothers ashamed of their pregnant daughters, telling them they’re not “respectable”. I don’t give a flying fig about “respectability” - the very term is a reinforcement of nepotism and plutocracy - and neither should you. Unless, that is, you like being a Dickensian character.

My mam, however, did and still does - the moral code that’s been forced down your throat is not something you remove from your innards lightly. Especially one that causes such an unconscious misogyny on both sides of the gender divide.

Google’s NGram, which tracks word frequency in literature shows the word “respectability” reached its usage height in 1834 - three years before Victoria became Queen, yet its spectre is seen throughout her reign as something which is so intrinsic, so insidious, that it is “..believed to distinguish the middle class of society” when discussed by Thomas Archer in 1870. While its usage is definitely levelling off in 2013 its Victorian spectre remains. It remains in the way people instinctively react to the term ‘single mother’ or ‘family of six’ on benefits’ in the mainstream media. It remained enough to make my mam worried sick, to instill in her an idea that she was instinctively wrong to enjoy sex, and to stunt her growth at the age of sixteen.

The single mother is seen throughout Victorian literature and neo-Victoriana as shunned and suffering. Correspondence on the matter from the time shows this aspect and a desire to help but also shows the flipside that my mam feared: the opinions that women get pregnant to gain financial benefit, to “trap” a man, and because they’re lazy. There are few jobs harder than being a single mum. I repeat: no single mother I’ve ever known could be called a ‘shirker’.

When newspapers brand single mums on benefits ‘shirkers’ they are reinforcing those Victorian opinions. Not only that, they have little to no idea of how their opinions and the social climate their opinions create affect that family. Some might argue that they know exactly what they’re doing - I couldn’t possibly say - to create a social climate of fear and oppression would be Dickensian.

My mam did, as all mothers do, her best. It was more than enough but she still felt that we needed to fix things. In teenage arguments, she’d always say that she was “going to fix things” and that as the man of the house I should be fixing them too.

I’m 28 now, I was still a teenager in the early noughties. In the beginning of the 21st century in a rich Western country, my ma shouldn’t have felt that need to fix things - she shouldn’t have felt ignominy at her situation but she knew how single mums are branded. The spectre of Victorian values haunts all single mothers. Let’s exorcise it.

Ben Gwalchmai is the author of Purefinder, a satirical novel set in Victorian times that explores themes still all too relevant tody. Published by Cosmic Egg Books from 13 December 2013:

The Victorian era imposed impossible expectations on women that are still with us. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Donald Trump's rise is a reaction to Obama's two terms as president

This week, from Barack Obama’s legacy to memories of Angela Carter.

My children can’t believe that I grew up in a racially segregated Alabama, or that I reported on the election of Nelson Mandela in South Africa (for this magazine). One of their earliest memories is of helping a family friend sell coffee and hot chocolate in sub-zero temperatures to the crowds celebrating the inauguration of Bar­ack Obama in Washington in January 2009.

My past is ancient history to them. I strongly recommend that anybody who still feels that way watches In the Good Ol’ Days, the YouTube trailer for a documentary called 13th by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma. It splices physical abuse of black people at Donald Trump’s rallies (and his taunts about how they would have been “carried out on a stretcher” in the past) with documentary footage from the 1960s. It’s chilling.

When Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I went back to my old school in Montgomery to see how attitudes had changed. It was no longer segregated, of course, but it was still predominantly white. A former classmate told me that when he was five, the family handyman got chucked over a bridge and left for dead by the Ku Klux Klan. We never heard these stories in school. Then I met the progressive headmaster, who assured me that everything was non-discriminatory now. But, as I left, I was escorted to my car by the school bursar, who told me he didn’t trust Obama because he was a “Muslim”. The way he said it made it sound like the N-word to me.


Going South

There has been surprisingly little discussion about the extent to which the rise of Trump has been specifically a reaction to Obama’s two-term presidency. Yes, we have heard how Obama’s legitimacy has been questioned by the “birther” movement and we have listened to Trump crow about forcing the first African-American president to produce his papers (or rather his birth certificate). But when even a former grand wizard of the KKK – an absurd title – says that Trump talks “a lot more radically” than he does, it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension to this election.

The two big states that Trump still hopes to swing his way are Pennsylvania – memorably described by the Clinton adviser James Carville as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with “Alabama in between” – and Ohio, where my mother was born. She is from the northern Democratic stronghold of Cleveland; Cincinnati, she used to sniff, was the South. She didn’t mean geographically.


Bill and Hill

There are many good reasons to be wary of Trump but I have never felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton. The governor of Alabama in my day was Lurleen Wallace, who was in office because her notoriously racist husband was ineligible to run for a consecutive term. She didn’t even bother to disguise that she was a proxy candidate and ran as Mrs George C Wallace, while he became known as “the first gentleman of Alabama”.

Admittedly, Hillary Clinton is far more her own woman than Lurleen ever was but Bill Clinton, remember, is a former Southern governor, of Arkansas. Bill and Hill had the idea long ago of a “twofer” run at the White House – and they’ll definitely have known about the Wallaces’ example. Alas, it’s too late to dwell on how much better it would be if the first female president of the United States hadn’t already been its first lady and Bill Clinton hadn’t set his sights on returning as first gentleman. But it’s Trump v Clinton and, thus, no contest.


Granny knew best

Enough about the US elections, hard though it is to tear our eyes away from the car crash. Last week, I went to the launch party at Daunt Books of Edmund Gordon’s wonderful biography of Angela Carter, a literary heroine of mine. I was a young publicist at Virago in the late 1980s when I visited Carter at home in Clapham, south London, where she was living with her much younger husband, Mark, a potter, and their little boy. She looked like a magnificently eccentric granny to me, with her shock of thick, wavy, grey hair. I thought that she was ancient because she’d had a baby at 42 but, as ever, she was just ahead of her time.


Partial eclipse

I’d no idea until I read The Invention of Angela Carter just how many Virago novelists she had nurtured. Pat Barker, for instance, the author of the Regeneration trilogy about the First World War, was one of her protégées. The photographs, though, show Carter with the young men who eventually eclipsed her: Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro. She taught Ishiguro creative writing at the University of East Anglia and introduced him to
her agent, Deborah Rogers. He told me at the party that there were only half a dozen students on the course with him and the university couldn’t be bothered to find enough people to fill the places the following year. Yet it has since become the stuff of legend.


Lost treasure

Carmen Callil, Carter’s great friend and the founder of Virago, was also at the party. She told me that her joy in publishing faded when Carter was offered only £60,000 for her last novel before she died of lung cancer in 1992. By then, the men – Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, et al – were getting far bigger advances of several hundred thousand pounds, even though she was every bit as good as them (or better).

At the end of her life, her thoughts were on money and how her “two boys” – her husband and son – would manage without her. She told her literary executor, Susannah Clapp, to give permission to everything and anyone who wanted to use her work for commercial purposes, however naff or vulgar. Her last book, by the way, was to have been a fictional life of Adèle Varens, the vivacious young ward of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. How I would have loved to read it.

Sarah Baxter is a former political editor of the New Statesman and the deputy editor of the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood