Here in Ontario we have a rather ironic statutory holiday: Family Day. Ironic because this long weekend is very nearly the only acknowledgement of family we have in public life. No longer is a stable home life with a Father as the head of his household, and Mother at the heart of her family the norm. Instead we have a society of broken homes and blended families of every configuration with little stability or permanence.
We have the idea that marriage is desired only by women, and that men are either coerced into it, or trapped within it. Marriage is ‘an institution’ and who wants to be committed to an institution? Wives are ‘the old ball and chain’ holding a man back, weighing him down. At the same time we have the very serious problem of young men refusing to grow up, remaining in an adolescent state while mom continues to cook and clean for her 25 year old boy. Combined with modern women being quite free and easy with their favours, where is the inducement for a man to set up house and start his own family?
This wasn’t always the case as I was recently reminded while watching a series called “At home with the Georgians” (on TVO). This program illustrates Georgian life based on the personal accounts of several men and women in their journals, diaries, and letters.
One episode addressed the man’s place in a Georgian home, making the point that for a man in the 18th century, marriage was not something he ran from, but was instead his ideal state. His happiness was dependent on domestic felicity – a house, a wife, a family. Georgian men were very aware of how much they stood to gain – emotionally and socially – from marrying and setting up a home. As the narrator pointed out, “It is only upon matrimony that a man emerges from his chrysalis and becomes what society expects him to be, with his maturity is in full bloom.”
Men appreciated the unique contribution of a woman to the quality and comfort of his life, while women respected – and needed – the care and provision of a man. Married life was a collaborative effort of the two. This is illustrated with two stories: one of a man who struggled with wine and women. An inventory of his possessions after his death showed a lot of solid, old fashioned items like pewter mugs. There were no finer accessories like porcelain tea pots. There were no women in his house; he didn’t expect to have dinner parties, he didn’t have any polite tea parties. There was no grace and graciousness, no polite domesticity or happy companionship. The second story was of an unmarried woman who depended on her brother’s generosity for the roof over her head, the clothes on her back, and the food on her plate. Without the protection of a man of her own, she was victim to the disrespect and contempt of his servants; she had no autonomy to make decisions for herself, and essentially kept to one room with nothing to occupy her time or talents.
The Georgian era was very much a Christian era. Among its other good benefits, marriage was seen as a remedy against sinful activity. The man in the example above wrote in his journal a prayer asking God to help him conquer his ‘stubborn nature’ (propensity toward sex and drink) so he might “be happy on the last day.” Repeatedly he laments falling to temptation, and regrets not having married a good woman. His example puts paid the image of a “raking, roistering bachelor as a happy figure. He knew that between sleeping with his servants and getting absolutely blotto on the Fells he’d made disgrace his bedfellow and misery his companion.” A man’s character and a woman’s reputation were still important commodities, not to be treated lightly.
In 2012, we have a day officially recognizing families but have abandoned the family itself. Provincial government offices, schools, and stores not designated as tourist destinations, are closed in honour of the day. Sadly, modern families and contemporary notions of marriage would appear very strange to those Georgians. We’d have to explain that women may now vote (keep in mind not even all men had the vote in the 1700’s), and women may own property. It is no longer scandalous to have a child out of wedlock, and in fact sex is considered to be an urge that should not be repressed no matter how and with whom you like it. “Marriage” may take place between two men or two women, or a mutually consenting group of people; the vows, contracts, and unions are no longer binding. Women act like men, and men behave like boys, while neither is especially keen to take on civic or parental responsibilities.
It is easy to idealize the past, and I know my view of the present is bleak. Accepting that I am presenting an extremely simplified version of a very complex issue, I believe the biggest difference between then and now is the presence of God in private and public life (they had it, we lack it) and the acceptance of the unique roles and contributions of men and women (they had it, we lack it).