While all the anachronisms and deus ex machina plot developments in Season One of Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire really add up, I can concede they’re not that bad in comparison to something like Anne with an E. It seems more like badly-written characters, lack of attention to detail, and over-reliance on lazy, convenient plot twists.

Still, these characters (with a few notable exceptions, like Robina) tend to speak, act, and think more like 21st century people than authentic people from the 1940s. Even the most radical, against the grain people had to operate within certain parameters.

The quintessential example everyone knows is Scarlett O’Hara. While she very much breaks the mold of her time and place, she doesn’t entirely play by her own rules. She’s a product of white, upper-class Southern society in the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, not a 1930s character who just happens to live there and then.

Which brings me to…

No woman in the 1940s, whatever her social class or political views, would’ve treated an out of wedlock pregnancy as no big deal like Lois does, let alone gone about in slinky, form-fitting dresses! Even more stunningly, 99% of everyone around her likewise treats it as totally normal instead of scandalous.

I was really confused, at age 11 or 12, to see Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Father’s Little Dividend looking very un-pregnant, even when she was supposedly nine months along. I was stunned when my mother told me it wasn’t considered decent to depict pregnancy in that era.

Even after the historic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy tells Ricky she’s pregnant, the word “pregnant” still wasn’t used, and pregnant characters wore shapeless maternity clothes. Forget slinky dresses!

In real life, Lois would’ve done one of the following:

Scrambled to find an illegal abortion.

Entered into a shotgun marriage with Harry (though it would’ve made him a bigamist).

Married a man noble and understanding enough to publicly pretend paternity.

Pretended her husband was away at war (a perfect excuse!).

Hidden herself away until the birth. In 1939–40, the baby snatch era was still a ways off, so she wouldn’t have been coerced into adoption or had her baby outright stolen unless she went to a Magdalene Laundry or similar home.

In this era, the objective was on keeping mother and baby together, “reforming” the mother, and helping her get an education and find a job which would enable her to support her child. Eventually, she might find a husband who didn’t care about her past.

Instead she casually goes around in form-fitting clothes, making no bones about being unmarried, and performing onstage at her nightclub until the moment she goes into labor. Many bosses fired women just for getting married. Pregnancy was also frequent grounds for automatic dismissal.

When she meets the man she’ll marry after the birth, he naturally asks about her husband.

“Oh, I’m not married.”

Said no woman in 1940 who cared about her reputation, EVER!

That’s like matter-of-factly telling someone you just met about being gay, divorced, having an abortion, being married to someone of another race, or working as a burlesque dancer! That information was extremely dangerous, not to be divulged to total strangers!

People in general were much more discreet in this era. They didn’t constantly overshare the most private details of their lives with anyone and everyone. Even if they had an extremely progressive, black sheep family and/or circle of friends, they would’ve exercised much more caution outside that safe little bubble.

And though it was common for single women to raise their children, that didn’t come without huge amounts of stigma. Many people started counting days after a wedding. If the baby came less than 40 weeks later, everyone would know they had premarital sex. Quite a few full-term babies were falsely passed off as premature.

One of the many things which has vividly stayed with me about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the line hurled at men who got their girlfriends in trouble, “If she let you, she let others.” One great guy was prepared to marry his sweetheart, but his own mother and sisters used that line on him, and capped it off with, “We’re women, so we know these things.”

An angry mob also threw stones at a single mom who dared to go out in public with her baby in a fancy pram and show her love, instead of hiding away and acting ashamed.

Even the models for Lane and Bryant (the only mainstream company to make maternity clothes) weren’t pregnant. Women who didn’t have the luxury of staying home after starting to show wore very baggy clothes, wrap dresses, drawstring waists, smocks, maternity corsets.

Forget performing at a nightclub in slinky dresses! The audience would’ve been horrified, and the boss would’ve fired Lois or asked her to stay home till after the birth.

There wouldn’t have been a more relaxed attitude on account of being working-class either. 

Only in the last few decades has out of wedlock pregnancy lost its stigma, and maternity wear didn’t begin evolving past shapelessness until the 1970s. In my own lifetime, many maternity clothes were still shapeless!

If you can’t bring yourself to accurately depict the past, even if it makes you uncomfortable, hist-fic isn’t your genre.

One thought on “The ultimate historical accuracy on fire

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