There’s a new column being run by the Times (H/t Prospect Magazine, designed to debunk foolish wisdom about history in much the same way as Bad Science does.* Anyway, from Bad History we have several attempts to debunk Miserabilist readings of history, including this, of interest to the Dalrymple Acolytes, no doubt:
We also have to remember how many marriages were broken by relatively early death, especially of the husband, until the 1930s. There were as many impoverished lone mothers in the 1880s as in the 1980s. . . . Serial relationships, step-parenthood and boys without resident male role models have long been commonplace . . . People advancing simplistic and inaccurate claims about “the breakdown of the family” often use it as a scapegoat for many social ills, thereby distracting attention from other causes. They also neglect the plight of families trapped in unhappy marriages before the 1970s.
On the subject of unhappy marriages, The Week included some excerpts from an amusing-looking book about past agony aunts. It is called “Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe”, by Tanith Carey, and includes this classic (from the Daily Mail’s excerpts)
I wonder if you will think me very wicked when I tell you that though I am a married woman, I do not love my husband and I am not living with him? We married too young. I was 18 and he 20 and I soon found that he was not the man for me. Soon after, I met another man and though we have never been sweethearts yet, we have confessed our love. Is it my duty to live with a man I do not love, when all my heart belongs to another? Do you think I am acting wickedly and ought I to go back to the man I married? ‘Hester’
Not wicked, Hester, but foolish and weak, dear. We cannot break away from our sacred promises. When you took that man for your husband, you undertook certain duties that you are morally bound to fulfil to help him, to comfort him, to cherish him, to make a home for him, to lead him towards a better land. Your married life has disappointed you. Well, often things we buy turn out quite different from what we hope they will, but we cannot cast them away and have our money back. Home Companion, 1915
As I say in so many other circumstances, one does need to know the counterfactual.
All that said, I doubt very much that 100 years ago had failures like these followed by Harriet Sargent. It seems to have been a gripping, though depressing year for her, following a gang that really sees nothing in society for them, despite their loving a day out at the Imperial War Museum.
*I have attached a link there to the homeopathy piece written by Goldacre, discussing the Nocebo effect.