Friday Fictioneers : A Criminal Conversation

 

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bulltot


 

Light from the computer screen filled Campbell’s glasses, masking his eyes. ‘When might your great-grandmother have been admitted to Northmead?’

Sally handed him the details, the paper damp from her hands. Annie Giddings. DOB 4th January 1886. Last seen Bonfire Night 1903.

Campbell hummed tunelessly. ‘Found her!’ he said. ‘Admitted 25th November 1903 for falling into criminal conversations with low men. Hmm … various treatments … Ah! Failing to recover her wits, a hysterectomy was performed.’

The printer clicked and whirred a copy of Annie’s records. Sally clenched and unclenched her fists, relieved Northmead was a ruin so she wouldn’t have to burn it down.

 


Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. The best flash fiction prompt on the web. See here to join in and to read the other stories.

I saw the photo and though ‘insane asylum’ then did a search for 19th century teatments for women with mental health problems. Some doctors advocated gynaecological surgery such as relocating the uterus and hysterectomy. Read more here.

Read more on the appalling Victorian treatment of ‘fallen women’ and on the foundling hospitals where many were forced to leave their offspring here (this article is also where I found the euphemism ‘criminal conversation’).

As a side note, 25th November is Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s feast day. Amongst other things she is the patron saint of spinsters.

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81 thoughts on “Friday Fictioneers : A Criminal Conversation

    1. Thanks Neil. I added the ‘low men’ but other than that, yep a real quote. our forefathers were grand at the old double standard. Just think of all the brothels that thrived throughout the centuries …

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    1. Ah, thank you Penny. That’s so kind of you to say. I’m sure many of us have such outrages in our history, lost to record, forgotten. In some ways it’s a good thing we don’t know isn’t it? Thanks for reading

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  1. I do so love the term ‘criminal conversation’ – basically adultery and extra marital fornication,,, maybe it’s the alliteration that does it. Bit of eighteenth century politesse, but it is powerful how we can key into the emotional injustices of the past. Sterling as usual! ~ P ~

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    1. Thank you Pola! Yes, the phrase does have a poetry to it, hideous euphemisn that it is. The Victorians did some great things – all those public libraries, swimming pools, working men’s institutes, reforms of child labour laws etc – but the were terribly hypocritical too. The way women of all classes were treated was abominable. Thanks for reading

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      1. Definitely agree with you, “The Society for the Reformation of Manners” had a lot to do with it in the 18C, “manners” meaning standards of conduct and legality in brothels, with regard to prostitution and the underground gay scene.

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      2. Thanks for this Pola. To be honest I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s certainly a fascinating subject to look into, not the least because they seem to have some sway over theatre too, daming those productions that weren’t ‘improving’ enough for the audience. And you’re right, they raided the Molly Houses too, their remit ranging pretty widely. I suppose it was a natural swing back to conservatism after the excesses of the Restoration. Really interesting

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    1. Thank you Dale. Yes, very true. I often think of Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre – the ‘mad woman in the attic’ – and how, really she was imprisoned and abused by the man who should have cared for her the most. And of course, even Jane thinks of her in these 2 dimensional terms. Sorry for the digression – yes, we always have to be grateful for the time (and place) we’re born into. We underestimate how lucky we are

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  2. What a thing to be accused of — falling into criminal conversations with low men. I’m assuming the criminal men didn’t have their reproductive organs removed as a result, grr. Love that last line.

    And hm, patron saint of spinsters? I might have to start celebrating Nov 25. 🙂

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    1. Ah, bless you 🙂 Yes, very true, no organ removal for the men. In one of the articles I attached about women who had to give their children up to foundling hospitals, a case is cited where the prospective father suggests to the woman he got pregnant that she drown herself to save them both the shame – he even offers to help. Nice of him, eh? Thanks for reading Joy

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      1. Ha! Yes, so selfish of her to get pregnant … That’s still the reaction so often, though isn’t it? It’s the woman’s problem if she’s daft enough to get ‘up the stick’ as we might (rather bafflingly) say over here 🙂

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    1. Yes, I suspect you might be right about that, Russell. There were certainly many cases of women being dragged from rivers either pregnant or with their newly born baby, or sadly, just the baby. What desperate acts people are driven to when society is so judemental. Thanks for reading Russell

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  3. Dear Lynn,

    I did quite a bit of research on asylums during that period for my second book. As my character Catherine tells another, “If you weren’t insane when you went in, you would be when you came out.”
    Well written and horrifying in the facts.

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

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    1. Your character was quite right I think. They must be terrifying, disorientating places to be for any length of time whether you’re sane or not. Thank you, Rochelle

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  4. “Admitted 25th November 1903 for falling into criminal conversations with low men.”

    Ha. And then a hysterectomy? That’s awful!

    “relieved Northmead was a ruin so she wouldn’t have to burn it down” … No kidding.

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  5. Lynn this is a powerful piece of writing… Sadly the use of illegal drugs and prisons appears to have replaced many Northmeads !

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    1. Very true, though I wouldn’t have wanted to be admitted to a Victorian mental institution! But you’re right, ‘care in the commnity’ it was called, wasn’t it? Though there seems to be very little care and no sense of community. Thanks Michael

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  6. I often wondered why it was called a hysterectomy until I learned that “hyster” is the Greek word for “uterus.” And also, of course, the root word of “hysteria, hysterical.” So obviously, if a woman who had been properly reared was stepping outside the lines, she must be hysterical–just remove the uterus, and she’ll be fine. Great piece of writing.

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  7. Misogyny and double standards such as this , istill runs deep in our part of the world. I won’t be surprised to find such stories in poor rural homes here.
    Brilliant , as always.

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      1. very very sad, Lynn. We have to think twice before venturing out alone at night . It’s a sad world for women here.
        It’s always a pleasure to read your beautiful creations.💕

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  8. Oh the secrets that genealogical research reveals. Some are funny, some cruelly insane. Well told this week. Loved it. Oh, look, Harvey is pelting the window…better go.

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  9. I was a bit confused with criminal conversations until I read the comments 🙂 The irony that it happened during the Victorian era is that there was a woman on the throne but I guess, she was a product of her times. Superb story Lynn. Loved the last line.

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    1. Thanks so much and glad the comments helped clarify the tale. I know what you mean about Victoria, but I’m sure she would have approved of treating ‘fallen women’ harshly – she was quite a moralistic person herself, known to lambast her sons for their affairs and rakish behaviour. Thank you

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      1. Haha! Very true. I know they always said of Royalty that they would ideally produce ‘an heir and a spare’ but Vicky went a bit far. Was it nine kids they had? Ironic as she loathed children and was pretty unpleasant to most of her own – those boys never could match up to the high standards of their perfect, priggish father. Not a nice lady I think

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      2. I know, ridiculous. Though it did at least leave lesbians in peace. They had to be discreet of course, but at least they didn’t risk being prosecuted, or later face chemical castration like gay men did

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      3. You have a cache of the most revolting and horrifying facts, Lynn. Chemical castration? I’d look it up, but… no.
        Horrible.
        Have you ever thought of incorporating that into a story?

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      4. It is tragic, horrible. I think I’m right in saying that’s what they did to Alan Turing. And then the poor man committed suicide – any wonder? No, I haven’t thought of a story to base around that. But it’s stored away in my head, so perhaps one day.

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      5. That’s terrible! They didn’t include it in the film I watched about him, but even so, it made me furious… and terribly sad.
        I wonder if writers have a tendency to be more affected by such horror and injustice? It would make sense.

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      6. Was it the film with Benedict Cumberbatch you watched? Yes, you’re right, they only focussed on his wartime work in that and he wasn’t prosecuted for homosexuality until the 1950s. He took chemical castration as an alternative to serving a prison sentence, which perhaps would have killed him sooner, who knows. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing
        You may have a point about the writing thing You have to want to get inside other people’s heads, to feel what they feel. If you’re empathetic enough to try to do that, you’re bound to be upset by injustice.

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      7. It is interesting, you’re right. I’m sure some would say it encroaches on the human rights of the accused – but for these crimes, when the stakes are this high, I think it’s justified. Though disturbing to think that back in the 50s Turing would have been seen by many to be as perverted as we view these men now

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      8. I feel the same way as you do, although I cringe to admit it. The word ‘paedophile’ tips the scales.
        I remember the case of a paedophile who couldn’t leave boys alone. While in prison, he begged the authorities to lock him up for life, as he knew he’d re-offend. His request was refused. I expect he’d have opted for chemical castration. The poor man had a conscience, but no control.

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      9. I think the difference is consent, isn’t it? Gay adults give informed consent to what happens to their bodies – kids can’t, no matter how much a paedophile might like to fool themselves they do.
        Chemical castration would definitely have been an option for the man you mention – I hope he found a way to control himself.

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  10. Excellent story, Lynn, and a heartbreaking history (full of fascinating details). Men just can’t help themselves when woman, the temptress, shows up. Grrr… I blow on Sally’s fire.

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    1. It’s easy to get very angry about these things. It’s still the way our culture is shaped, with women still earning less, in less powerful jobs generally, so often the victims of crime and discrimination. But all of that goes back to pre Bible days, so why should we be surprised? Thank you Gabi

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      1. I don’t know exactly when patriarchy was invented, I’m not great with history, but at least the older or contemporary cultures had powerful goddesses with Isis/Ishtar/Inanna which would at least hint at some power/respect/regard for women. And the archeological finds from pre-Sumer also have these many female statuettes that indicate some mother goddess worship, from Willendorf to Catalhöyük. Grr… 🙂

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      2. You’re quite right. I watched a documentary series on the subject once and it was infuriating and fascinating by turns. How cultures had gradually dropped the mother goddesses of ancient history to embrace the misogynistic, Biblical view of women, woman as Eve the temptress who must be suppressed lest her wanton desires corrupt mankind. Thousands of years of prejudice to overcome – no wonder it feels like hard going sometimes

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