Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

As a physician, author Jacqueline Kelly, no doubt, would understand the physiologic difficulties imposed on women by 1899's fashion. In her Newbery Honor middle grade novel The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, corsets appear as metaphor of the physical as well as intellectual restrictions that well-to-do women, from families such as the Tates, had to endure. 

Her character, 11 year-old Calpurnia, growing up in England in 1899,  tells us women's fashion is horribly unpleasant. " . . . the corsets! Mrs. Parsons faints all the time in the summer from her corset. I don't know how they stand it."

As discussed in Jean Hatfield's review,  Calpurnia wants attend university and become a scientist. The problem is, her mother is making her learn to cook, sew and find a husband. In the end of the book, we are left with hope that she will follow her dreams, but without certainty.

At least one doctor in the late nineteenth century, I was surprised to read, thought corsets unhealthy. In the 1880 text book entitled Practical Treatise on the Diseases of Women, by T. Gaillard Thomas, M.D, it was recognized that, "The dress adopted by the women of our times . . . may possess the great advantages of developing the beauties of the figure and concealing defects, but it certainly is conducive to the development of  uterine diseases." Dr. Thomas was quite concerned with pressure on pelvic organs created by corsets.

But as he might relieve young women of their corsets, he wouldn't recommend education. "Girls of a tender age apply their minds too constantly . . . and tax their intellects by efforts of thought and memory which are too prolonged and laborious." Girls like Calpurnia had little choice in such a time and place.

Today,  the multiplicity of choices can be overwhelming. Girls can play sports, study science and engineering, wear high heels or sneakers, eat salads or Big Macs, and be more open about sex. What it means to be a healthy, normal girl is not spelled out, at least, not like it was for girls like Calpurnia.

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