From Palaeolithic goddess to a face in the crowd ~ how success is measured according to the times and society you live in.
As an exercise in exploring the concept of success I thought it might be entertaining to speculate on how my life might have been viewed through different eras and millennia. The one thing that will remain constant is my age at the time of writing this (45) but other elements of my current self will intrude (education, marital status, intellect, interest and skills) if this serves a good use.
Palaeolithic (Old Stone age) and Mesolithic (Middle stone age): at forty-five I am perhaps the oldest woman of my tribal group; I have given birth to nine children, eight of whom lived to adulthood and the older of whom now have children of their own. My ability to retain fat has served me well through many lean times and my curves have served as inspiration for those who draw and carve figures of our Mother Goddess. I am revered as an elder, though the fact that I have yet to pass into my Crone-hood is marvelled at. I may bear another baby yet, though I am tired of this; my granddaughter is expecting her first baby soon, it’s about time I stopped! My knowledge of herbs and healing has saved many lives, and my story telling during the summer gatherings has become legendary. People from many other tribes who we meet with during those long months of summer plenty talk of me, and it’s a rare year when someone does not come many moons’ walk to bring a youngster to be fostered by me to learn from me for a season or two as I see fit. Some stay as apprentices and I see them as my children too. I have covered many thousands of miles over my life as we migrate to follow the herds but I carry the hearthstone of our camp, a badge of great honour. My husband’s role as shaman rubs off on me; I assist his work in many ways and can do much of it now. Sometimes folks come to ask me rather than him, needing, they tell me, a woman’s touch at healing. I am respected as a great woman by all who encounter me; surviving all that an unimaginable forty five summers can throw at a woman entitles me to this, even if I had done nothing else beyond live that length of time.
Neolithic: our farmland is good but sometimes crops fail and my summer fat feeds me through to the spring when winter bites hard. When the long Northern winters drive us into our roundhouses to hide from snow and ice, my tales around the fire have kept spirits up through many a long dark night. My skills with herbs and healing make me a key member of our people and my stories are learned by heart by many of the youngsters. I am seen as a magical being, and my shaman husband is held with great respect by our chieftain.
Bronze Age: nothing much has changed but the possession of the secrets of metal working make my husband a man of great honour in the tribe. Our status is high and we are wealthy and honoured.
Iron Age: there are rumours of changes, of visiting warriors from thousands of miles away. I tell the stories still but sometimes I wonder if it is enough. No one will remember them if the line of story tellers is broken. I hear the new warriors have fabulous wealth and are masters of things we can only dream of.
Roman Occupation: we have become Romanised. I can now speak and even read and write a little Latin. We live in a small villa, in the countryside, and run a farm. I have had five children. I wear the stola, the dress of a Roman matron, when I entertain guests but I wear the old bracchae my husband has discarded when I ride and walk the land in search of herbs and solitude. We are respected; my husband is a priest of the local temple. I do not know what gods he is serving but he serves them well and faithfully. He does not like the Emperor worship. The guests we have do not wish to listen to my stories; the men are full of their achievements and the women full of their children and of dresses and gossip. I feel alone but the stories fill my head and ease the loneliness. Painstakingly, I start to write them down, but my adopted tongue feels unwieldy and wrong for the tales that burn in my mind. I am seen as odd, but even those who deem me so come to me for aid with their problems, knowing that I will keep silent and do my best to help.
The Dark Ages: I keep the flame of civilization burning as long as I can, memorising the Gospels so that even when the books are looted or burnt, the words will go on. My own stories I tell again around the fire, to bring hope to my people when the bands of warring tribes burn the fields and our homes, telling them they can rebuild and all is not lost. Some times it is beyond me, this desperate sadness for what has been lost or destroyed and I lapse into months of brooding silence and none can reach me even my husband, priest of the growing Christian church.
Early Middle Ages: I am burned as a heretic.
Middle Ages: I end my life on a scaffold, hanged as witch.
Late Middle ages: Ditto. I really must stop playing with herbs and healing.
Renaissance: a better time. As mistress of a prominent Oxford don, I have certain reflected glory. I also have access to books I’d never have otherwise. I steer clear of herbs, and I study some of the newly emerging sciences and mathematics. I find joy in poetry, both reading it and writing it. Some is even published, though under my lover’s name. I am viewed by many women with suspicion because my looks conform to current notions of beauty: blonde hair, fair skin, blue eyes and robust curves win me few friends among the ranks of slender dark-eyed brunettes. However, I am sure I have given some of my husband’s fellows some uncomfortable moments…
Reformation: a grim time. Much of the joy and colour has gone out of church worship and there are strictures unimagined. But I can marry my love, for the clergy are allowed now to marry. I cover my mane of bright hair with a matron’s cap and yearn for greater freedom to be myself without censure. To wear my hair loose beyond my own chamber now would proclaim myself a loose woman.
Seventeenth century: an era of civil war. Women have little or no power, but I have clawed my way to some education and as wife of a clergyman I am given certain basic respect. I am relatively rich; I own books. I can write, but the stories I wish to tell are not what the ladies wish to read and I am still viewed as an oddity by my peers. Ideas about equality are bandied around; the Levellers talk about everyone having the vote but it seems they do not include women. I learn to stay silent. A fist in the face is a deterrent enough for me. Threats to my six children even more so.
Eighteenth century into early nineteenth: the latter half of this century sees things I’d once imagined impossible. Certain lady writers being lionised. The Gothic novel is the latest craze among the upper echelons of society, but when I read them I find them disappointingly unreal. My own stories are surely better than these, but I do not know how they may be published. It seems to be a very fraught process. I am told that if I write love stories then I may be considered. I go back to my garden and I make cordials and possetts and dry herbs for the winter, and no one thinks me more than a good housewife for doing so. Writing is a past-time for spinster ladies of decent fortune, not the wives of country rectors with five children and a house to run, but I still use the stubs of candles to write, late at night when all but the mice in the wainscotting are asleep. My favourite writer has recently been named as a Miss Austen, though her early works were initially anonymous. She writes with good sense and a dry wit.
Victorian era: I made the mistake of emulating my heroes, Ellis, Acton and Currer Bell and have submitted novels that deal with passions and real human emotions in the raw. It has earned me great reproof from the publisher, who has advised me that I am a shocking blight on the face of Womankind and writing such penny dreadfuls dressed up in fancy words without the knowledge of my respectable husband is as dire a betrayal as adultery. I am sure that the Bells are women but no one will believe me. I read whenever household duties allow and write later at night even though I know that I have little chance of ever achieving recognition for what I write. I have a few close friends whom I send my manuscripts, and they tell me they love my stories. Is this enough? No. But what can I do?
Edwardian era to pre-War: the bluestocking is established as a real entity, and in my youth I managed to gain a university education though sadly not a degree. I was told that no decent man would marry such as I, yet I married as young as many of my peers who went through the usual route of balls and a season. My education probably cost a lot less, being less involved in fancy clothes and fashions. I am seen as an oddity in my husband’s parish, and I hear whispers when we are obliged to entertain. My bookshelves are inspected by all and I am pronounced, “clever” by the kindly and “subversive” by others. I have had some poems published; my nature poems are deemed worthy of it while my harsher ones are not. I hate my stays, and will go without while at home. Beyond the home, I would not dream of going out unsupported; but there must be a better way than this torture.
War-time: I am allowed to work, doing a job that a man normally does so that he can go and be blown to a million pieces. I write anti-war poems and some of the papers print them. The Bishop reproves my husband for not keeping tighter control of me and I lapse into a depression born of the millions of deaths at the front and the fear that it will not end before my son turns eighteen.
Fifties: the more readily available birth control means I have been able to keep my family small and that has meant, along with changes in technology, that I have a little more time for me. I am still seen as an adjunct of my husband, and what I write is always interpreted in that light. I consider a pseudonym. Marilyn Monroe has made blondes with curves very popular but my relative poverty as wife to a country vicar means I am hardly dressed like a pin-up, but it is enough to give me certain notoriety.
The years between my birth and the present time have seen a lot of very rapid change, but I will skip them and move to the present.
2012: curves that seemed like those of a Goddess are seen now as a sign of a lazy, feckless woman who eats greedily and never exercises. My degree, once the province of the top 5% of the population is commonplace, everyone has a degree, and I am told that to progress I need a master’s degree. At 45, I am considered middle aged, menopausal and irrelevant; no matter what legislation is present to avoid age-based discrimination, the concept of age being a bad thing is endemic in a culture that idolises and sexualises youth and I am sure that many jobs I have chased I have missed because I am seen as too old. I teach, but am the lowest of the low in the unacknowledged hierarchy of teaching because I do not possess a certain piece of paper that entitles me to teach in the brutality of an English state school. My only other saleable skill is being able to speak some French and German and find my way around Europe. I live in a small house in a port town at the edge of England, and I do not own many of the trappings of success that today’s society demands. I wear old clothes, I use devices till they break down beyond repair and I recycle everything; I try to minimise my impact on the environment. We own an older car and I cycle to work. My hard-won learning of herbs and the natural world is superseded by access to Wikipedia and a million websites trying to sell you something. Poetry is seen as irrelevant to normal people, and few read poems any more. It certainly doesn’t sell. As a writer I have had some small success but the greater exposure of commercial success is still beyond me. As an independent writer who has decided to self-publish my books are competing (at time of writing) with over 900k books available on Kindle alone.
I am a face in the most immense crowd possible.