sybilSometimes the right book can really get you thinking about a question. In this case, the right book was actually a novella, Danelle Harmon’s The Admiral’s Heart. The premise is that the heroine ends her relationship with the hero when they are both young – without explaining why – because she’s allergic to dogs. He has a beloved dog, and she doesn’t want to force him to choose between them. This got me thinking about not only about the idea of choosing between a pet and a highly allergic person, but also about people with allergies and how they might have fared in a more rural society.

I can’t think of too many historical romances that mention people with allergies. In fact, besides the Harmon heroine, the only one I could come up with was the father of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton family, who I am fairly sure died of an allergic reaction to a bee sting (though it’s been a few years, so I’m not 100% sure on that). I don’t know whether people have more allergies now or we just hear about them more. Or perhaps people who had severe allergies were just considered “sickly” and no one knew what was wrong? Either way, it’s not something you read about often.

But it also led me to wonder whether my family would have survived eighteenth (or nineteenth, or even early twentieth) century life. My youngest son is allergic to horses and hay (this, by the way, is a great thing to find out when you are in the middle of nowhere at a family reunion…and your cabin borders a corral). I’m not sure how well he’d have done being raised on a farm. My husband, with his asthmatic childhood that included many trips to the emergency room, would probably not have fared so well. But I suppose the cats he is very allergic to could have all stayed outside. I think I probably would have fared pretty well. I haven’t had any major illnesses, all of my pregnancies were healthy, and I even gave birth without drugs or anesthesia every time. My one pregnancy complication – a child who decided to flip himself around three days before he was born so he was going the wrong way (and if you knew him, you’d see how this is totally the kind of thing he’d do) – was resolved by methods available in the nineteenth century and before: They turned him around.

The fact is, though, that childbirth was dangerous and childhood was dangerous. Just like poor Sybil, women died in childbirth all the time. And I don’t think I even know anyone who has never taken antibiotics. A bout of pneumonia, totally not serious in 1997 when I last had it, could have been life-threatening in 1797. My kids have never had measles or mumps, and the youngest two didn’t even have chicken pox. I don’t think I’ve even met anyone who had polio. If you look at old graveyards, it’s pretty sad to see how many graves belong to children.

Though I admit to occasionally envying our historical romance heroines their beautiful ball gowns, I think on the balance I’ll take modern medicine…and maxi dresses.

– Blythe Barnhill

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