I’ve always had a weakness for people named Jane. After all, it was my grandmother’s name and is my own middle name. But more often than not, fictional characters with that name often have the following adjectives attached to their names: plain, sensible, practical. Not that this is a problem, but well, it’s not doing anything to bring back the name.
About a week ago, I picked up The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes. I’ve read Estes in the past, but had never made it to the Moffats and really didn’t know much about them. So I was thrilled to discover that the middle moffat is Jane Moffat. And it’s another book set during World War I. And it’s funny and sweet and charming. The Oldest Inhabitant! A wonderful Christmas scene, complete with a tradition I haven’t encountered before: burning letters to Santa because the ashes go straight to the North Pole. A hysterical recital in which Jane loses her head. Literally. I really loved this little book.
Of course, The Middle Moffat is not the first book in the series, so I got The Moffats from the library last week. Though I still loved it, I think I love Janey more. I think it’s the name thing. Of course, I’ll finish up the series soon.
But there’s one thing that makes this book stand out from a lot of other books of this era: Mrs. Moffat is a working mother. With the help of Madame (the best name for a dressmaker’s bust Ever), she is the leading dressmaker in their tiny town. There are plenty of single parents in kidlit history, but I can’t think of too many other single moms. Mrs. Pepper also comes to mind (Five Little Peppers and How They Grew). It has been ages since I’ve read this, but a quick internet search makes me think she also worked as a seamstress. Of course, the Pepper family is also rescued by a rich benefactor and Mrs. Pepper winds up marrying rich. None of that happens in these books.
Money is definitely tight for the family, and this really comes through in The Moffats. The owner of their home decides to sell it, and they have that looming “For Sale” sign hanging over their heads for most of the novel. And times are tight–dresses aren’t being ordered quite as regularly. There’s this wonderful scene between Janey and her mother:
“Are we poverty-stricken, Mama?” Jane asked, returning to the kitchen with her new sole comfortably in place.
“No, Janey. Not poverty-stricken,” said Mama soberly and stroking Janey’s cheek, “not poverty-stricken, just. . .”
“Rich, then?” asked Jane.
“No. Not rich, either, nor well-to-do, just poor. . .” answered Mama.
This satisfied Jane, for she thought if they were poverty stricken she would have to go out into the cold and into the streets and sell matces like the little match girl. But she knew from the way the silver coins left Mama’s hands when she was paying for the potatoes that fingers and coins parted company relunctantly.
It seems that in most books with single dads, there is an awesome housekeeper to help with running the household. Cuffy from the Melendys instantly springs to mind. But Mrs. Moffat doesn’t have any backup, and there are moments throughout the books where you get a sense of how she must have struggled. Her husband died when Rufus, age 6, was just a baby. We know that Mrs. Moffat grew up in New York, and though she worked as a dressmaker there as well, there are hints that she came from some wealth and connections.
For women that lost a husband around the turn of the last century, there simply weren’t many options. Of course, one could always find a new husband. But in the meantime, you had to think about food and shelter. Only a few professions were open to women. In most places, you couldn’t teach if you were married or had children. Working outside the home was frowned upon if there were children at home. It may not have even been possible–what with there being few childcare options and the enormous work that went into maintaining a house (not many convenience products to get food on the table!). Some widows took in boarders, though that was likely only a possibility if you owned your home. Some widows had to send their children to relatives or even an orphanage. Most widows didn’t have any of what we would call “job skills” –remember this is the time when going to college was just starting to become common. In women’s magazines of this era, there’s a huge push to buy life insurance. I remember one article from some previous research where a woman lost everything when her husband died, but started selling life insurance so other women wouldn’t have to go through what she did.
All of this makes the Moffat story a bit more remarkable. Though times are tight, they seem to be making it. There’s enough money for some small luxuries. Mrs. Moffat has a lot in common with the working single mothers of today, something we usually don’t find in books written in the 1940s and about the 1910s. Quite frankly, she’s one of my new favorite fictional mothers.
Eleanor Estes did base these books on her childhood–she was Jane. She started writing these stories while recovering from tuberculosis, something I find fascinating (I have an odd interest in that disease. It’s a long story. And yes, you can totally blame Ruby Gillis). I wish I could find out more about her life, because from a women’s history persepctive, there’s a story there.
No matter though, because there’s plenty of wonderful stuff in the stories we do have.