Jo here.There was a flurry of questions and answers, so I kept my answer to my regular day, especially as it turned into an essay. As for the picture, it wouldn’t be right to bring an innocent male CBK into this, so I found this Victorian picture. No, that’s not me, even in my wild youth! But she does look as if she’s trying to cope with the worst kind of PMS, doesn’t she?
“Why don’t women in historicals get PMS and chew holes in everyone around them?”
And excellent question, with many angles.
My first response is that mine rarely do because I rarely did. I’m one of those annoying women who had very little problem with menstruation other than the general hassle of it. No particular mood changes, no cramps. We write what we know. However, Jancy in The Rogue’s Return did get grouchy. I thought I’d include a bit of the scene because it illustrates a couple of points.
One is, if a couple are living in close quarters and menstruation happens, he’s probably going to know. If the book covers more than three and a bit of such living, it’s going to happen, and the reader needs to know. It is part of the intimacy of marriage anyway and shows character is how it’s dealt with.
In this case, it works with a significant theme of the book — the difference in their stations. Jancy comes from a simple background and is unused to servants. Simon, though living simply at the moment and not extravagnt by nature, is an aristocrat, used to money not being a consideration. Her idea of decent thrift is his idea of ridiculous penny-pinching. He complains later that she pinches a penny where a St. Bride would pinch a pound.
Jancy and Simon are on a small boat, traveling down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal. When she gets up after the first night, she finds a spot of blood on her nightdress.
At least her valise was here, so she had a fresh nightgown, but how was she to wash the other? She couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, let Treadwell do it, even if a gentleman’s valet was supposed to do such things.
Dressed but without her drawers, she emerged and unlocked her chest. She dug around until she found her cloths and the sling that kept them in place, and then stood to retreat behind the sheet again. Simon was looking at her. He knew.
“There’s a blood spot on the sheet,” he said. “I’m sorry if you’d rather not talk about it, but I think in this situation it would be rather difficult. No child, then.”
A touch of sadness in his voice made her ask, “Do you mind?”
“No, of course not. As you said, you don’t want to be with child during an ocean voyage. But our children will be welcome when they come. Will you have a hard time of it?”
“No, but… Never mind.”
“What is it?” he asked, so prosaically that she told him.
“I can’t imagine how to discreetly wash my nightgown and cloths. And Treadwell will see the sheet.”
“I can’t do anything about that, but as for your nightgown and cloths, throw them away.”
“That would be a sinful waste!”
“Throw them away. The cloths, at least. If necessary, buy more in Kingston or Montreal.”
“I can, I believe, afford rags for my wife. I’m not rich, but I’m not a pauper.”
“You don’t know the meaning of rich and poor. You have no idea!”
“Oh, don’t I? Hal’s laying out most of the money for this journey.”
She opened her mouth to score a point, but he quickly added, “But I’m not so poor that my wife needs to launder her monthly rags.”
“And your wife’s not so foolish that she’ll throw money away!”
They glared at each other, but then Simon asked, “What are we arguing about?”
She straightened. “I’m sorry. I get short-tempered at this time.”
It would be interesting to know how many women regularly have PMS today, and even more interesting to know how common it was in the past. Some people suggest that modern diet and pollution make it more common by interfering with natural hormones. (Refer back in part to my comment to Loretta’s post about body hair.)
For example, it is well established that women living in close contact for long periods tend to synchronize their periods. A powerful example of the effects of body chemicals, though what the point of it is, I don’t know. Women in the past mostly lived in close contact with other women. If this synchrony does have a healthy purpose, perhaps they had less PMS.
On a tangent, it is also well established that women with irregular ovulation and menstruation can often be helped by sniffing male sweat. If they’re married and are having this problem, it seems their husband’s sweat just doesn’t do it for them. There’s also stuff about women and men being partly attracted to people because of their sweat, but that’s getting back to the body odor thing again.
Back to writing, if the couple are sexually intimate, especially if they are living together, and the story carries on for more than a couple of weeks, menstruation is bound to become an issue. Why try to avoid it when it throws interesting light on the characters and their relationship? How do the man and the woman deal with this aspect of intimacy for the first time? Does she try to hide it? How does she convey to him that it’s happening, and that sex isn’t possible. That’s assuming that she sees it that way, but she probably does. How does he react to it?
I find it distracting if the author doesn’t deal with this when necessary.
Final note on the practicalities. Details about how women dealt with menstruation are scanty, but we know a bit. Women with leisure did sometimes take to their beds for a few days. It might have been because they were suffering from cramps and PMS, but it might have simply been an excuse to keep to themselves and avoid hassle.
Pads were cloths made into pads, and sometimes they were actually sewn into pads, but I suspect that’s rare because it would make them harder to launder. Yes, they had to be washed and dried, another practicality I’ve dealt with in my books. They were generally called rags, but could well be neatly made and hemmed like a handkerchief. The saying “on the rag” comes from that.
They held the pads on with a belt with a wide strap back to front, not too disimilar in principal to the old belts. In England we called the sanitary belts and sanitary napkins. I’m not sure what North Americans called them. I suspect that even when women didn’t normally wear underpants of any kind (up to and including the regency for some of them) they might have during menstruation for greater security. People have generally been practical.
And while I’m on the topic, I might as well put in my favourite public service nudge. Every menstruating woman should have her ferritin levels checked (that’s a blood test) at least every couple of years, but especially if she has heavy periods and any unexplained health problems. That will test the body’s stores of iron, and they can be low even if the amount of iron in the blood is normal. Low ferritin levels are associated with many problems, including general tiredness, mental confusion, depression, and panic attacks. Low normal ferritin levels are associated with poor mental performance and possibly with other problems. You want a reading at least in the 20s, but much higher is perfectly safe. The upper level of normal is over a 100,
Not incidentally, women in the past went to some effort to replenish their iron. Some stuck nails into an apple, then after a while, ate the apple. In Victorian times, at least, some visited abattoirs to drink blood. Liver was known to be good for women. Food like blood pudding, or black pudding as it is usually called in England, made sure the blood from slaughtering pigs didn’t go to waste. Being a good northern lass, I love black pudding.
Oh, and men shouldn’t take supplemental iron. They have no way of getting rid of it short of bloodletting. See, even that wasn’t always stupid as a health practice in the past.
Here’s to your health!