One can study history, and read memoirs and letters, and devour historical novels by the bushel…and yet I find there are still some aspects of how people really lived and thought which it is hard for a modern person to really thoroughly understand.

Oh, one can have an intellectual understanding — but I mean a gut understanding, a real “feeling” for the way people lived, and thought — an ability to mentally step into their shoes, and see through their eyes.

A few areas that I think are particularly difficult for a modern person to truly grasp:

1) Just how different the attitude toward STUFF was. Nowadays, we have far too much stuff — we’re inundated by it, our homes overflow with it, we complain our kids have way too much junk… We have Jane Austen action figures and joke mugs just for the heck of it, our kids get cheap toys in cereal boxes and at the doctor, charities and realtors send us free notepads and coins and calendars and bumper stickers and postcards…

So how can we truly grasp a world where stuff actually cost money? Where things were used and reused and reused again? Where the Artful Dodger could hang for stealing a handkerchief, because handkerchiefs were actually worth something?

2) And how can a modern person raised in a democratic, multi-ethnic society ever entirely comprehend the mindset of a person who never (or rarely) met anyone who wasn’t a supporter of monarchy, whose whole society believed that men were smarter than women, that aristocrats had superior blood and brains to commoners, that people’s abilities were determined by their race and national origin?

3) And how do we, living in a world with good contraception, where women can support themselves (and their children, if need be) by working as a lawyer or doctor or police officer or computer programmer — a world that has heard from Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and Oprah and Jennifer Crusie and The Joy of Sex — how do we get into the mindset of people who thought a woman’s chastity, modesty and “virtue” were her crown jewels, and who thought a woman’s duty was to obey her husband in the same way her husband obeyed the king?

Anyway, these are three areas that occur to me right off. Which of these seem hardest to you? Or what other things do you think are particularly hard to grasp?

All answers welcome!

Cara King, whose brain isn’t hampered at all by its common blood