Friday, 18 April 2014

A Victorian Alphabet: P is for Pregnancy


The 2008 BBC adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles (1891) has gone down in my family folklore. Gemma Arterton as Tess appeared in shot cradling her child (Sorrow) and my then boyfriend looked around the room in confusion, uttering the immortal words ‘where did the baby come from?’.

Naturally we all (especially my younger sister) found the question hysterical, but he had a point - the adaptation, like the novel, had skimmed over nine months of pregnancy and the moment of the child’s conception, with its corresponding questions of consent, had been suggestive, rather than overt, in its dramatisation. While in the case of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, censorship had altered this portion of the novel, this anecdote is simply a reliving the experience of many inexperienced readers of Victorian novels for whom babies appear apparently unexpected, as if no one, even the mother, expected them beforehand.

So, for those new to picking up implied pregnancies, here are some top ‘clues’ that a child may be on its way:

1. The disappearing act: A major female character (usually recently married) seems to ‘disappear’ from the text for a while. During pregnancy, women who could afford to often led a relatively inactive lifestyle and stayed indoors. And not doing so was regarded as inappropriate, and potentially dangerous for the child (see the May family’s concern for Flora in Charlotte Yonge’s The Daisy Chain (1871) which I reviewed recently). This means characters who played a large role in a novel during their girlhood can drop dramatically out of view when pregnant, for instance Thomasin Yeobright in Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878).

2. Delicacy: A husband shows excessive concern for his wife’s wellbeing. If a husband expresses worry over his wife completing a seemingly innocuous task (like walking somewhere or riding in a carriage), odds on, she’s pregnant (although she could also be consumptive…).

3. Condition: Anyone reference’s a female character’s ‘condition’. They don’t mean she has a headache. She’s definitely pregnant.

4. Relationships: If a female character appears to have had sex before marriage, she’ll probably become pregnant – it’s the way her actions can have consequences in plot terms (think Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3)). Likewise, using true novelistic logic, if a marriage is happy, there are likely to be children, whereas unhappy marriages will be fruitless or result in potentially morally vindictive infant death (think Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861)).

I recently finished reading George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894), which was a marked contrast to this. The novel was seen as shocking at the time because of its liberality and explicitness and Esther’s pregnancy (while unmarried) comprises a large part of this. We are aware of the pregnancy from the very moment that Esther is:

‘She did not think – her mind was lost in the vague sensation of William, and it was in this death of active memory that something awoke inside her, something that seemed to her like a flutter of wings; her heart seemed to drop from its socket, and she nearly fainted away, but recovering herself she stood by the kitchen table, her arms drawn back and pressed to her sides, a death-like pallor over her face, and drops of sweat on her forehead. The truth was borne in upon her.’

We are told:

‘There was still the hope that she might be mistaken; and this hope lasted for one week, for two, but at the end of the third week it perished, and she abandoned herself in prayer.’

It’s about as close as a nineteenth-century novel comes to actively discussing a woman’s menstrual cycle.

When Esther goes into labour we are similarly allowed access to her feelings and impressions, her fear at seeing ‘the basins on the floor, the lamp on the round table, and the glint of steel instruments’ while surrounded by the noise of other women’s screams in the hospital, and her sense of shame at realising how many people will see her unclothed. This is how Esther reacts to a young doctor – ‘Oh no, not him, not him Not him, not him, he is too young! Do not let him come near me!’. She is met by laughter but her response is an internalisation of the silence surrounding pregnancy which the other novels are part of – a dramatisation of the trauma pregnancy and labour entails for those to taught to cover up and hide.

What should be ‘Q’ in my Victorian Alphabet? Let me know here, on Facebook, on Google+ or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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