Tuesday, June 30, 2015

In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860

I have a confession to make: I am often disappointed by "Jane Austen and _____" books. Granted, there have been some I've read that were good reads, and have been very helpful for my research (such as Jane Austen and the Navy). But lately I seem to have come upon a crop that felt too narrowly focused on Austen's life and her books -- I really felt the lack of the greater context of the times and a larger set of sources. It's for this reason that I devoured E.W. Bovill's excellent English Country Life: 1780-1830.

However, I think I have a new favorite, and it's one that I would go so far as to say I think every Austen fan should read, particularly the first few chapters. It's In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860, by Judith S. Lewis, and although it may sound from the title that it is narrowly focused on childbirth, it covers far more than that.

In those first few chapters, Lewis, in very cogent writing, provides supporting details for this statement:

“Historians are also beginning to believe that the nature of marriage and family life changed between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The traditional, non-emotive marriage, in which loyalties and associations were largely directed toward the lineage, came to be replaced by the by the ‘companionate’ marriage, one in which private emotions, not public functions, predominated. This new form was marked by a primary loyalty to the nuclear family rather than to the larger network of kin.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it's because you've read it before, but in a fictional format. This, after all, is the marriage for love Elizabeth Bennet desires, to the point where she is unable to understand how Charlotte Lucas could desire that more old-fashioned form of non-emotive marriage. Indeed, as I read those first few chapters, they felt familiar and right to me, because they supported Austen's romances.

Let me take a paragraph to gush about Jane Austen, and then I'll return to Lewis's work. I've already blogged about how the concept of reading for pleasure developed between about 1750 and 1850. I find it interesting -- and perhaps it is not at all coincidental -- that this overlaps with the emergence of this more emotional form of marriage. What is remarkable about Austen's work is that not only was she able to write novels that were -- and continue to be -- such delights to read, in a time when there was not a lot of precedent for the readable novel, she also quite thoroughly captured this transition from marriage for duty to marriage for emotional fulfillment. If there must be more "Jane Austen and _____" books, please let there be one about that.

Now, back Lewis's work, which was an impressive undertaking in itself. She studied 50 aristocratic women, researching their records and letters, so that she was able to draw both quantitative numbers (for example, the women studied had a mean of 7.5 children) and qualitative examples for the topics she covered. And in addition to the changing role of marriage, she touches on the changing: influence of extended family; role of children within the family; perception and importance of childbirth itself (and the rituals involved); and approach to prenatal care, birth, and obstetrics (as well as the rise of the role of accoucheur).

That might seem like a lot, but because she has such rich examples to draw on, and does so at a good pace, I found this read quickly, except for all those times I was stopping to highlight passages. And I highlighted quite a lot, because despite doing research on childbirth during this time for A Change of Legacies, I found there were still some things that Lewis covered in better detail and, I suspect, greater accuracy than the sources I had been able to find so far. I'll do it gladly, though, because I really want to make my work as historically accurate as possible.

Among the things that surprised me across the whole range of topics:
  • During this era, virginity for women was all about property rights, as was adultery. Chastity, quite simply, ensured a man's property passed to his heirs, which explains the much higher value on women's chastity than men's. It wasn't until the Victorian era that virginity came to have a more significant meaning beyond this, perhaps in keeping with the greater prudishness of this era.
  • Aristocratic women did not let pregnancy (even up until the 9th month!) limit their participation in society. They remained physically active, up to and including fox hunting while pregnant. And it was not a big deal to appear in society or even to travel to the continent while visibly pregnant.
  • Husbands were present through the entire birth. (For obvious reasons, I'm quite happy to have the opportunity to work this one in to Legacies)
  • These women generally gave birth on a lightweight folding bed, in what is known today as the Sims position, which preserved the lady's modesty because her back was to the accoucheur, but let him look at her, erm, lady parts during the delivery. This is a sharp contrast to the birthing chair/physician and lady making eye contact the whole time until the physician catches the baby as it comes out delivery that I had read about in prior research. I'm going to need to dig into this one more, because clearly someone was using all of these birthing chairs that show up in museums and paintings. Either it was considered old-fashioned, or perhaps was used by midwives or more general practitioners.
  • Maternal nursing was neither a no-no, nor done by all. Quite a few of the women in her research chose to nurse their own children, some still opted for wet nurses, and some switched to maternal nursing for later children for the contraceptive effects, in an attempt to slow the growth of their families.
  • London was by far the most popular place for birth (it made it easier to engage an accoucheur), and households were set up there specifically for this purpose. Once the woman was churched and the child christened, the families would then move on, which seems to indicate that traveling with very young infants was not seen as a big deal.
There's more, so much more. Hopefully I've piqued everyone's interest with what I've shared so far. My only concern is that this seems to have been a small publication by Rutgers University Press, and there are only used copies for sale on Amazon. Perhaps we Jane Austen fans can drum up enough interest for a reprint, or, better yet, a Kindle edition.

That’s Right, it’s a Post About Privies

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