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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Death in Childbirth in JA's Time

[This is a response by me to a comment in Janeites about negative modern attitudes toward women who choose to have many children]

I've often been accused of being anachronistic, i.e., that I try to graft a 21st century perspective on JA's 19th century world. Well, as I will show below, the question of serial pregnancy is a perfect example of the reverse, i.e., where my discoveries are very helpful in bringing the 21st century reader BACK TO the 19th century, so as to better understand JA's writing.

JA wrote during a time when serial pregnancy was (and had been for a very long time previously) a game of Russian roulette for married women--and the longer each wife was forced to run that "gauntlet", the greater the risk of death in childbirth.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that JA---who lived in her world and NOT our modern Western world where pregnancy and childbirth are infinitely safer propositions--maintained such a fiercely and often sarcastically negative attitude toward serial pregnancy throughout her ENTIRE adult life. The evidence for this is overt in her letters, and---as I will demonstrate conclusively at the JASNA AGM in a few months, and at much greater length in my book---COVERT in her novels.
This is one particularly good example of how my discoveries can greatly inform one's reading of JA's novels, and knowledge of her life.

This issue of death in childbirth was clearly at the top of JA's agenda for things in her world that she hated. Because some commentators have not realized this, some have speculated that she hated children, or that she thought women should not have large numbers of children per se. My research has shown me that this is NOT the case at all. I believe she loved children--all the evidence in her letters entirely coincides with the report of her in this regard--but she was against serial pregnancy because she perceived that in most cases, the wives had no choice whatsoever, and many wives were serially pregnant not because (as is the case with yourself) they wanted to be, but because they were forced to be. In many cases, it either killed these wives, and in many more, it just plain wore them out physically.

The paradigmatic example, which tells it all in a sentence, is the family anecdote (I believe it was in Fanny Austen Knight's childhood diary) that when Edward Austen Knight came home from a trip, he kicked Fanny out of her mother's bed, so he could sleep with his wife, Elizabeth Bridges Austen Knight---who only a few years after that died at age 35 after having given birth to ELEVEN children who survived (and probably a few miscarriages and stillborn births, in addition) in 17 years.

What is most remarkable about that story is how UNREMARKABLE it was at the time, it was a story being played out all across England, repeatedly.

So, it follows that the feminist issues of Regency Era England were profoundly different from those of modern Western society, but...the feminist issues in many non-Western countries TODAY seem, to me, to be uncannily similar to those of JA's England. I recently read an article about a conference where Melinda Gates and many others spoke out strongly about death in childbirth in many Third World countries. So JA's message, as my discoveries bring it to full light, may be 2 centuries late for our world, but it could not be more timely for THEIRS!


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