In this post, associate editor Katrina Longhurst asks Sara Read about her debut novel, The Gossips’ Choice, and her experiences of writing fiction based on her research of Early Modern reproductive health.
‘Respected midwife Lucie Smith is married to Jasper, the town apothecary. They’ve lived happily together at the shop with the sign of the three doves for almost three decades. But 1665 is proving a troublesome year. Lucie is called to a birth at the local Manor, and Jasper is uneasy at her involvement with their former opponents in the English Civil War.
As the year draws to a close, Lucie is accused of serious negligence in her care of one of her mothers which could see her not only lose her licence but face excommunication.’
Could you briefly introduce what the novel’s about?
The novel is about a midwife, Lucie Smith, practising in 1665, the women she cares for, and her personal relationships. It offers an insight into everyday life in the period. It was just five years after the restoration of Charles II and the memories of the Civil War years are still on people’s minds. It is also set against the backdrop of the Great Plague which was raging in the country in that year too. When I described a sense of background anxiety Lucie feels as she goes about her everyday life, knowing the plague could visit her town at any moment, I had no idea it is the sort of feeling I would come to know as we move through our own global pandemic times.
It must feel uncanny timing to publish a novel set during the plague at the moment. Thinking about how our reproductive healthcare has had to adapt to the pandemic makes me wonder, is there evidence of any changes to birthing rituals, or advice for expectant mothers at the time of the plague? How much is the plague talked about, if at all, in your source material?
In the novel the Smiths have a copy of the new book published in May 1665 by the College of Physicians and in this book there is a recipe for an It was an electuary for “women with child, children and such as cannot take bitter things”. The remedy is made up of red roses, wood sorrel and sage flowers amongst other ingredients. An electuary is like a little ball of medicine and so can be made up in advance. You can read about this particular recipe more here. Lucie asks her apothecary husband to make some up immediately for the townswomen so they are prepared. So where the plague might be mentioned in sources related to pregnancy and birth it is in terms of remedies usually.
In Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722)the narrator HF tells the reader about how women died of the plague when they were actually in labour ‘and the infant, it may be, half born, or born but not parted from the mother. Some died in the very pains of their travail, and not delivered at all; and so many were the cases of this kind that it is hard to judge of them’. Clearly these women would not be having the normal birth experience surrounded by their gossips because it would be far too dangerous. HF also suggests that these deaths would be mis-recorded as deaths in childbed when they should be recorded as plague deaths. This has interesting parallels with what we are seeing today with the ONS overall death figures showing a higher than expected death figure way above the numbers who died having tested positive for the plague.
I’ve read that your idea for the novel came once you’d thought of the title, could you explain its significance?
That’s sort of right. I had the notion that I wanted to write this story and had had several false starts over the years. It was only when the title popped into my head that the novel began to pour out. It was as if the title had turned on the creative tap. The Gossips’ Choice is important for two reasons, firstly a gossip was someone who supported a mother in her labour. It could be a neighbour, friend, or relation and often women had a party of gossips to support her. She in turn would act as a gossip to her friends and relations. The second reason is that as events take a dramatic turn in the story my midwife becomes the centre of town gossip!
So was the birthing scene was a predominantly (exclusively?) female space?
Yes, unless something went wrong and a doctor or a surgeon was sent for then at this time births were very much a female space. Over the course of the novel, Lucie delivers three babies with men in the room and remarks on how unusual this is. This norm changes during the period following this as more physicians and surgeons take an interest in obstetrics and become so-called ‘men-midwives’.
You’ve written extensively about female bodies and menstruation in the Early Modern period in academic outputs, how did your research inform the novel? Did you use archival material?
Two main sources were printed editions. The birth stories are taken from Sarah Stone’s A Complete Practice of Midwifery which described some 40 cases that she attended. The entries are quite short around a couple of hundred words each and so that gives a novelist a lot of leeway to build an episode, and to flesh out the account. The remedies and notions of best practice in midwifery come from Jane Sharp’s 1671 text The Midwives Book. The only archival source in the book is that I used a document in the archives at Herefordshire which from 10 September 1724 in which midwife Mary Thorne lists the names of list of wives she has attended or ‘lain’ to support her licensing application (MSS BB80& HD5/1-4). I gave my apprentice midwife her name and used the names of her patients for many of my labouring mothers.
What do people outside of your research specialism commonly assume or misunderstand about women’s bodies and/or reproductive health in Early Modern England?
I think generally people believe the death rates in childbirth to be much higher than they were. The death rate of mothers in Sarah Stone’s 40 cases is about 6% and she is only giving the most tricky cases. Her book does not include the hundreds of women she attended without incident.
At what point did you start to think about using your research to write fiction or was it something you’d always had in mind?
The idea to write a novel began back in 2009 as I was finishing my PhD on women’s reproductive bleeding. There were so many stories to tell and putting them into a fictional world was so tantalising a prospect. It didn’t happen for another nine years because I was busy with academic projects and starting my career, and also because I lacked the confidence to do it (hence the several false starts languishing on my hard drive).
How did you find writing a novel as opposed to a monograph? What was the best aspect about writing in such a different mode, and what was most challenging?
I have learned so much in this writing project. Academic writing is often precise, even spare: you want to get to the point. In creative writing, if you want to draw a reader into your world you have to make that world on the page. I worked with two developmental editors for this, one pre-submission to any publisher and with Tracey Scott-Townsend from Wild Pressed Books to revise and redraft several times before the novel was finished.
Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in the School of English at Loughborough University. Her research interests are in cultural representations of women’s bodies and reproductive health in the Early Modern period. She is the author of Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and co-editor of Maladies & Medicine: Exploring Health and Healing, 1540-1740 (Pen& Sword, 2017). The Gossips’ Choice is available now http://www.wildpressedbooks.com/the-gossips-choice.html
She is on Twitter @saralread