Pregnancy and the Novel: Representation and Concealment from Richardson to Hardy

Lead Research Organisation: Bath Spa University
Department Name: Sch of Writing, Publishing & Humanities


This project will be driven by my insights as a novelist who writes literary adaptations of eighteenth- and nineteenth century texts partly to explore the challenges of representing pregnancy in fiction. It will also be informed by my expertise as a literary critic who has long been fascinated by how those before me have responded to pregnancy, especially in the context of violence and other forms of external control. The project's major output will be an academic monograph, Pregnancy and the Novel: Representation and Concealment from Richardson to Hardy. This will draw on medical texts to illuminate the ways that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists simultaneously hide and reveal problematic pregnancies and births. It will reveal a reciprocal influence between literature and science.

My study of the techniques of Richardson, the Brontes, Eliot, Dickens and Hardy informs my own fiction, especially the ways they embed reproductive events, utilise first- and second-person point of view, and depict sensitive or taboo subject matter. The research will also consider the strategies by which the novelists who follow Richardson and precede the Brontes depict pregnancy. Smollett, Sterne, Burney, Lewis, Inchbald, Dacre, Austen and Scott frequently utilise an explicitness or euphemism in order to reflect a character's immodesty or morality. They develop Richardson's strategies for linking pregnancy time to story time, and utilise his techniques of misdirection so that pregnancy masquerades as other illnesses; in light of this, I have made similar experiments in my own novels.

By reconstructing historical knowledge of reproductive medicine and utilising my novelist's habit of reverse engineering the writer's planting of clues, this project will uncover what can easily be missed by twenty-first century readers. The project will change and deepen our understanding of multiple scenes in all of these novels. A few examples will illustrate this. Numerous critics dismiss the possibility of pregnancy in Clarissa (1747-48) or at best attribute the heroine's symptoms to a nervous disorder (e.g. Wilt, Meek, and Lovett). Yet her fainting, weeping and delirium are straight out of contemporary midwifery textbooks. Anne Bronte uses the diary form and references to the seasons to track her heroine's pregnancy in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). In a clever feint, she describes pregnancy symptoms (a rush of blood, feeling 'ill' and 'unwell', being 'white in the face') that readers are primed to interpret as responses to distress and provocation (Ch. XXVII). Fanny's 'birth giving and death' in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) have been seen as 'significant narrative ellipses' by a critic (Bronfen, 1993, 70) who overlooked the milestones and posts that Fanny counts and leans against at 'intervals' (Ch. XL) as she struggles to reach the poorhouse, which are surely Hardy's way of writing his heroine's labour into the text.

This project is original because it will recalibrate Richardson's legacy in light of a new understanding of his strategies for embedding pregnancy. It will break new ground by revealing how, after Richardson, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novelists depict pregnancies and labours that are seemingly absent from their texts but are in fact present. The project will utilise creative methods to involve non-academics in the research and create impact, especially when it comes to ideas of pregnancy and control of our own bodies, and how the language around this might change. Public engagement materials will help pregnant women and birthing people to tell stories and reflect upon experiences, and be of use to advocacy organisations as well as literary societies. I will collaborate with medical practitioners, enhancing their well-being by leading a creative writing workshop for those who are interested in developing their own medical memoirs; and a specialist reading group on concealed pregnancy.


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