‘That’s the thing, mother. The journals got me thinking. I know you use them to help you teach. But think how many more midwives would learn from you if we made them fit for printing. I’ve published several guides to women’s health, but nothing like this, and you’d be writing from life, not other books. Think about it, mother: you’d be the first English woman to write a midwifery guide. It could make your fortune!’ (p.82)
Lucie Smith, the protagonist of Sara Read’s debut novel, chooses not to listen to the urging of her son, Simon, and retains her extensive journals for her personal private use. The journals, which comprise of detailed notes on cases from thirty years of midwifery practice, are a document of women’s secrets, and their author chooses to keep them from the eyes of the public. As Lucie herself remarks, few midwives in the seventeenth century would have either the inclination, or the literacy, to keep such detailed and valuable notes. It is unsurprising then, that many of Lucie’s remedies, and the advice she gives to her patients, are drawn from the work of Jane Sharp, who in 1671 actually became the first English woman to publish a midwifery guide, The Midwives Book: Or the Whole Art of Midwifery Discovered.
Lucie Smith’s story begins in a bedchamber at Calstone Manor, where she has just safely delivered a young woman of her first child. Privately, Lucie believes that the new mother, sixteen-year old Lady Eleanor Calstone, is too young to be having children, and disapproves that the aristocratic Calstones have hired an expensive London doctor to oversee the delivery. It is clear that the circumstances of the opening chapter are not typical of Lucie’s practice – she is more familiar with delivering the babies of the wives of farmers, weavers and local aldermen, and she is certainly unused to the presence of men in the birth chamber. However, Lucie takes seriously her oath as a midwife to not turn away a patient, and throughout the novel attends to the needs of labouring women, no matter their class, occupation, or circumstances.
The Gossips’ Choice depicts Lucie’s day-to-day existence as the most respected and in-demand midwife for the market-town of Tupingham, and surrounding area. Much of the novel is occupied with individual cases drawn from the works of Jane Sharp, and the eighteenth-century midwife Sarah Stone, who also published a midwifery guide. Should Lucie have followed her son’s urgings and published her own journals, we might have expected them to resemble Stone’s A Complete Practice of Midwifery (1737), which consists chiefly of annotated case studies, much like those Lucie uses to train her apprentice, Mary. Like Stone, Lucie Smith is married to an apothecary and is frequently called to intervene when less accomplished midwives, like the unlicensed hand-woman Mother Henshaw, risk losing their patients through malpractice. It is in the description of these many deliveries that Read’s extensive knowledge of birthing practices, and the lives of women in the seventeenth century, shine most strongly.
A number of separate storylines interweave throughout the novel, including: the fractious relationship between Lucie’s husband and their son Simon, a printer living in London; the ongoing rivalry between Lucie and Mother Henshaw; a clandestine relationship between the Smith’s maid Martha and a local widower; and finally the repercussions of a tragedy that occurs in one of Lucie’s cases. Although the events of The Gossips’ Choice are fictitious, the novel is richly informed by Read’s extensive work in the field of seventeenth-century medicine and reproduction. Here, she has skilfully blended anecdotes and cases drawn from the real work of early modern midwives, with an engaging story that explores the experiences of women across several social classes and stages of life. At times the novel feels slightly imbalanced between the narratives of Lucie’s cases, and the overarching plotlines which are concentrated largely in the second half. This does have an effect on the novel’s pacing, and its conclusion appears somewhat suddenly. However, Lucie Smith is a wonderfully rounded character whose expertise and authority shine through the text, and her charisma buoys forward the narrative.
Post-Restoration tensions in England are demonstrated through the interwoven connections between the Smith and Calstone families. The Calstones are newly elevated to the aristocracy for their support of Charles II, whereas the local townsfolk of Tupingham, and the Smith family in particular, are Parliamentary sympathisers and secretly hope for a return to the days of the Protectorate. These ideological differences are set against the friendships that develop between Lucie and Simon with various members of the wider Calstone family, and are complicated by the pervading presence of the conflict’s aftermath: in the wounded war veterans that linger on the edge of both the town and the narrative, and in Martha’s pervading spinsterhood – her fiancé having been killed fighting Prince Rupert’s army. The novel is also set against the events of the Great Plague of 1665, and the themes of quarantine, contagion, and the fear of disease are especially topical and poignant given its publication in May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Gossips’ Choice largely avoids the debates surrounding man-midwifery that dominate eighteenth-century discussions of midwifery and women’s healthcare. Aside from the appearance of the arrogant London doctor in the first chapter, the pregnant women in Tupingham are all attended to by other women, save for the occasional appearance of a male surgeon. As readers we are invited into a world in which pregnancy and birth are the exclusive domain of women, and Lucie works hard to maintain ‘the female-only space that was proper’ (p.10). Indeed, it is the ritualistic aspects of childbirth, including the gossips (female friends invited to be present at a birth) that give the novel its title, as Lucie’s extensive knowledge and successful record in delivering babies makes her the first-choice midwife of the local gossips.
Read has also written a companion pamphlet, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman, also by Wild Pressed Books (full details below), which serves as a primer for the medical world of The Gossips’ Choice. Also drawn largely from Jane Sharp’s work, the guide modernises much of the antiquated language of Sharp’s book, and serves as a sort of introduction to the knowledge seventeenth-century gossips might acquire from their own tenure as birth attendants and mothers.
Framed as a tool for the unfortunate time traveller (the back cover tells us that this guide will tell you all you need to know ‘should you find yourself unexpectedly in the seventeenth century’) the guide is a light-hearted pastiche of the slew of pregnancy books available to modern readers. With sections detailing how to tell if you are pregnant, how to determine whether infertility is the fault of husband or wife, instructions for antenatal care, and an explanation of the ritual of ‘churching’, A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman unveils some of the secrets of womanhood that Lucie Smith wished so desperately to keep from the press.
The attention to detail in both A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman, and The Gossips’ Choice, will delight any readers familiar with the medical world of seventeenth-century women, whilst also offering an excellent and accessible introduction for newcomers and popular readership.
University of York
Rebecca is a PhD student at the University of York. Her research explores representations of pregnancy and birth in the literature and medicine of the long-eighteenth century, and she is particularly interested in the literary output of midwives and female medical practitioners.
*Disclosure: Sara Read is a member of the Women’s Studies Group 1558–1837.
The Gossips’ Choice and the Handy Guide are available from Wild Pressed Books.
A Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman. By Sara Read. Wild Pressed Books. 2019. Pp 17. £4.50 (pamphlet)