In memory of Deirdre Gillian Gina Le Faye 26 October 1933-16 August 2020 By Gillian Dow (University of Southampton)

In this post, Gillian Dow reflects on the life of Deirdre Le Faye (1933-2020).

The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.

Northanger Abbey, Volume 1, Chapter 14.

I can’t remember exactly when I talked about this passage with Deirdre Le Faye, who has died age 86. It must have been after the publication of the Cambridge University Press edition of Northanger Abbey, which she co-edited with Barbara Benedict, and which appeared in 2006, because we were talking about her work on that. It was certainly before her honorary doctorate, awarded at the University of Southampton in 2011. No matter: I remember our discussion vividly. We were sitting in the Great Hall at Chawton House, and I was quizzing Deirdre about her rejection of what she always called ‘lit crit’ (she could load the phrase with a great deal of disdain). Surely, I said, there’s a great deal of invention in biography, and perhaps even in editing? Leaving aside the destruction of Austen’s letters, and the necessary account that must be made of what’s missing, what’s there still needs to be interpreted. What of the gaps, the omissions, what of providing a reading of tone and style? “I deal in facts”, Deirdre said. And that was the end of that. The phrase ‘facts as crisp as lettuce leaves’ was one she herself used, on many occasions. It was cited in the conferment speech made at the graduation ceremony for her honorary Doctorate, which can be read here.

I knew not how to reconcile Deirdre’s very different account of what she did to what I felt was the work of biography. But on this, as on many, many other things, she and I agreed to differ.

I first met Deirdre in 2005, when I took up my position as postdoctoral research fellow at Chawton House and the University of Southampton. I got to know her well because of her constant devotion to the Chawton House Library project, and support of me, personally, in a variety of my roles there. She was thrilled that the house had been saved for the benefit of the public, and that it was a centre for the study of women’s writing, and she was delighted to be a Patron. She gave many talks at conferences and study days at Chawton House over the years, frequently causing some anxiety to the Chair of her panel because of her relaxed approach to keeping to her allotted time. When she launched her book Jane Austen’s Country Life at Chawton House in 2014, she spoke entirely without notes, and insisted on taking her watch off for the evening: I managed to coax her into finishing, but only so that we had time for questions.

Deirdre’s theme, in her talks, never really changed, and could be summed up by the keynote that she gave at the New Directions in Austen Studies conference hosted at Chawton House in 2009, the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s move to the village. Although she was saddened that new Austen letters would almost certainly never come to light, she felt convinced that new evidence about the lives of the Austen family could be found via the papers of neighbours and relations in Steventon, Chawton, Godmersham, Southampton and Bath. The conclusion to that paper – a version can be found online – was in effect a call to arms for other researchers to pick up in the archives where she had left off.

I’m certain that one of the reasons that Deirdre made this call to arms was because she had thoroughly enjoyed her own research trips over the years, and wanted others to have that same thrill of the chase. She was a committed archival researcher, hunting down information about the extended Austen family and their acquaintances in local record offices, and in the homes of Austen-family descendants, many of whom she befriended. One of her descriptions of a research trip to a family archive in the 1980s that she sent me gave a hilariously Gothic account of the visit: encountering green mould on the flag stones, and ‘lavatory paper so damp it might almost have been previously used’. She certainly relished locating her visit in the steps of Catherine Morland, as well as Austen herself.

Even after her travelling days were over, and Deirdre called on the next generation to take up the reins, one of the things that always impressed me about her was her enormous appetite for work and research from her own home. She was always working on some new article, or note, or helping another scholar with their own endeavours. Indeed, her generosity to other scholars could be remarkable – she was a great one for sending little cards and relevant anecdotes, unprompted, and she was always quick to reply to direct pleas for her assistance. But one disagreed with her at ones peril. She was extremely stern, if, for example, one raised any questions about a certain Austen portrait. That, for Deirdre, was an unmentionable topic, and it shall go unmentioned here. In my years editing the Chawton House Library newsletter The Female Spectator, I was on the receiving end of many emails which began ‘Gillian! No! It is quite incorrect to…’ Nor did I ever manage to convince her that the French women writers I was interested in myself were worth reading, although she had – in the interests of completeness, and with a grim sense of duty – read a great many that the Austen women themselves would have read.

Deirdre’s industry put most of us to shame. She was a true independent scholar, in the best sense of the words. She amused me with her accounts of her idleness too. In April 2015 – when she was, it must be remembered, already in her eighties – she wrote that it was so sunny that

I have lolled in the back garden doing nothing except read and think, instead of sitting at my desk and working!   This morning so far is rather overcast, hence dolce far niente must be put aside and stern Puritan work ethic return. 

We had very different ideas about what leisure was! I valued Deirdre’s friendship, and especially her correspondence, which could be full of gossip, scandal, and not-to-be-repeated comments about Austenian scholarship and Janeite devotees. She frequently had me laughing out loud at her descriptions of mutual acquaintances, and indeed her doctors in her final years. She rejoiced in being a ‘Puzzling Case’ for her medical team, turning accounts of what must have been extremely wearing and worrying appointments into amusing and carefully-crafted emails.  She took being a correspondent seriously, and never forgot what my own family had been, or were due to be, doing. She never met my son, but she never failed to ask after him, or to send advice for books he might enjoy.

Deirdre’s exhaustive approach to Jane Austen’s life and work, and her devotion to those she met through her scholarship, meant that she was industrious to the very end. Although frustrated that motor neurone disease had robbed her of the power of speech, and what she called ‘the ability to appear in polite society’, she was typing until the last days of her life. Her last email to me expressed frustration with her computer system, and she turned it off to ‘let the wretched thing regain some degree of normality’. Her ‘more anon’, and ‘Love and Freindship’ are left hanging in my inbox. Cassandra-like, I censor Deirdre’s missives, whilst knowing that the Le Faye correspondence – scattered around her friends and colleagues across the world, in drawers and computers – must be prolific and contain a great many gems. It is, however, something of a comfort that her own books and papers – with their extensive marginalia, notes and ‘corrections’ – are to be held at Chawton House for the scholars of the future to deduce their own ‘facts’. Deirdre made this donation with a strong sense of her own legacy, and an even stronger wish to further the Austenian scholarship of the future. I hope that many will travel to Chawton House in her steps, and, in doing so remember a scholar whose ‘Love and Freindship’ for the library were generous to the end.

_______________________________________________

With many thanks to Dr Gillian Dow for writing this very personal obituary for the Women’s Studies Group. Gillian was also featured on a BBC Radio 4 episode of ‘Last Word’ where she spoke about Deirdre Le Faye. A link to the episode can be found here. Deirdre was very dedicated to Chawton House and donations made to them in her memory would be much appreciated.

Reminder: WSG seminar 19 September 2020

The first seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (BST), 19 September 2020.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm BST/GMT* (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

September 19, 2020
Stephen Spiess: Reading Strumpets: Thomas Heywood, Sexual Epistemology, and the Making of English Whoredom

In a decidedly offhand tone, as if sharing an insight so obvious as to barely merit acknowledgement, Thomas Heywood asserts in Gynaikeion (1624), his encyclopaedic catalogue of women historical and mythological, that “almost every boy of fifteen or sixteen years old knows what a strumpet is, better by his own practice than I can illustrate to him by all my reading.” How, we might ask, can he be so sure? Upon what terms, standards, and practices does such sexual knowledge depend? In this paper, I leverage Heywood’s provocation as an invitation to think early modern “whoredom” not simply as an historical practice or literary trope, but a knowledge-relation whose contours and problematics open onto broader questions of sexual epistemology, both in the early modern period and our own. My reading thus unfolds on two levels. First, I situate Heywood’s claim in relation to the broader project in which it appears: a 466-page treatise which aims to distinguish between chaste and illicit women, and whose manifold anecdotes and exempla consistently unsettle the sexual knowability it promises to secure. In this, Gynaikeion exemplifies in strong form what I call the “making of English whoredom”—that is, the immense social, textual, and discursive labor necessary to produce and sustain the fiction of the early modern “whore” as a fixed, transparent object of knowledge. Second, and by detailing this claim, I discuss how my epistemological approach fits within the broader scholarship of early modern sex, as well as how it offers new traction on old problems (archival, hermeneutic, historiographic, etc.) faced by historians and literary critics interested in the structures and meanings of English whoredom.

Sonia Villegas Lopez: Female Libertinism in Gabriel de Brémond’s Transnational Oriental Fictions.

French oriental narratives were both translated and published profusely in England in the 1670s and 1680s. The action of many of these novellas was situated in the exotic territories of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, though often telling stories about the French and the English nobility under cover. They illustrated sexual scandals, in which women, though primarily the objects of love and gallantry, were also prone to give free rein to their desires. Gabriel de Brémond’s Hattige, or the Amours of the King of Tamaran (1680) and Homais, Queen of Tunis (1681), reproduce Charles II’s sexual affairs, and construe both Hattige, the king of Tamaran’s favourite, and Homais, wife of the King of Tunis, as emblems of female libertinism within the safe boundaries of the seraglio. Tamaran (or England) and Tunis were described as places of gallantry, the perfect environment for stories of intrigue, love and passion. These female rakes followed their ambition and used their sexual authority over kings and nobles, making fools of them to earn political power in return. They behaved as apt manipulators but their downfall was precipitated by their own romantic weaknesses for other men whom they loved, in spite of not being rich or powerful. I argue that, far from being read as models of female exoticism and otherness, as in later Enlightenment oriental novels, these strong women and the love intrigues they spin could be interpreted as examples of what Srinivas Aravamudan has fitly called “transcultural allegories” (2012: 202). I subscribe to Aravamudan’s interpretation of the late seventeenth-century oriental novel as the vehicle to introduce the culturally foreign, which displaces the local and the national in favour of transculturalism. The selected novels suggest a transnational vision of the orient not in either/or exclusive categories, but in inclusive terms, according to which the east is feminised and associated to a glorious and hedonistic past.

Anthony Walker-Cook: Descending into the Underworld with Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding.

Of women and epic poetry, this paper will explore. Following Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad (1715-20) and the Odyssey (1725-26), it was considered by many that Homer had been rendered into English in an edition perfect for women to use. This, alongside Dryden’s 1697 Virgil, meant the essential texts of the epic genre were now available for women to read in acceptable English translations. In the few accounts of the history of the epic genre that consider the presence of women writers of the mode, the eighteenth century is often missed. In 1716, Richard Blackmore thought that epic need not be ‘restrain’d to a Hero; since no Reason […] can be assign’d, why a Heroine may not be the principal person of an Epick.’ To go further, why might a woman not be the writer of an epic poem? This paper suggests that the works of Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding represents the best claim for women’s work of the period to be classified within the epic genre. Both Leapor and Fielding use the underworld, the classical space par excellence, to explore the status of women in the eighteenth century, but both also register the influence of the mock-heroic, a mode popular throughout the period. Exploring Leapor’s poetry and Sarah Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759), it shall be shown how each writer uses the underworld to depict the lives of the serving class and of a woman marked by divorce respectively. This paper will thus overall suggest that the traces of the epic genre that can be detected throughout work of Leapor and Fielding warrant examination as an important part of the broadly-unwritten history that details how women writers engaged with the mode.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Angelica Kauffman. Edited by Bettina Baumgärtel. With contributions by Inken Maria Holubec, Johannes Myssok and Helen Valentine. Munich: Hirmer Publishers. 2020. £35 / $45 (hardback), ISBN: 978-3-7774-3462-9 (English edition).

In June 1780, Angelica Kauffman (1747–1807) was paid one hundred guineas for a prestigious commission: the creation of four ceiling paintings at Somerset House in London. Representing ‘The Elements of Art’ – Invention, Composition, Design and Colouring – critics lavished praise on ‘the celebrated Angelica Kauffman’, whose ‘very capital pictures which adorn the ceiling’ had ‘an infinite deal of character, and sweetness’ (cited on p.18). The four paintings commemorated Somerset House’s new function as home of the Royal Academy of Arts, where Kauffman was one of the thirty-six founding Members, one of only two women Members. It is these roundels– the only known examples of murals painted by a woman artist in the eighteenth century –which would have been at the heart of the Royal Academy’s exhibition, which was scheduled to open on 27 June 2020.

Members of the WSG will have greatly lamented the cancellation of the London iteration of Angelica Kauffman, which was one of the first exhibitions to be removed from the RA programme due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the sheer number of international loans that made up the show (from at least 34 institutions, plus private collections), it may have proved too difficult to coordinate a delayed installation in London. Instead, the catalogue’s good quality, 144 colour illustrations now serve to remind us of what fresh research and exciting loans we have missed. It is not clear if the show will be rehung at a later date (as we have seen with the National Gallery’s rescheduled Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition) but the German instalment, at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf, has been extended to 29 September 2020.

The exhibition catalogue is edited by Dr Bettina Baumgärtel, the exhibition curator and Director of the Angelica Kauffman Research Project (AKRP). Generously illustrated and handsomely designed, it opens with four relatively short, thematic essays. The first and the longest is a chronological account of Kauffman’s extraordinary life, written by Baumgärtel, and contains research that will be familiar to many Kauffman scholars. Baumgärtel covers Kauffman’s early years, her training in Italy, her arrival in London in 1766, her cultivation of female clients and finally, her return to Rome. Next, Helen Valentine writes on the RA’s four ceiling roundels, which, she confesses, languished in the basement of Burlington House for thirty years in the mid-nineteenth century – representative, no doubt, of Kauffman’s secondary reputation at that time. In the third essay, Johannes Myssok is concerned with the friendship between Kauffman and the sculptor Antonio Canova, whom Kauffman counted as her ‘amico pregiatissimo’ (highly prized friend) and who went on to coordinate her funeral in 1807. Opening amongst the cosmopolitan milieu of late eighteenth-century Rome, Myssok’s new research is based on unpublished documents and provides a fascinating glimpse into the companionship enjoyed by these two artists. The final essay, written by Inken Maria Houlbec, makes a technical examination of two paintings in the collection of the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf: Agrippina Mourning over the Ashes of Germanicus (1793) and Portrait of the Impromptu Virtuoso Teresa Bandettini Landucci (1794). These mature and sophisticated compositions were created in Rome, and Houlbec’s astute scientific analysis is illustrated with helpful cross-sections and coloured details.

The majority of the book is given over to the catalogue, which is organised into nine sections, detailing eighty-one familiar and surprising works. Reciting the organisation of the catalogue gives an indication of the exhibition’s contents: ‘I. Stagings of the Self’; ‘II. Training in Italy’; ‘III. The History Painter: The Homer and Shakespeare Revival’; ‘IV. Founding Member of the Royal Academy of Arts’; ‘V. The Portrait Painter as the Arbiter of Fashion’; ‘VI. New Heroines’; ‘VII. Beautiful Young Men as beau idéal’;VIII ‘Parnassus of the Muses: Masquerades and Role Play’ and finally ‘IX. Rome, Residence of the Fine Arts, and International Commissions.’ Collectively, the one-page introduction to each section, as well as the individual catalogue entries, offer much to learn for those unfamiliar, and familiar, with Kauffman’s ouevre. Furthermore, the extensive six-page bibliography will be of great use to students of both Kauffman and eighteenth-century women artists more broadly.

A closer examination of Kauffman’s printed oeuvre, her designs for the print trade, and more of her engagement with the decorative arts, would have been a welcome element to the catalogue. It seems that these media were included in the exhibition, as indicated by the Kunstpalast’s website, but there is little discussion of their importance for Kauffman’s reputation, and income, in the catalogue. For more on these, we eagerly await Dr Baumgärtel’s forthcoming, and no doubt highly illuminating, catalogue raisonné.

Once they return from Düsseldorf, Kauffman’s four roundels will be installed back in the entrance hall ceiling in Burlington House. Thankfully these paintings, as well as the preliminary oil studies in grisaille which are housed at the V&A, will be available for us to view once again. Yet, as former Tate Curator, Martin Myrone, lamented in a recent article: ‘There are important pictures elsewhere in the UK, but, given that she was one of the most celebrated artists of the day, Kauffman remains woefully underrepresented’ (Tate Etc. Issue 43: Summer 2018). The exhibition catalogue testifies to the great level of collaborative research that went into coordinating this exhibition, which would have been an important opportunity to revisit Kauffman’s work and recover her status as one of Britain’s foremost eighteenth-century artists. Sadly, it looks like London will have to wait a little longer before she is given the attention that she deserves.

Hannah Lyons

Birkbeck, University of London

Hannah Lyons is a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London and the V&A. Her dissertation explores the role, status and output of women printmakers in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Britain. Previously she was Assistant Curator at Tate Britain and Curatorial Assistant at Christ Church Picture Gallery, University of Oxford.

Angelica Kauffman is currently on sale in the RA shop for £20 plus postage.

Reminder: WSG seminar September 2020

The first seminar of the year takes place on Saturday, 1pm (BST), 19 September 2020.

This meeting will be delivered on Zoom. All meetings will start promptly at 1pm BST/GMT* (with arrivals from 12.30 onward to allow for necessary preparations and administration). We aim to finish by 3.30pm. If you would like to attend, please make sure your membership is up-to-date to receive the Zoom link.

September 19, 2020
Stephen Spiess: Reading Strumpets: Thomas Heywood, Sexual Epistemology, and the Making of English Whoredom

In a decidedly offhand tone, as if sharing an insight so obvious as to barely merit acknowledgement, Thomas Heywood asserts in Gynaikeion (1624), his encyclopaedic catalogue of women historical and mythological, that “almost every boy of fifteen or sixteen years old knows what a strumpet is, better by his own practice than I can illustrate to him by all my reading.” How, we might ask, can he be so sure? Upon what terms, standards, and practices does such sexual knowledge depend? In this paper, I leverage Heywood’s provocation as an invitation to think early modern “whoredom” not simply as an historical practice or literary trope, but a knowledge-relation whose contours and problematics open onto broader questions of sexual epistemology, both in the early modern period and our own. My reading thus unfolds on two levels. First, I situate Heywood’s claim in relation to the broader project in which it appears: a 466-page treatise which aims to distinguish between chaste and illicit women, and whose manifold anecdotes and exempla consistently unsettle the sexual knowability it promises to secure. In this, Gynaikeion exemplifies in strong form what I call the “making of English whoredom”—that is, the immense social, textual, and discursive labor necessary to produce and sustain the fiction of the early modern “whore” as a fixed, transparent object of knowledge. Second, and by detailing this claim, I discuss how my epistemological approach fits within the broader scholarship of early modern sex, as well as how it offers new traction on old problems (archival, hermeneutic, historiographic, etc.) faced by historians and literary critics interested in the structures and meanings of English whoredom.

Sonia Villegas Lopez: Female Libertinism in Gabriel de Brémond’s Transnational Oriental Fictions.

French oriental narratives were both translated and published profusely in England in the 1670s and 1680s. The action of many of these novellas was situated in the exotic territories of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, though often telling stories about the French and the English nobility under cover. They illustrated sexual scandals, in which women, though primarily the objects of love and gallantry, were also prone to give free rein to their desires. Gabriel de Brémond’s Hattige, or the Amours of the King of Tamaran (1680) and Homais, Queen of Tunis (1681), reproduce Charles II’s sexual affairs, and construe both Hattige, the king of Tamaran’s favourite, and Homais, wife of the King of Tunis, as emblems of female libertinism within the safe boundaries of the seraglio. Tamaran (or England) and Tunis were described as places of gallantry, the perfect environment for stories of intrigue, love and passion. These female rakes followed their ambition and used their sexual authority over kings and nobles, making fools of them to earn political power in return. They behaved as apt manipulators but their downfall was precipitated by their own romantic weaknesses for other men whom they loved, in spite of not being rich or powerful. I argue that, far from being read as models of female exoticism and otherness, as in later Enlightenment oriental novels, these strong women and the love intrigues they spin could be interpreted as examples of what Srinivas Aravamudan has fitly called “transcultural allegories” (2012: 202). I subscribe to Aravamudan’s interpretation of the late seventeenth-century oriental novel as the vehicle to introduce the culturally foreign, which displaces the local and the national in favour of transculturalism. The selected novels suggest a transnational vision of the orient not in either/or exclusive categories, but in inclusive terms, according to which the east is feminised and associated to a glorious and hedonistic past.

Anthony Walker-Cook: Descending into the Underworld with Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding.

Of women and epic poetry, this paper will explore. Following Alexander Pope’s translations of the Iliad (1715-20) and the Odyssey (1725-26), it was considered by many that Homer had been rendered into English in an edition perfect for women to use. This, alongside Dryden’s 1697 Virgil, meant the essential texts of the epic genre were now available for women to read in acceptable English translations. In the few accounts of the history of the epic genre that consider the presence of women writers of the mode, the eighteenth century is often missed. In 1716, Richard Blackmore thought that epic need not be ‘restrain’d to a Hero; since no Reason […] can be assign’d, why a Heroine may not be the principal person of an Epick.’ To go further, why might a woman not be the writer of an epic poem? This paper suggests that the works of Mary Leapor and Sarah Fielding represents the best claim for women’s work of the period to be classified within the epic genre. Both Leapor and Fielding use the underworld, the classical space par excellence, to explore the status of women in the eighteenth century, but both also register the influence of the mock-heroic, a mode popular throughout the period. Exploring Leapor’s poetry and Sarah Fielding’s The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759), it shall be shown how each writer uses the underworld to depict the lives of the serving class and of a woman marked by divorce respectively. This paper will thus overall suggest that the traces of the epic genre that can be detected throughout work of Leapor and Fielding warrant examination as an important part of the broadly-unwritten history that details how women writers engaged with the mode.

For further information including abstracts, see our seminars page.  To join the WSG, see our membership page.

Book Review: The Gossips’ Choice. By Sara Read. Wild Pressed Books. 2020. Pp 296. £12 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-916-4896-8-4. Reviewed by Rebecca Simpson

‘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.

Handy Guide to Pregnancy and Birth for the Seventeenth-century Woman by Sara Read

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.

Rebecca Simpson

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)