New project: Birth scenes

Dot writes: a couple of months back I had an idea for a sort of very preliminary research project: gathering portrayals of birth from different periods of literature. The representation of birth is a rather fascinating topic. The experience of birth is heavily governed by cultural expectation and the way it influences choices; therefore it seems worth asking how the image of birth has developed. In recent culture television, newspapers, film and the internet have probably been more important than fiction in shaping the popular conception (and there is also the flood of more and less serious non-fiction writing about pregnancy and birth). However, literature is my principal interest, and literature allows a broad historical sweep, so I thought I’d start assembling literary examples. I’m going to use the blog as a place to collect extracts, which I will post from time to time (i.e. when I get round to it) under a new category called ‘Birth scenes.’

So, here is extract no. 1. I’m reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist Arthurian novel The Mists of Avalon in preparation for a course on Arthurian literature I’ll be teaching in the autumn. It was published in 1982, so Bradley’s interest in birth, abortion, and sexuality is possibly informed by the women’s health movement of the previous decade, though I have no idea where Bradley stood on birth issues specifically. (I need to research this, obviously, if this ever turns into a proper scholarly project.) As an Arthurian novel centered on the female characters, The Mists of Avalon portrays battle only at second-hand, but the female drama and strife of birth is accorded much more detail. Morgaine giving birth to Mordred is walked up and down by her women companions in a well-attested method for encouraging contractions, and Bradley is keen to reconstruct sub-Roman conditions with her description of a women’s hall and straw being put down for the birth. (The loose gown, however sensible, seems like a reflex of modern hospital practices.) There’s a certain vagueness about how exactly they do bring off what is apparently an exceptionally difficult and dangerous birth, one after which Morgaine can bear no more children. Nonetheless, it is a serious attempt to imagine a hard birth before the benefits of modern medicine. The scene is quite long and I have made some omissions, marked […]; rows of three dots without the square brackets are Bradley’s own.

Down in the little hall, a fire had been lighted for the women; a kettle of gruel was boiling on the hearth, for it would be a long night. Fresh straw had been prepared. Morgause had forgotten, as women happy with their children do, the dread of birth, but the sight of the fresh straw made her teeth clench and a shudder go down her back. Morgaine had been put into a loose shift, and her hair, unbound, was hanging loose down her back; she was walking up and down in the room, leaning on Megan’s arm. It all had the air of a festival, and so indeed it was for the other women. Morgause went up to her kinswoman and took her arm.

‘Come now, you can walk with me a bit, and Megan can go and prepare the swaddlings for your child’, she said. Morgaine looked at her, and Morgause thought the younger woman’s eyes were like those of a wild animal in a snare, awaiting the hunter’s hand which will cut its throat.
The hours dragged slowly by. Some of the women slept, but there were plenty to take their turn in walking with Morgaine, who grew more and more frightened and pale as time wore on. The sun rose, and still the midwives had not said Morgaine might lie down in the straw, though she was so weary that she stumbled and could hardly put one foot before another. One moment she said she was cold and clutched her warm fur cloak about her; another time she thrust it from her, saying that she was burning up. Again and again she retched and vomited, at last bringing up nothing but green bile; but she could not seem to stop retching, though they forced her to drink hot herb drinks, which she gulped down thirstily. But then she would begin retching again, and Morgause, watching her, her mind full of what Lot had said, wondered if it would make any difference what she did or did not do…it might well be that Morgaine could not survive this birth.
She came back into the women’s hall. The midwives had Morgaine kneeling upright in the straw now, to help the child slip from the womb; but she was slumping between them like a lifeless thing, so that two of them had to hold her upright. She was crying out now in gasps, then biting her lip against the cries, trying to be brave. Morgause went and knelt before Morgaine in the blood-flecked straw; she held out her hands, and Morgain gripped them, looking at Morgause almost without recognition.

‘Mother!’ she cried out. ‘Mother, I knew you would come-‘

Then her face convulsed again and she flung back her head, her mouth squared with unvoiced screams. Megan said, ‘Hold her, my lady-no, behind her, like that, hold her upright-‘ and Morgause, gripping Morgaine beneath the arms, felt the girl shaking, retching, sobbing as she fought and struggled, blindly, to get away from them. She was no longer capable of helping them or even letting them do what they must, but screamed aloud when they touched her. Morgause shut her eyes, unwilling to see, holding Morgaine’s frail convulsing body with all her strength. She screamed again, ‘Mother! Mother!’ but Morgause did not know whether she was calling on Igraine or the Goddess. Then she slumped backward into Morgause’s arms, all but unconscious; there was the sharp smell of blood in the room, and Megan held up something dark and shrivelled-looking.

‘Look, lady Morgaine,’ she said, ‘you have a fine son-‘ then she bent over him, breathing into the little mouth. There was a sharp, outraged sound, the cry of a newborn shrieking with fury at the cold world into which he had come.

But Morgaine lay collapsed in Morgause’s arms, utterly exhausted, and could not even open her eyes to look at her child.

Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon, (Penguin, 1993), pp. 281-5


7 thoughts on “New project: Birth scenes

  1. Lily Roth

    I took a class on Arthurian literature at University of Chicago as an undergraduate…The Mists of Avalon was one of the books on our list. I had forgotten the birth scene. ‘Course I was always terrified of childbirth after hearing stories about my own horrific birth (my poor mum nearly died).

    Good thing my child’s birth was good! 😉 But that was due to the wonders of modern medicine…

  2. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    I wonder if there has ever been a study of the effects of corseting on childbirth. Were women corsetted from childhood (as they were from c. 1525- c.1920) put at a disadvantage since their muscles must have been affected by wearing corsets.
    Women did wear essentially loose clothing until the sixteenth century.

    1. kenanddot

      If I do pursue this project seriously at some point (and, let’s face it, it’s pretty far down the list) I need to find out how to trace bibliography on this sort of issue. I am not familiar with bibliographical aids for more recent periods, apart from the general resources provided by the MLA and Royal Historical Society.

      I think *really* fierce corseting has always tended to be a minority pursuit, because it is so obviously impractical. Even milder corseting might have had some effect, but it would be hard to disentangle in the historical record from the effects of poor diet etc (a major cause of birth difficulties into the earlier twentieth century was of course rickets).

  3. Meri

    I believe there has been some study of how corsets effected childbirth- I seem to remember reading about increased miscarriages etc (though how well researched this is I’m not sure).

    Corsets certainly would not have been beneficial- have you seen the diagrams they produced in the Victorian period demonstrating the differences of organ position between corseted and non-corseted figures? I have even seen images of corsets that were designed for pregnancy.

    Of course this would help a lot more if I could actually remember references…..

    1. kenanddot

      Um, oh dear, I never did do much with this idea, did I? I still think it was quite a good one, though. Mists of Avalon is fun – hope you like it.

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