This week I am going to share some of the books on my shelf that fit into my interest into women’s lives and how they’ve changed in the last one hundred years or so and in particular, how childbirth could have calamitous consequences.
I am going to start with one of my favourite books of all time: Shadow Baby by Margaret Forster which I read way back in 1996 while recovering from having all my wisdom teeth bashed out of my mouth! Since then I’ve read this copy many more times, hence the unforgivable creases on the cover.
Evie, born in 1887, and Shona, born in 1956, have one thing in common: both were abandoned as babies by their mothers. Different times, different circumstances, but they both grow up sharing the same obsession. Each sets out to haunt her mother, with terrible consequences for everyone involved. Goodreads
While Evie and Shona’s stories are fascinating the events and emotions that led to their mothers to give them up are no less so. A book full of historical detail which was based upon Margaret’s book about her family for Hidden Lives. I read Hidden Lives after Shadow Baby having embarked on a Margaret Forster book fest and it was clear where her inspiration came from. Her Grandmother, also named Margaret was visited by a woman when she was in old age, a woman who said she was her daughter. Amazingly faced with the elderly Margaret’s ferocity not one of her family probed deeply into who this woman really was.
Margaret Forster’s grandmother died in 1936, taking many secrets to her grave. Where had she spent the first 23 years of her life? Who was the woman in black who paid her a visit shortly before her death? The search for answers took Margaret on a journey into her family’s past. This is a memoir on how women’s lives have changed over the century. Goodreads
Many, many years later my daughter’s history dissertation led me to read more widely about infanticide, not wholly confined to poor women who couldn’t care for an unwanted child but those who were subjected to post puerperal mania. One of the most moving books I read was The Cruel Mother by Siân Busby
In 1919 Sian Busby’s great-grandmother gave birth to triplets. One of the babies died at birth, and eleven days later she drowned the surviving twins in a bath of cold water. She was sentenced to an indefinite term in a prison for the criminally insane.
For generations to come, the author’s family dealt with the murders and the accompanying shame, guilt, and anxiety by suppressing the disturbing memory. It wasn’t until Busby began to experience severe bouts of postpartum depression herself that she felt compelled to learn more about this shadowy story, ultimately immersing herself in the puzzling and horrific tragedy that had quietly shaped her family’s collective history.
In Cruel Mother, Busby digs out her own postpartum depression, by re-creating not only the broader reality of post-WWI working class England, but the more intimate setting in which her great-grandmother tried to raise a family. In the process, Busby brings ghosts to very real and familiar life, making these unexpected and inexplicable deaths that much more tragic. Ultimately, Busby and the reader are left not only with new understanding, but heartfelt empathy for all involved. Goodreads
This was another fascinating look at women’s lives, and treatment following childbirth, but also a great illustration of how such a tragedy can cast a long shadow over future generations.
One of the options that a girl in trouble could resort to in Victorian and Edwardian England was to employ a baby farmer. I read books about the infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer but also a fictional depiction of the timeThe Ghost of Lily Painter written by Caitlin Davies, who is Margaret Forster’s daughter.
The first time Annie Sweet sees 43 Stanley Road, the house is so perfect she almost feels as though it has chosen her. She longs to move in, but with her husband seeming more distant, and her daughter wrapped up in her friends and new school, Annie is left alone to mull over the past.
Soon she becomes consumed by the house and everyone who has lived there before her, especially a young chorus girl called Lily Painter, a rising star of the music hall whose sparkling performances were the talk of the town.
As Annie delves further into Lily’s past she begins to unravel a dark episode from Edwardian London, that of two notorious baby farmers, who lured young unmarried mothers with the promise of a better life for their babies. Until Annie solves the mystery at the heart of the scandal, the ghost of Lily Painter will never be able to rest.
Based on a real period from London’s rich history, Caitlin Davies skilfully blends fact and fiction to bring to life part of our sinister past. Spanning an entire century, from the journals of an Edwardian police inspector to a doomed wartime love affair, The Ghost of Lily Painter is an engrossing and poignant novel from a hugely talented writer. Goodreads
This is an excellently well-told tale and as I was choosing books for this post, I was incredibly tempted to pick this one up and read it again.
Illustrating how long the subject of women’s lives, particularly when based on real women, has lasted this year I read Out of The Silence by Wendy James
no original picture of this one as it is on my kindle
I call his name – only quietly, but he hears me as I knew he would, and wants me as he always does. And we come together – right there in the darkness. And even though there is no way to be certain of any other thing in the world, I am certain that I would risk anything to keep what is between the two of us. For love, I would risk anything, lose everything.
Out of the Silence is a stunning debut novel about three Australian women from very different worlds: Maggie Heffernan, a spirited working-class country girl; Elizabeth Hamilton, whose own disappointment in love has served only to strengthen her humanity; and Vida Goldstein, a charismatic suffragist from Melbourne and the first woman to stand for Parliament in Australia.
When Maggie’s life descends into darkness after a terrible betrayal, the three women’s lives collide. Around this tragedy Wendy James has constructed a masterfully drawn and gripping fiction. Based on a true story, it unfolds at the dawn of the twentieth century against the compelling backdrop of the women’s suffrage movement and a world on the brink of enormous change.
The novel powerfully evokes the plight of women in the early 1900s – not least their limited options, whatever their class and education. However, at its heart this is a story of love – of love gone wrong; of its compromises and disappointments; but ultimately of its extraordinary transformative power. Goodreads
This book powerfully illustrated how women’s lives were hampered by their sex with those who decided on a career of any sort having to make a choice between that and marriage.
One last example of this genre is the memoir Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, a young woman who never had sex again after becoming pregnant in 1950’s Wales.
Blood trickles down through every generation, seeps into every marriage. An international bestseller and winner of the Whitbread Biography Award, Bad Blood is a tragicomic memoir of one woman’s escape from a claustrophobic childhood in post-World War II Britain and the story of three generations of the author’s family and its marriages.
In one of the most extraordinary memoirs of recent years, Bad Blood brings alive in vivid detail a time — the ’40s and ’50s — not so distant from us but now disappeared. As a portrait of a family and a young girl’s place in it, it is unsurpassed. Goodreads
I do hope you’ve enjoyed my whistle stop tour of nearly twenty years of reading around this particular subject – do you have any recommendations for me?