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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Saturday, 7 February 2015

The effects of infant mortality in the nineteenth century as seen in the non-gendering of babies in literature

The incidence of infant mortality in the 19th century beggars belief. Arthur Leared, physician at the Great Northern Hospital near King’s Cross in London, begins his article ‘Infant Mortality and its Causes’ (1862) with the statistic: ‘About one-fourth of all the children born in this civilized country perish miserably in the first year of their existence’. He compares the lot of animals to that of humans, noting that ‘the free agency of man caused an indifference to the strongest of all natural obligations, and that the results of apathy and ignorance are mistaken for those of a natural law’. The drift from the countryside to the cities and towns created conditions where disease was bound to carry off the weakest, and in 1915 Hugh Ashby noted that ‘the conditions generally found in towns are far more inimical to infant life than those in the country’ [Infant Mortality, Cambridge, 1915]. However, many factors caused the high incidence of infant mortality, Ashby citing poverty, the lack of skill in childcare, improper feeding, alcohol and opium abuse, as well as the myriad of diseases that carried children off suddenly and to which 19th-century medicine had no answer.

The statistics did not change much through the course of the century. In 1827 more than one in four children born in the east London area of Bethnal Green died before reaching the age of two (Alan Palmer The East End (2000) p 60).  While Ashby cited rates of between 13% and 16.3% (mortality specifically before 12 months) from 1880 to 1900, C F Masterman in The Condition of England (1909/11) reported 20% infant mortality in the Pottery towns [p137].

Some writers moved in areas where the figures, spiralling out of control, seemed to invoke the spectres of diseases that science was banishing to the past. The Countess of Ebersburg, in Six out of Ten: an Awful Bill (1877), reported that eighty per cent of infants deaths were caused not just by scarlatina, diphtheria, hooping cough, and measles, but also by ‘miasma’, ‘convulsions’ and ‘cholera infantum’ (caused by ‘bad air and bad food’) [p2]. Elsewhere she mentions ‘marasmus, the slow fading and wasting away of scrofulous little children’, and ‘miasmatic germs, or crowd poison’ [pp3, 5]. The countess calculated that ‘of all the little babes born in one year SIX OUT OF TEN die ere they reach the fifth year’ [p10]. Leared notes that ‘it is no uncommon thing’ for only one child in a family of eight or ten to survive [p8,9].

These startling statistics were not limited to the parts of a major cities that had poor sanitation or whose residents had low incomes or limited education. Mary Shelley lost three of her four children, at the ages of two weeks, one year, and three years; Byron’s daughter Allegra died at the age of five; Charles Lamb was one of seven siblings, of whom four died as infants; Elizabeth Gaskell and her brother John were the two out of the eight children born to their parents who survived infancy. Childbirth itself was likely to produce casualties, with both mother and child at risk, even in hospital. James Young Simpson in his work showing the value of anaesthetic quoted statistics showing that in the last two decades of the eighteenth century in London mortality rates for mothers in parturition were 1 in 110; the rate countrywide for 1841 was still 1 in 170 (An√¶sthesia, or the Employment of chloroform and ether in surgery, midwifery, etc., Philadelphia, 1949, pp 48-9).

Destitution and starvation were killers too. William Blake, whose sensibilities embraced the world of the young child (how many ‘babes’ are there in Songs of Innocence and of Experience?), was portraying the real world in ‘Holy Thursday’ (Experience), both in the words ‘Babes reduced to misery’ and in the image of the woman staring at the dead infant abandoned on the ground.

It is not surprising that this high risk of loss of a child should affect the parent-baby relationship. At the heart of the parent-baby relationship lay the long-standing idea that newborn children were ‘on loan’. Shakespeare’s Capulet in Romeo and Juliet states of his daughter that ‘God had lent us but this only child’, all the Capulet’s other children having died young. This sense of children being on loan rather than permanent survived into the Victorian era, creating a culture in which there was a close association between babies and death – witness the vogue for carte de visite photographs of dead babies. Babies  were seen as ‘visiting angels’ (Jonathan Miller, BBC, 4 Jan 1998), and the dead were wrapped in shrouds which resembled baby clothes (Julian Litten, The English Way of Death, 1991, p 84). Though heartbreak was real for the bereaved parents, there could also be a kind of commitment avoidance in the delaying of naming children till they had survived the first few months of life.

Given that babies ran a one in four risk of death, and that surviving infancy was such an achievement, it is surprising how seldom this is treated in 19th-century literature. There seems to be a general absence of interest in babies, or, when they do appear, they are referred to with impersonal and non-gendered terms. While young children in literature of this period may have strong identities babies seldom do; they are adjuncts, almost symbols or props. Where they do function in the plot, they are referred to as ‘it’, ‘baby’, ‘infant’, ‘child’, seldom gendered or named. We have to be careful here to distinguish between two linguistic situations: on one hand where the sex of the child is not known (‘Is it a boy or girl?’), and on the other where it is ignored, examples of which I here present. The avoidance of stating the gender of babies, evidenced by the use of the word ‘it’, is part of the non-engagement with babies as individuals, seen in repeated incidences in nineteenth-century literature. 

Wordsworth’s uncomfortable poem The Thorn (1789) deals with the anguish brought on by rejection and pregnancy outside marriage; the existence of the infant, and the death of the infant, exerts a strong force within the poem, but the baby never breaks through to actual identity. Marian in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 poem Aurora Leigh is found to have a child, but it is several pages before we find that the child is male; he is addressed as ‘the child’, ‘my lamb’, ‘my flower, my pet’, but even seven years later along the plot-line we do not know the child’s name.

The youngest member of the Pocket family in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) is continually referred to or addressed as ‘baby’, the child’s name or gender never being revealed, despite being a clearly defined character. In Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874), when Gabriel Oak erases the words ‘and child’ from Fanny Robin’s coffin, he is removing the identification of her shame, and protecting her memory, but in so doing effecting the removal of the ungendered child’s existence. Though Bathsheba castigates Troy for kissing ‘them’, the dead mother and ungendered child in the coffin, it is in fact only Fanny’s corpse that he kisses.

In The Prime Minister (1876) by Anthony Trollope we know that Emily’s baby is male – there are five references to ‘him’ and ‘he’ – but while the words ‘baby’, ‘child’ and ‘infant’ are used, ‘son’ and ‘boy’ are not. The baby dies within a few days, and is not named. Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song (1893), a book of nursery rhyme poems, has 13 references to ‘baby’, but only two of them give the gender of the baby. The book notably also contains five rhymes discussing the death of ‘baby’. In E M Forster Howards End (1910) ‘Baby’ is a kind of role-title, bestowed first on Charles and then Margaret; by the end of the book Dolly’s child is ‘Baby’ and ‘the Diddums’.

Even a bereaved mother might omit to bestow a gender in speaking about her child. In March 1816 Mary Shelley’s premature baby died, after her journal entries had referred to her child in non-gendered terms – ‘The child is not quite seven months’, ‘the child not expected to live.’ She wrote to Thomas Jefferson Hogg: ‘My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions.’
These examples render more noticeable the cases where babies are treated as individuals.
It is in The Prelude (1799) second part, from line 267 – ‘Blessed the infant babe’ – that we see Wordsworth working from the observation of an individual baby going through the process of learning from his mother; and the baby’s gender is specified within 4 lines. Wordsworth’s view of himself, so strongly based on his childhood, and particularly his view of himself as a poet, was closely connected to the ‘infant sensibility’ noted soon after. It is rare to find a writer of this period viewing him/herself as an infant.

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) we can trace a development of the importance of the role of the infant through the changing terms: Celia, who is genuinely devoted to her son, calls him ‘baby’ as much as ‘Arthur’. The term ‘the baby’ is used frequently throughout the book, but he is addressed as ‘baby’ seven times before his name, Arthur, is introduced. Arthur’s role is to highlight the childlessness and barrenness of Dorothy’s marriage – it is after the introduction of Arthur’s name that we are told ‘It seemed clear that where there was a baby, things were right enough, and that error, in general, was a mere lack of that central poising force.’ When Rosamund loses her baby this is referred to as a ‘misfortune’, but clearly means a lot more to Rosamund, who later states ‘I wish I had died with the baby’. The third important birth in the novel fittingly occurs in the ‘Finale’, where Celia announces ‘Dorothea has a little boy’.

On rare occasions we find writers for whom babies were individuals who are addressed directly. Hogg’s Life of Shelley tells the story of the poet addressing a baby on the subject of life before birth: ‘it was a fine placid boy; so far from being disturbed by the interruption, he looked up and smiled.’ It is the kind of direct and ingenuous enquiry one might expect only of Shelley, or Blake. [2408.a..5. Vol 1 p240]. Robert Burns’s A Poet’s Welcome to his Love-begotten Daughter (1785) shows a totally genuine interest in ‘my bonie, sweet, wee dochter’; the poem though was never published. Blake too in his unshackled mind saw babies as not just individuals, but as equals: in ‘Infant Joy’ the two-days old babe names him/herself – there is no need for a gender as the child is addressed directly – and shares the voice of the poem equally with Blake himself.

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