From the #Historical Research Files
A couple of weeks ago I typed “The End” on a Regency novella that blends the Secret Baby and Cinderella tropes, and is tentatively titled The Marquess and the Midwife. Following my usual mostly seat-of-the-pants process, some elements of the story are likely to change in edits, though not the hero’s title or the heroine’s profession.
Which gave me the opportunity to delve a bit into the practice of midwifery during the Regency.
Leave it to a cartoonist to get to the heart of one of the era’s conflicts. Before the late eighteenth century, midwifery had always been primarily the province of women. Female relatives, friends, and the midwife gathered to help an expectant mother through labor and delivery.
Men were not welcome in the birthing chamber, especially not a man-midwife, an “accoucheur” like the one pictured in this late eighteenth century drawing ogling an attractive young pregnant woman while her husband is dragged out of the room.
What surprised me was how well-educated many midwives could be. In France, Marie-Louise Lachapelle, who died in 1821, was the head of head of obstetrics at the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris. In England, Margaret Stephen, who attended Queen Charlotte in her many childbirths, ran a school of midwifery for women and published a pocket book, The Domestic Midwife, for midwives to carry with them on calls. Stephen believed midwifery should be a profession run by women. In the rare instances when a doctor was needed, she believed only a skilled and experienced man should be called in.
If you’re interested in reading more, Anna Bosanquet, a Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Kingston University/St. George’s University of London has an excellent series of articles on five preeminent midwives of the Georgian era.
In my story, the heroine is apprenticed to the skilled midwife who took her in years earlier, friendless and abandoned by the hero. In that era, London’s Lying in Hospital was only open to poor married women who were required to prove their marriage by certificate and the taking of an oath.
The mentor has taken in another young woman, and the heroine faces her first case of preeclampsia. To refresh your memory of this condition, postpartum eclampsia caused the shocking death of Lady Sybil in the 2013 season of Downton Abbey.
By the time of Lady Sybil’s fictional death in the early twentieth century there were more diagnostic and treatment options for this condition, if it was properly diagnosed. It seems almost unthinkable, but preeclampsia is still a serious condition, and life-threatening if left untreated. I’ve known of two women, friends of friends, who’ve died in childbirth from eclampsia, one of them only last year.
My research shows that the favored treatment for preeclampsia in the Regency was bloodletting, but other treatments were also employed, including opiates and warm baths. My story is set a year after the gruesome death in childbirth of Princess Charlotte, who was bled excessively by her attending physicians, and I would rather see my midwife characters pull out a charm or amulet treatment from the middle ages than bleed a patient! Wish me luck ironing out this part of the plot!
Historical research is one of the fun parts of writing fiction, and you can probably tell from this rambling post it’s also one of the deepest rabbit holes we authors fall into! Of the countless hours spent reading old books on Google, a mere snippet here or there, like the research I just mentioned, goes into our tomes.
As a reader, I notice when historical details are egregiously wrong, but I confess, excessive descriptions of fashion and carpets and furnishings throw me right out of the story. Aubusson or Turkey carpet? Who cares, unless a character recognizes it as the carpet used to ferry out the murder victim’s body.
Hmm. I might have to add an Aubusson carpet to one of the stories I’m working on!
What about you? Do you like a lot of detailed research or not? How much is too much?
All images: Wikimedia Commons