Fictional Pregnancies Before and After the Test

By Jesse Olszynko-Gryn

Today, home pregnancy tests are cheap and ubiquitous. For countless women, these over-the-counter retail products mediate between the uncertainty of a missed period and the potentially life-changing decision either to prepare for motherhood or to seek an abortion. As artist Tracey Emin put it in her 2000 installation Feeling Pregnant, ‘I go to the bathroom, knowing that within three minutes my life might never be the same again’ (p.164). However, rapid and easy-to-use home tests have only existed since the 1980s. Before then, as now, many women first suspected they were pregnant when they recognized one of the more telltale signs: a missed period, morning sickness, sore breasts. Quickening the feeling of the first fetal movements in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, was typically interpreted as a sign that the fetus was alive and well, but most women would have already determined they were pregnant well before the baby started to kick. The earliest pregnancy tests involved injecting laboratory animals (mice, rabbits, toads) with a woman’s urine, and were first offered by doctors in the late 1920s. This exclusively medical service was not widely publicized and most women would not have known about pregnancy tests until after World War II, when the NHS and Family Planning Association expanded the range of pregnancy-testing services on offer. By the 1960s, commercial labs were marketing pregnancy tests directly to women.

Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie.

Figure 1

That said, in the absence of a test, early pregnancy was, and still is, an ambiguous and uncertain time. It was nearly impossible to tell a late period from an early miscarriage and many women took ‘female pills’ or other measures to restore menstruation, or ‘bring it on.’ Many novels that dramatize pregnancy and abortion or motherhood, include fictionalized accounts of the experience of early pregnancy. Here, I have chosen to present one novel from the 1930s and one from the 1960s to suggest how the experience of early pregnancy changed, but also stayed the same, after laboratory pregnancy tests became increasingly accessible to women.

Olivia, the déclassée heroine of Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Streets (1936), begins to worry as soon as her period is a few days late:

I was happy…till I got worried. Even after that of course; because, of course, there’s no need to worry. Six, seven days late…I’m worried. But it’s happened once before, the first year Ivor and I were married; over a week then, I was beginning to be sure—but it was a false alarm….That was in August too—so I expect it’s the time of year, I’m sure I’ve heard it does happen sometimes; or all that long cold bathing, lake water’s very cold, that might easily account for it…I’m worried. Falling for one, Mrs. Banks calls it. ‘When I fell for our Doris…’ I feel a bit sick. Train-sick, I expect. I’ve never been train-sick in my life. This morning when I got up, suddenly retching as I began to wash….Nerves. Lying down like this I feel fine. Be all right tomorrow. Sleep. Thank God for lying down, a sleeper to myself. Supposing I’m sick when I get up to-morrow….That would clinch it. No, it wouldn’t. A long journey like this often upsets people (pp. 228-9) (ellipses in original).

Olivia’s pregnancy wasn’t planned and her reaction to amenorrhea and nausea is profoundly ambivalent. She recognizes the telltale signs for what they are and at the same time rationalizes them away in terms of the weather and train sickness. Although she has no way of knowing for certain one way or another, she is clearly lying to herself about something she knows deep down to be true.

Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie.

Figure 2

Thirty years on, a woman in Olivia’s position would probably have heard about a test for pregnancy and might also have the option of taking a urine specimen to a laboratory. Val, the trapped narrator of Andrea Newman’s The Cage (1965), remembers something she had read ‘in women’s magazines in the far-off days when the subject had been merely interesting’ and tells her boyfriend Malcolm, ‘I think you can have some kind of test with animals when you’re a fortnight late’ (p.20). A few days later she rings up for the test result, which is ‘positive’ just as she ‘had known it would be.’ Although the laboratory warns her that the result ‘was not absolutely conclusive, just almost’, she ‘knew anyway.’ So why did she bother getting tested in the first place? Val had been college-bound until the prospect of pregnancy threatened to tie her down to a man she didn’t love, so she ‘had really only had the test to stop Malcolm from making [wedding] plans for another week’ (p.28).

Olivia’s wishful denial and Val’s fatalistic acceptance of their unplanned and unwanted pregnancies provide before and after snapshots spanning three decades. By the 1960s, pregnancy testing had changed from being a highly unusual experience to a more commonplace one. The availability of tests certainly transformed how many women experienced a missed period and morning sickness, but it did not eliminate all the ambiguity and uncertainty of early pregnancy. On the contrary, it seems to have added further layers of ambiguity. Val’s test was not 100% reliable and, in any case, she was already resigned to her fate. Her decision to get tested had more to do with delaying the inevitable than finding out at the earliest possible moment, an option that is no longer offered by today’s three-minute home tests.


Emin, Tracey. Strangeland. London: Sceptre, 2005.

Lehmann, Rosamond. The Weather in the Streets. London: Virago, 1986. Originally published:London: Collins, 1936.

Newman, Andrea. The Cage. London: Penguin, 1978. Originally published: London: Blond, 1966.

Figures: Laboratory technicians in the early 1950s preparing urine specimens and toads (Xenopus laevis) at the NHS pregnancy diagnosis centre in Watford. The day’s test tubes, syringes and a glass jar litter the work surface and large holding tanks for the toads are shelved in the background. Photographs kindly provided by Audrey Peattie (right in figure 1 and centre in figure 2).


Jesse Olszynko-Gryn is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, funded by the Wellcome Trust and a member of the ‘Generation to Reproduction’ team: He researches the history of pregnancy testing in twentieth-century Britain and collects novels like The Weather in the Streets and The Cage. Please send any suggestions of pregnancy novels, and memoirs, biographies, plays, or films, to

Rebirth for the Royals

By Charlotte Knowles

In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt makes a distinction between the fact of physical birth and the fundamental significance of natality. Natality is not contiguous with the event of physical birth, but is a kind of ‘second birth’, occurring when we enter the public and political sphere. Natality is characterised by ‘uniqueness, action, politics and plurality’ and the capacity to bring about something new. Arendt argues that ‘the human condition of natality; the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is of acting’.

However, with the pregnancy of Kate Middleton this separation between birth and natality is called into question, and the connection between newness and action is complicated. The imminent child has seemingly entered the public and political sphere before its symbolic entrance into the world as an independent actor, and even prior to its physical birth. The possibility of ‘newness’ associated with the child, seems not to be rooted in action, as Arendt argues, but simply in the idea of the child; with this possibility of ‘newness’ attaching itself not only to the individual, but to the wider royal family as an institution. Thus begging the question whether the mere idea of this impending birth can serve to reinvigorate and renew the institution of monarchy as a whole.

With the royal wedding of Kate and William in Spring 2011, there was a sense – or at least an attempt to convey the sense – that the monarchy had been rejuvenated: rebranded with the smiling faces of a young couple and a bank holiday to celebrate. The monarchy had a glamorous new image that made us forget the fact that Charles has a man to squeeze the toothpaste on to his toothbrush, or that Harry thought it was appropriate to dress up as a Nazi. The public had a real life Cinderella story – or so it was sold to us – and with it the monarchy had another chance at life. The subsequent announcement of an imminent royal baby only goes further to promote this image in the public consciousness – an actual birth surely being the perfect vehicle for a literal rebirth – but does this narrative really ring true when we consider Arendt’s account of natality and birth; can the monarchy be reborn through the birth of this child, or as Arendt suggests, does true newness only accompany the entrance of the individual into the political sphere?

In a sense, it seems that the expectation of this birth has gone someway to reinvigorate and renew the monarchy. There has been much made in the press of the decision to revise the rules of succession so that regardless of the child’s sex it will automatically become third in line to the throne. This is, indeed, a welcome revision to anyone who is not from the 13th Century. The expected arrival of this child as a unique individual has then, arguably, had an impact on the political sphere; with the reform having received final consent from the commonwealth nations only a day after the announcement of Kate’s pregnancy. The succession to the Crown Bill will now be introduced in the House of Commons at the ‘earliest opportunity’ in the parliamentary calendar, so that, as Nick Clegg put it: “if it is a baby girl, she can be our queen.”  But can this reform really be attributed to the imminent birth of this royal child and as such count under Arendt’s conception of what it is to be a unique individual; does this really count as a renewal? Although the reform was not caused directly by the child’s actions and thus does not meet Arendt’s criteria of newness in this sense, it can be seen as a response to the possibility that the baby may be a girl, and that presumably the public would not accept that this fact alone would discount the child from one day becoming head of state. However, this perhaps says more about modern society, than it does about the changing culture of the royals, due to the fact that this reform was instigated not as a direct result of royal ‘decree’, but instead is a political and constitutional change for Britain and the commonwealth nations, originating in parliament. Indeed, does the fact that this rule of male succession, still in place in Autumn 2012, not tell us more about the institution of the monarchy than its imminent repeal?

The treatment of Kate in the press since the news of her pregnancy emerged, less than 24 hours ago at the time of writing, has revealed similarly regressive attitudes with regard to the role of women in the royal family. With the Guardian announcing that: ‘During her pregnancy, it is likely the duchess will be attended to by the Queen’s gynaecologist, who is currently Alan Farthing, the former fiancé of the murdered television presenter Jill Dando’. The absurdity and irrelevance of whether Kate’s gynaecologist is or is not the former fiancé of Jill Dando aside, the mere fact that this information has been reported suggests that Kate is being treated more as a mere ‘vehicle’ for our next head of state, rather than an individual who has decided to start a family. This is reiterated when the pregnancy is cast a few lines later as a symbolic gesture – a final hurrah in the jubilee celebrations: ‘The pregnancy will be seen by royal aides, and fans, as an appropriate and fitting end to the Queen’s diamond jubilee year.’

The concern from the outset, then, seems to have been with Kate’s womb. There has been a great focus in the media on whether she was, and when she would become pregnant, with one magazine reportedly speculating ‘whether her recent adoption of a flick-fringe hairstyle was indicative of an imminent announcement’. With these kind of narratives surrounding the royals, and with Kate’s hair getting more media attention than her views on the role of the royal family in modern day life, it seems impossible that the birth of this child can do anything more than propagate fairytale-esque myths of princes and princesses, wrapped up in patriarchal views about a woman’s role in society.

It is impossible for the institution of monarchy to appropriate the newness and uniqueness Arendt sees as accompanying birth in its physical and symbolic form, as newness and uniqueness comes not merely through the birth of an individual, but through his or her subsequent actions in the public realm, and thus cannot be appropriated by an institution merely by association. We should, therefore, not be fooled into swallowing the line that the monarchy has been reborn for the 21st Century, regardless of whether it has a fresh new face in the form of Kate and William, or is celebrating an actual birth with the arrival of the couple’s first child. Instead we should continue to question the outdated institution that looms large over our country and bolsters received notions of hereditary privilege, class inequality and appears to view women as little more than two legged wombs.


Charlotte Knowles is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London. She works on Heidegger and feminist philosophy and her thesis is an exploration of Heidegger’s conception of Freedom in relation to theories of autonomy and the question of feminist liberation. Charlotte is an intern at MaMSIE and its associated online peer reviewed journal Studies in the Maternal, as well as being one of the editors for the MaMSIE blog. She is also a member of the Executive Committee for SWIP UK: and recently helped to co-organize the first joint Ireland/UK SWIP conference ‘Politics and Women Across Philosophical Traditions’, which was held at University College Dublin from 9th-10th November 2012.