By Leonie Shanks
In Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s nineteenth-century poem ‘To a Little Invisible Being Who Is Expected Soon to Become Visible’, the narrator describes the titular unborn child as a ‘germ of new life’ and expresses hopes that the ‘little captive’ will soon be ‘free […] from thy living tomb.’ Throughout the poem, words and images that evoke the experience of ‘expecting’, ‘waiting’ and ‘lingering’ contribute to an atmosphere of excited, and yet anxious, anticipation. The mother of the child is described as one who ‘longs to fold to her maternal breast/ Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’, and to be able ‘to see and to salute the stranger guest.’ The poem suggests that the ‘invisible being’ is an unknowable enigma to the anxious mother; long after biological conception, the foetus remains impossible to ‘conceive’ in imaginative terms.
At ‘The Pregnant Archive: Materialising Conception to Birth’, a two-day symposium and collaborative workshop that was held at Birkbeck on the 30th November – 1st December 2017, the tensions that run throughout Barbauld’s poem – between visibility and invisibility; life and death; excitement and anxiety; reality and imagination; intimacy and strangeness – were recurrent themes in discussions about the physical, emotional and psychic experience of conception, pregnancy and birth. Organised by Dr. Emma Cheatle at Newcastle University and Dr. Isabel Davis at Birkbeck, ‘The Pregnant Archive’ symposium sought to explore, uncover and better understand the intimate, private and ephemeral experiences of conception, pregnancy and birth, and the ways in which these experiences have been both shaped and obscured by partial medical knowledge and changing social norms.
Conceiving Histories Exhibition in the Peltz Gallery
Part of a wider portfolio of activities that are currently being organised by the Conceiving Histories project, the symposium ran alongside the Conceiving Histories exhibition, which was hosted in Birkbeck’s Peltz Gallery from 8th November – 13th December. It was therefore appropriate that the first day of the symposium should include an introduction to the exhibition by Anna Burel, the artist responsible for creating the artworks that were showcased in the gallery in collaboration with literary historian Dr. Isabel Davis.
Although arranged in a relatively small exhibition space, Burel’s artworks and sculptural forms powerfully captured the sense of surrealism and strangeness that can attend the multifarious experiences and imaginations of maternity. Burel and Davis are particularly engaged in unearthing stories and developing case studies that relate to the notion of ‘unpregnancy’. One case study, for instance, concerns the hysterical pregnancies of Queen Mary I, who is said to have felt a ‘quickening’ in her womb after being greeted by the Cardinal Reginald Pole in 1554 with the words ‘Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb’, and falsely believed that she was pregnant. The announcement of her pregnancy was greeted with widespread fanfare, and extensive preparations were made for the birth – but no baby ever arrived. Another case study looks at the odd, fleeting and widely satirized eighteenth-century fashion for false padded stomachs that imitated pregnancy.
Bringing these case studies to life through a diverse range of visual and sculptural forms, the Conceiving Histories exhibition included an image of Queen Mary I pregnant with herself, curled in a foetal position within a dark womb. In another corner of the space, a set of disembodied, differently-sized wombs dangled and spun from the ceiling like semi-deflated balloons – poignant visual symbols of the affective experiences of disappointment, loss, yearning and grief associated with the difficulty of conceiving, or inability to do so.
A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day One
The haunting, multilayered, ambiguous and at times comedic artistic creations that populated the Conceiving Histories exhibition, then, provided a fitting counterpart to the Pregnant Archive Symposium, which brought together an extraordinary range of perspectives and expertise to examine the archival materials, spaces and traces that have defined and been left behind by maternity.
On Day One, the Symposium began with a session on the theme of Questions of Conception. Shrikant Botre, from the University of Warwick, explored the role of early twentieth century Marathi Hindu sex-educators in shaping Marathi modernity in western India, and the various ways in which they helped to redefine the act of sexual intercourse in the ‘modern’ light of sexual science. Dr. Sarah Read, from Loughbourough University, analysed manuscript poems in order to gain insight into ways in which women living in the highly religious society of early modern England – in which abortion was strictly prohibited – nevertheless were able to gain access to medicinal recipes that could bring about the termination of unwanted pregnancies.
Dr. Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, from the University of Cambridge, was the last speaker of panel one, giving a paper on ‘Lot 37’, the original prototype of ‘Predictor’, which was the world’s first home pregnancy test. While principally arguing that the powerfully transformative processes of commercialisation and direct-to-consumer marketing should be more central to histories of medicalization, legislative reform and cultural change, his paper also told the little-known story of Lot 37’s inventor Margaret Crane, declared dead by Wikipedia until she updated the page to state that she was alive and well, and living and working as a graphic designer in New Jersey.
One of the strengths of the Symposium was undoubtedly the way in which academic explorations of conception and pregnancy were interleaved with artistic responses to the same themes. The second session of day one featured excellent presentations from artists Helen Sergeant, Nikki Davidson-Bowman and Sreyashi Tinni Bhattacharyya, who each reiterated the important topics and questions that were already emerging, whether through Sargeant’s work on representations of the pregnant body and pregnancy testing, or though Davidson-Bowman’s project that looks at the kinds of archival absences and silences that invite storytelling and the recuperation of marginalised female experiences.
The final panel of the day moved from conception to birth, with a panel on the subject of Birth Spaces. Hermione Wiltshire, an artist and lecturer at the Royal College of Art, gave a richly visually illustrated talk to explore the question of whether images of the baby’s head crowing in labour – principally seen only by midwives – can be used to ascertain whether perspective itself is a gendered system of representation. Dr. Sarah Fox drew upon eighteenth-century midwifery manuals, letters and diaries, court records and collections of folklore to examine the sensory and material environment in which women gave birth, especially using these archival materials to explore the temporary practical, emotional and medicinal transformations that took place within the domestic space before, during and after birth.
Next up was Dr. Edwina Attlee, who used Yvonne Verdier’s 1970 oral history of the French village of Minot to investigate the figure of the ‘woman-who-helps’ during labour. She described the shift away from labour as a communal, predominantly female event to the circumscribed space of the clinic, and looks at the ways in which the ‘woman-who-helps’ survives and negotiates this shift into a more medicalised and disempowering clinical setting. Finally, Dr. Cathy McClive, from Florida State University, presented a fascinating paper on her study of the papers of Marie Magdalene Grand, a self-styled apothecary who operated in France in the eighteenth century and was eventually arrested for the illegal practice of medicine. In particular, McClive’s discovery of a baby boy’s caul, or amniotic sac, amongst Grand’s papers prompted McClive to mediate upon her own affective response to this archival find only shortly after herself returning from maternity leave.
A Pregnant Archive Symposium – Day Two
Day Two of the Symposium investigated the subject of Materials of Pregnancy. In the first panel of the morning, doctoral student Rebecca Whiteley examined print images of the foetus in the uterine membranes produced for anatomists and midwives in the seventeeth and eighteenth century, followed by Professor Rosemary Betterton, from Lancaster University, who used close readings of two passages from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex alongside recent works by female artists both to analyse and find ways of repairing Beauvoir’s flawed vision of the maternal body.
The following panel continued with the theme of Materials of Pregnancy, and began with Anne Carruthers, from Newcastle University, who used films such as ‘Juno’ and ‘Baby Mama’ to look at filmic representations of the ultrasound, and analyse the material components and technologies that are hidden or obscured in the screened pregnancy narrative. Professor Karen Harvey, from the University of Birmingham, then used the eighteenth-century letters of the Stutterd family to ask about the ways in which pregnancy and childbirth were perceived and imagined during this time, pointing out that – despite accounts of multiple pregnancies in these letters – there is a notable absence of the kinds of objects that might be associated with pregnancy, birth and new motherhood, whether linen, caudle pots or infant and maternity clothing. Harvey argued that the eighteenth-century lacked the kind of material culture that has developed in contemporary times, in which objects play a significant role in the transitioning identities of mothers and the ‘making real’ of pregnancies as yet unseen or babies who are lost. Finally, Dr. Magdalena Ohaja, from Trinity College Dublin, presented a paper that looked at Nigerian women’s accounts of the food preferences and restrictions that shape their experiences of pregnancy, using these accounts to trace the relationship between food, social relations and power which underpins the experience of maternity.
Artistic responses from Lana Locke, Leah Lovett and Jessa Fairbrother provided a lively and poignant end to the Symposium. Some of Locke’s works were inspired by her own initial failed attempts to procreate, followed – after the birth of her children – with her interest in reclaiming the idea of the feral in representations of pregnancy and birth, and the idea that fluids related to the experience of maternity – from mother’s milk to oozing nappies – can represent transformative matter that transgresses prescribed disciplines, spaces and identities. Lovett shared with Locke a similar interest in asking how motherhood might be claimed as a political identity, and particularly focused on the way in which the body can be instrumentalized by labour. She screened a short film, ‘Support’, in which male choral singers made noises that imitated the sounds that their partners made during labour. Both powerful and deliberately comedic, the film provoked interesting discussions both about male experiences of labour, and about the ways in which, during labour, the female body can take on a power, life and time of its own that is not necessarily coterminous with one’s sense of self.
Concluding the Symposium, Jessa Fairbrother’s presentation was a poignant reflection on the powerful cultural urge for women to perform happy endings through marriage and motherhood, questioning what happens when the cultural narratives that are provided to women who fulfill these conventional milestones prove unavailable or get ruptured. She explored the significance of the wedding dress – a powerful visual symbol of a narrative – and, conversely, the lack of objects available to define the lives and experiences of those who do not get married or have children. In particular, Fairbrother investigated these questions of identity, narrative and object through her project ‘Conversations with my Mother’, developed while her mother was dying from cancer. You can find out more about this work here.
A consistent theme throughout the Symposium was that of absences, silences and lack – what is missing from the experience and history of pregnancy and maternity is often just as interesting as that which is visible, revealing much about gender and sexual politics, as well as constantly evolving social and cultural norms. Conceiving Histories will continue to investigate this topic, and MaMSIE looks forward to hearing more about the outcomes of the project, and to following the work of the academics and artists who contributed to this brilliant, thought-provoking event.
Leonie Shanks is completing a PhD in the English department at Birkbeck under the supervision of Dr. Joanne Winning. Her thesis focuses on the epistolary correspondence and modernist networks of the marginal modernist Dorothy Richardson, and her research interests include modernist space and place, feminism, psychoanalysis, materiality, network theory and life writing. She also works as an Associate Tutor at Birkbeck. Before beginning her PhD, Leonie trained and worked as a social ethnographer, working with a range of local authorities and other public organisations to gather qualitative data and insights into the ways in which people lead their everyday lives. In this role she particularly specialised in working with families, young people and children across a range of different settings.