Archive for September 4th, 2010


Fertile ground for research

The preservation of children should become the care of men of sense, because this business has been too long fatally left to the management of women.
— Dr William Cadogan (1748)

Angus McLaren’s Reproductive Rituals is an intriguing work that takes issue with the notion that in early modern England, fertility was largely uncontrolled and random, and uses a wide variety of sources, including medical papers, legal writings, advertisements, ballads and private letters, to investigate what people thought they knew about fertility and reproduction, and how they attempted, with various degrees of success, to control conception and childbearing.

McLaren starts by examining the shift in perception of the female sex and female sexuality from the 17th century onwards, where from being considered essentially the same as men (although a slightly inferior model), women gradually came to be viewed as a thing apart. Likewise, opinions on female sexual desire underwent significant renovation: from being considered natural and healthy and, indeed, necessary for conception in the 17th century, the notion of the “good”, sexless woman began to take hold, until by the middle of the 19th century it could be declared by a medical “expert” that, As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him.

The early chapters of this book consider the various ways, medical, magical and otherwise, that people in England attempted to prevent, or control the timing of, conception. It looks at early forms of contraception, from extended lactation, to certain diets, to primitive spermicidals, to biblically-condemned coitus interruptus, to the first rubber condoms (for the wealthy only). Of course, when all this failed, drastic measures were sometimes resorted to. The bulk of McLaren’s study examines the use of abortion as a means of birth control, and the laws that were finally introduced against it – which did not occur until the early 19th century. Fascinatingly, next to nothing of what we might assume to be the motivation for the introduction of the anti-abortion laws was in fact the case. We see that the laws were more interested in punishing abortionists than those who used their services, but that their main purpose was to punish sexual misconduct by unmarried women. Married women who resorted to abortion (or even to infanticide) were likely to be left unmolested.

The introduction of the laws, however, and the specific shape they took, turns out to be the result of the medical profession’s attempt to establish itself as a serious entity in the eyes of the law, which in turn was a result of the turf-war going on between male doctors and their professional rivals – namely, midwives, apothecaries, and anyone else who interested themselves in the business of reproduction – like mothers. How annoyed the doctors were at not being able to remove women from the process altogether can be judged from the quote up above.

In their efforts to seize control, the doctors of the time went about fighting for laws that, rather than making abortion illegal, made it so only if not performed by a doctor. Similarly, they fought to remove from the statutes the idea that life began with “quickening”, that is, foetal movement, which made abortion a crime only if performed after that. Quickening was subsequently replaced with a ruling that life began with conception – not because the doctors believed it, not out of any concern for the sanctity of life, but because only the mother could know for sure whether quickening had happened – and that legally, the courts were forced to take her word rather than a doctor’s.

(The medical profession’s campaign to establish itself as the ruling voice in matters of reproduction was, from its own point of view, finally a great success – although one with consequences that Angus McLaren strangely doesn’t mention, namely that the push for women to give birth in hospital, under medical supervision, rather than at home with a midwife and/or female relatives in attendance, led to a significant increase in the mortality rates amongst both babies and new mothers, since the standard of hygeine in hospitals at the time was much lower than that in the average home. I’m reminded of the scene in the 1935 film The Story Of Louis Pasteur in which Pasteur has to argue and plead with the doctors about to deliver his daughter’s baby, to get them to wash their hands first.)

However, despite the seeming triumph of the doctors during the 19th century in their efforts to marginalise women as much as possible in the business of breeding, out in the real world we find that the responsibility for conception, and contraception, was still pretty much where it it always had been (where it always has been?) – or at least so we judge from this 1848 letter from a husband to his wife, upon receiving one from her informing him of her unwanted pregnancy:

“…My dearest love, This last misfortune is indeed grievous & puts all others in the shade. What can you have been doing to account for so juvenile a proceeding…?”


“To read” additions:
Reproductive Rituals also discusses the early infanticide laws, under which the courts did not have to prove that the accused killed her baby: the burden of proof was on the woman – inevitably, the unmarried woman – who would be condemned to death if unable to prove that her baby was stillborn, or died of natural causes. A better understanding of these laws and their historical context makes me want to re-read Adam Bede, and gives me a good excuse to belatedly tackle The Heart Of Midlothian.


Criticism in excess

Wandering through various studies of the “pre-novel” novel, I can’t help but be struck by the viciousness of much of the criticism of Eliza Haywood in the years that followed her success during the 1720s; and while, in that respect, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad is really in a class [sic.] of its own, he certainly wasn’t alone in his attack on Haywood. Part of it, I suppose, was just bad timing: the world had changed a great deal in the fifty years between when Aphra Behn was wielding her pen and when Haywood moved from drama to fiction, particularly in terms of restrictions on female action and the perception of what constituted “acceptable” female behaviour. Still – I can’t help feeling that some of the resentment against Haywood sprang from her simple refusal to give the readers of her amatory fiction anywhere to hide. Unlike Behn and Delariviere Manley, she didn’t claim to be fighting for king and party; she didn’t pretend her stories had an uplifting moral; she didn’t even resort to using her novels to criticise novels. So if you were reading one of her novels, it could be for no other reason than that you wanted to.

Haywood’s first novel, the aptly named Love In Excess, was a spectacular success; far too spectacular for it to have only been read by “the vulgar”, “the mob”, “women”, or any other designated lower lifeform. Love In Excess follows the evolution of attitude towards love and sex of its central character, the Count D’Elmont. In the first volume, D’Elmont falls in lust with the lovely Melliora, who in turn struggles to hide her feelings for him. In one telling passage, Melliora publicly denounces amatory writing – writing like Haywood’s – and the effect it has on the morals of its readers, only to be subsequently caught by D’Elmont with a volume of Ovid’s Epistles. The embarrassed young woman reacts just as many of us would, producing a string of excuses – that she picked it up by chance, that she sees the writing for what it is and so is unaffected, that unlike most readers, she thinks about the consequences of passion, not merely the fact of it – that only serve to underscore the fact that she has no excuse.

There is a suggestion in this that Haywood was very well aware of the risk she ran in leaving her readers, like Melliora, with no real excuse. It does rather make you wonder just how many of her most public and most vocal critics had copies of her novels hidden away in their closets…


Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (Part 2)

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot (2004)  Director:  Gillies MacKinnon  Screenplay:  James McGovern  Starring: Robert Carlyle, Clémence Poésy, Tim McInnerny, Kevin McKidd, Paul Nicholls, Sira Stampe, Catherine McCormack, Tadeusz Pasternak, Steven Duffy, Richard Harrington, Emilia Fox, Sam Troughton, Richard Coyle, Michael Fassbender


Doing a little reading about the reign of James I prior to the Gunpowder Plot to support this review, I discovered that he became king of Scotland (as James VI) at the age of 13 months when his mother was forced to abdicate; that he spent some time imprisoned; that all four of his regents (including his half-uncle, James Stewart) died violently; that James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, created a court where literature, drama, art and music flourished; that he wrote two scholarly works himself; that he presided over a witchcraft trial; and that the Gunpowder Plot took shape only in the wake of two other failed plots to remove or kill him.

You’d know none of this from watching Gunpowder, Treason & Plot, however.  With all this fascinating and unfamiliar material at their disposal, one does wonder why the makers of this historical drama instead fell back on giving us yet another re-hash of Elizabeth vs Mary. Perhaps it was because the real story of James’s reign didn’t lend itself to a simplistic Protestant/Catholic schema. Or perhaps the choice was dictated by the same mindset that seems to have mandated the production of a new version of Jane Eyre every eighteen months. God forbid they should give us something we haven’t all seen before.

Even more contentious that this production’s selective use of facts, however, is its presentation of James himself, who is depicted as a weak, snivelling, easily manipulated, self-loathing homosexual. There was and still is debate over James’s sexuality, of course, but Gunpowder, Treason & Plot puts a particularly nasty spin upon it, with James only able to work himself up to sex with his wife after betraying or murdering someone, or watching executions, and fleeing his own brief and brutal wedding-night for the arms of his young male lover. (Screenwriter James McGovern seems unpleasantly addicted to scenes of violent defloration.) The story’s low point is reached when Sir Thomas Percy, sent to the Scottish court to plead tolerance for Catholics once James succeeds to the English throne, gets the desired promise only in exchange for performing forced oral sex on James. Apart from subsequently sinking into alcoholism, Percy is driven by this incident to involve himself in the Gunpowder Plot after James reneges on his promise. He does so declaring that, “It’s better to die than to live on one’s knees.”

So to speak.

Robert Carlyle does what he can with the character as written, but ends up relying more than he should upon James’s clubfoot (did James have a clubfoot?), until with his limping and tics and mannerisms, he begins to suggest Richard Dreyfuss doing Richard III in The Goodbye Girl – only that’s meant to be funny.

Both unable and unwilling to show us the royal marriage as it was (Anne was only fourteen when she and James married), this version ignores the real affection that existed between James and Anne during the early years of their joint reign, and instead makes Anne disgusted and repulsed by her weakling husband, even aside from his sexual orientation, only learning to respect (and even desire) him when he learns to be even more amoral, vicious, false and manipulative than the politicians who surround him. It also has her supporting and, indeed, insisting upon James’s betrayal of his promise of tolerance for the Catholics, over which he feels some guilt, even though there is good evidence that Anne herself converted to Catholicism late in her life.

Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has Anne arriving in England in the hours before the execution of James’s mother. This pretty much sets the tone of the historical accuracy of this production, as James and Anne were married in Denmark two years after Mary went to the block. Here, James is depicted as entering into a conspiracy with Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, who promises him the throne of England in exchange for keeping Scotland passive in the wake of Mary’s execution. In order to achieve this, James must confront his own ministers, who are all for war. First he dissuades them from an immediate attack, on the grounds of needing a little time to grieve for his mother before he can join them, and then he has them all murdered the moment they turn their backs on him.

These early scenes also present us with this production’s most irritating aspect, as it has James addressing the camera directly. This “breaking of the wall” can work – the recent adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right used it to some effect – but it’s jarring here. For one thing, it is used spasmodically instead of with any consistency; and rather than serve a specific purpose, it seems to indicate only that James McGovern couldn’t think of a better way to convey his characters’ motives to the viewer. And really, we can only wince during the scene that introduces us to the man who will be the prime mover in the Gunpowder Plot, Sir Robert Catesby, who not only speaks to the camera, but in doing so denounces Protestantism as a faith, “Invented to help a king dump a wife.” I wasn’t aware that in 1601, women, let alone queens, got dumped.

While James and Anne are twiddling their thumbs in Scotland, waiting for Elizabeth to die, Sir Robert Cecil, is leading a violent campaign against the Catholics, breaking up masses, hanging the priests, and arresting the leaders of the Catholic community. It is at this time that Thomas Percy sees James to plead for tolerance – with what dual outcomes, we already know. However, when James becomes king of England, his first impulse is to keep his dubiously elicited promise, freeing the Catholic prisoners and stopping the persecution – until he learns that England’s coffers are almost bare, and that fines levied against recusant Catholics are all that’s keeping things afloat. So much for tolerance.

In the wake of this, the plot begins to come together. The main conspirators, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Sir Francis Tresham and Thomas Wintour, having tried and failed to secure Spanish backing for a Catholic rebellion, recruit Guy Fawkes, first seen fighting for the Spanish against the English in Holland. Here, the Catholic’s plan is to blow up both parliament and the entire royal family, then to cease control in the anarchy that follows. In fact, the plotters intended to install James and Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, who for some reason was living apart from her family at the time, as a figurehead but legitimate Catholic queen.

I must say, one of the most successful aspects of this production is its quite subtle handling of the three children, who are simply always there, poor things: at executions, while their mother is in labour, while plots and double-crosses are in motion. We note, too, the camera’s habit of resting on the boy who will grow up to be Charles I. They are also the centre of one of the drama’s few gentle moments, when James finds himself strangely moved by the sight of Anne and the children lying on a bed together, her arms about them tenderly as she tells them stories of Denmark. I think we’re supposed to infer “mother issues”…understandably, I guess.

We will never know for certain the whole truth about the Gunpowder Plot and its discovery – confessions under torture notwithstanding. Here, as I complained about in Part 1 of this review, the failure of the conspiracy is due predominantly to the stupidity of those involved. First we have a major role in the plot assigned to Thomas Wintour, who has just embarked upon his first serious love-affair – with a girl who turns out to be one of Robert Cecil’s spies. Loose lips don’t only sink ships, it seems. Wintour also tries to recruit his brother, John, into the conspiracy in a public place, giving the man whose been following him plenty of chance to see their discord, overhear their quarrel – and mark the hitherto innocent John as one of the plotters.  Meanwhile, the responsibility for the purchasing of the gunpowder and the hiring of the room under the Parliament is given to Thomas Percy, despite his alcoholism – and he proceeds to fulfil both tasks using his own name.

Finally, although he has already been revealed as vacillating and likely to betray them during the debate on warning the Catholic parliamentarians, Sir Francis Tresham is given an opportunity to warn his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, of the plot, who immediately threatens to reveal all to the king. To cover himself, Tresham has his wife, Anne, write an “anonymous” letter, so that Monteagle need not reveal the actual source of his information. The true author of this famously ambiguous letter, which the real Monteagle received and promptly showed to Robert Cecil, has never been identified, although Francis Tresham was indeed the main suspect.

(Strangely, in the midst of all this self-destructive behaviour, omitted is the notorious true incident in which Robert Catesby and several of his fellow conspirators managed to set themselves on fire while trying to dry some gunpowder. Here, they go out instead like Butch and Sundance in Bolivia.)

Of course, given their failure to discover the truth on their own in spite of all this blundering, Robert Cecil and his people don’t exactly emerge looking like masterminds, either. Thomas Percy’s largely unconcealed activities come to light only when he is betrayed, while Cecil’s other main source of information is cut off, literally, when upon discovering the truth about his mistress, Thomas Wintour strangles her to death in the middle of sex. (Oh, goody – a third horribly violent sex scene!)

While the details of the uncovering of the plot, the discovery of the gunpowder and the arrest of Guy Fawkes do remain somewhat uncertain, it certainly didn’t happen as it happens here. Gunpowder, Treason & Plot has James seeing his opportunity, and taking credit not only for interpreting the letter correctly (which he may in fact have done: given the circumstances of his father’s death, a well-developed paranoia in James over the potential uses of gunpowder wouldn’t have been unlikely), but also for personally leading the search and arresting Fawkes. This version of events also has him delivering a climactic speech in which he reveals and denounces the conspirators, truly seizes power, and puts his unruly parliment in its place…before, for the first time, being invited to his wife’s bed. Of course, it was actually Sir Edward Coke who led the investigation into the conspiracy and who described to parliament the gruesome fate in store for the guilty parties – but why let facts get in the way of a good dramatic scene?