As I’ve written before, I can think of few things better than historical fiction about a midwife! Recently, I enjoyed reading The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas, a historian and writer with an interest in midwives. The Midwife’s Tale is a mystery about seventeenth century English midwife Bridget Hodgson who, along with an assistant with secrets of her own, sets out to discover the answers to a murder, a newborn death, and the political machinations of the local government. The book is well-written, nicely paced, and intriguing. Do be aware that there is a fair amount of infant death, violence against women, and threats of rape, as well as general misogynistic treatment of women authentic to the time period in which in the book takes place. As Bridget notes: “As a midwife, I helped women when I could and comforted them when I could not.” Part of me kept wanting Bridget to stand up even more for women and to rise up in protest against the confines of her time and place and the treatment of women therein, but I found the depiction historically accurate, if also depressing. The following quote touches both on this tension between care and participation in oppression as well as on another element, I found interesting, which is in regard to the economic realities for women of this age:
“But as surely as the women needed me, I needed them. Without my work, who would I be? A wealthy widow and nothing more…The thought of such an uneventful and powerless existence filled me dread, for my work as a midwife mattered in a way that mere housewifery never could. I ensured that men who fathered bastards had to pay for their children and that the women who bore them were whipped. If a maiden was raped, who but a midwife would stand with her against her assailant? Who better than a midwife could recognize the signs of bewitchment and find the witch’s mark? Without midwives, lust would reign, and order would turn to chaos…” (p. 230)
I was fortunate to do an interview with author Sam Thomas as well and here it is!
How did you become interested in writing about midwives from a historical perspective?
It was pure chance, or perhaps fate. I was working on my Ph.D. (about religious persecution and toleration in England), when I stumbled across the will of an incredible midwife. (I posted a transcript of the will on my website.) I then discovered that historians were in the midst of some great new research on midwives, and I was eager to join in the fun.
The more work I did, the more fascinated I became with the subject, and I wound up writing a couple of articles and planning a full-length book. In the end I left the ivory tower, but could not bring myself to leave midwives behind.
Do you follow present day midwifery politics? If so, any thoughts on how this connects to the historical issues raised in the book?
I do, to some extent. We lived in Huntsville, Alabama not far from Ina May Gaskin’s place in Tennessee. And I was surprised to learn that midwife-attended births are illegal in Alabama. As a result some women – including a good friend – “happen” to go to birth in Tennessee so they can be delivered there. (Hi, Celeste!)
Things are rather friendlier in Ohio where we now live, and I’ve had a number of midwives and other childbirth workers come to presentations. We’ve had some wonderful conversations!
Did you find it difficult to balance writing accurately about the misogyny of the time with portraying a strong, female character? (Still within the confines of her time and space)
Great question! In fact this is part of the reason I love writing about midwives and about women more broadly. To be sure, my characters inhabit a misogynistic world, but it is one in which women have at least some room to maneuver. (Men from southern Europe were horrified by how much freedom English women enjoyed. Everything is relative!)
Midwives, of course, wielded more power than most women and in certain circumstances, more power than some men. They were the only women who took a public oath, and the only ones whose work required a license. They also played an important role in the criminal justice system (to use an anachronistic term). Despite being women, midwives had a lot of the rights and responsibilities of men, at least in the context of their practice.
Part of what I’m doing in The Midwife’s Tale – and in future books – is charting Bridget’s gradual realization that despite her wealth and status, she is subject to the same oppression as other women. It really throws her for a loop.
Will we see Bridget return in any further mysteries?
Happily, yes! I have finished The Harlot’s Tale, which will be released in January, 2014, and just completed a second draft of The Witch-Hunter’s Tale, the third in the series. Minotaur-St. Martin’s has bought a fourth in the series, so the pressure’s on!
Oh, I’m also writing a few short stories about different characters’ backstories. One will be about how Bridget got into midwifery, and the other will be focused on Rebecca Hooke and how she became such a nasty piece of work.
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