Dying to Give Birth

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and Romantic Birthing Culture
By Jennifer Debie

Illustration by Laura Hines

“This awful region, which should be sacred to men of science, is open to all. Nay, the very apartment where the gravid uterus and its processes lie unveiled is a favourite lounge of the ladies, who criticise aloud all the mysteries of sex.”

Joseph Forsythe, Remarks on Antiquities

In his 1816 book Remarks on Antiquities, about an 1802 excursion to Italy, Joseph Forsythe clutched his pearls at the thought of women, ladies, viewing and commenting on the birthing processes. The “awful region” that was “open to all” were the apartments of La Specola, Grand Duke Leopold II’s great enlightenment experiment in bringing to light the veiled mysteries of anatomy through exquisitely rendered wax anatomical models housed in a Florentine museums. Mary Shelley read Forsythe’s description of these sacred mysteries in April of 1819 and viewed them for herself while living in Florence in in January of 1820, two years after the gestation and birth of her own hideous progeny, as she would later describe her novel Frankenstein in the preface to the 1831 edition.

Even before reading about and seeing these figures, designed to lay bare the secrets of the human interior, Mary could well have known about the infamous wax Venuses. John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician and traveling companion during the rapscallion lord’s exile to the continent and was part of the intimate Byron-Shelley circle in Geneva the summer of 1816, even writing his own tale for their friendly ghost story competition, the same contest that produced Frankenstein. The young man was of Tuscan extraction, his father having emigrated from that region to England, and as a medical man likely would have known and could have spoken about these wax curiosities.

In North America it was customary for women to lay out their preferred funerary garments before being confined to the birthing chamber

But without Polidori’s input and Forsythe’s description of the dreaded gravid uterus, Mary Godwin Shelley had other, personal reasons to be interested in reproduction – leading to her creation of a male scientist who dragged life out of the dead. Her mother Mary Wollstonecraft died from an infection contracted after giving birth to the child who would carry her name.

The baby that would become Mary Shelley was delivered by a traditional midwife, but when Mary Wollstonecraft’s body retained the placenta, two different “man-midwives” were called for consultation. Unsterilized hands and haphazard surgical tools around a large, sensitive mucus membrane brought on infection that left Wollstonecraft, radical feminist and author, dead. Mary Shelley was not just the product of unhappy birthing, but the producer of it as well. Her first baby died days after a premature delivery, an event that would haunt Mary’s dreams for years to come.

The birthing chamber, historically an almost exclusively female-led operation, was slowly turned over to men in the British Isles throughout the 1700s. Publications such as Smellie’s1752 Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Midwifery not only sought to highlight the expertise of man-midwives trained in medical schools (as opposed to traditional midwife apprenticeships) but also to display the ignorance of traditional midwives and justify their replacement by their male counterparts. Newly invented tools, like forceps, were used to prove that man-midwives were on the cutting edge of scientific advancements in the field, and the portrayal of a medical professional devoted entirely to the production of new life was designed to allay the fears of new mothers. The man-midwives were so prevalent, and their successes so publicised, that they were credited both in their time and even up to recent decades with partial responsibility for the population boom England experienced from the late eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century.

The very tombstones of Frankenstein’s real-life counterparts sang praises to their nation building, the epithet of the man-midwife John Clark reading:

On earth while he lived, by attending men’s wives
he increased population by thousands of lives:
a gain to the nation was a gain to himself
enlarged population enlargement of ‘pelf.
So he toiled late and early, from morning till night,
the squalling of children his greatest delight.
Then worn out with 
labours, he died skin and bone,
and his ladies he left all to Mansfield and Stone.

Like these men, Victor Frankenstein dreamt of “many happy and excellent natures” owing their very existence to his hands. While in the fervor of creation, Frankenstein never imagined the destruction he might be piecing together, instead he thinks of himself as some sort of father-god, seeking to “animate lifeless clay” and believing that no biological “father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely” as he should deserve the gratitude of his new race. Before the animation of his creature, Frankenstein “collected the instruments of life around” himself, instruments not described in detail, yet somehow sinisterly reminiscent of nineteenth century birthing tools. Even later, when coerced by his creation into making a mate so that the monster need not walk the earth alone, Frankenstein does not think of making this helpmate barren. The creature did not ask for children, he asked for a female “with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.”

It was Frankenstein who determined that the “first results of those sympathies for which the daemon thirsted would be children and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth, who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror.”

In the early nineteenth century reproduction and pregnancy were still mysteries, and dangerous mysteries at that. In North America it was customary for women to lay out their preferred funerary garments before being confined to the birthing chamber, so that their families would know what to dress them in should happy events turn deadly. In London, texts were published on the dangers of masturbation and the withering effects of the loss of “vital fluids”. Even among those studying human reproductive systems at

the time, the mechanics of pregnancy (like the necessity of ovaries and the possibility of their removal from a female monster to make her barren) were not well understood, and certainly not likely to be explained to a woman. An early version of the Cesarean section was available as a last resort in delivery, but the lack of anesthesia and established hygiene procedures made this surgery hardly the time for a medical practitioner to get a little extra anatomical exploration in on the side. Pregnant cadavers were a rarity on the anatomist’s slab, many medical professionals examined the inner-workings of the womb through texts and illustrations like those found in William Hunter’s 1774 Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus.

A well-bred Englishwoman was expected to remain ignorant as to what caused pregnancy

Like many anatomists of the day, Hunter purchased his specimens from grave robbers or “resurrection men” and his dual windfall of multiple corpses in different stages of pregnancy within a short span of time and the willingness of artist Jan van Rymsdyck to work with him to capture the dissections expanded obstetric knowledge for generations of medical students. This expansion came at the expense of stagnation in the study of pregnancy. Women were already uneasy subjects for many anatomists to cut into and invading the internal cavities of a pregnant woman was even more problematic for some of these well-heeled gentlemen of early modern medicine. Once Hunter and Rymsdyck’s work laid so much bare, the desperate need for actual pregnant bodies abated in the London medical circles, leaving paper bodies and limited, two-dimensional drawings for examination in their wake.

Even if Mary Shelley had read Hunter’s work, viewed Rymsdyck’s drawings, and known the surgical possibilities of piecing together a creature without full reproductive capabilities, she still likely would have balked at the idea of creating a barren monster and calling such a creature female. A well-bred Englishwoman was expected to remain ignorant (or at least feign ignorance) as to what caused pregnancy. Likewise, once the mysteries of pregnancy gestated and the baby was ready to come forth, she would hand her body over to the capable hands of a man-midwife who was the true life-bringer in this scenario. A woman, even a monstrous, fictional woman created by a fictional scientist, could not be expected to remain womanly in the eyes of society if she was incapable of pregnancy.

Nor was there documentation, as there is today, of the difficulties in restoring, or in this case creating, an entire species from a single breeding pair. Instead of our modern scope of the trials of extinction and recovery of endangered species, Shelley had books like Robert Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, which preached wary regard for the lower classes and their unmitigated breeding. Like Frankenstein’s fears of a world dominated by the race of his own making, Malthus worried that all of these healthily delivered, lower orders of Englishmen would rise up and overthrow those above them in the social and economic hierarchy. His fears were not unwarranted, given the grievances of the French and their visceral response to those ruling over them through bloody revolution just a few years prior.

This is the world into which Mary Shelley brought her hideous progeny. It was a world where men became birth-givers, their instruments capable of dragging paired life and death into the light. Where understanding the beginnings of life only came with the opening of the stolen, pregnant dead. It was a Europe where a population could explode and engulf society. It was a time when women were expected to remain simultaneously uninformed of their bodies’ inner workings and yet still retain the epitome of womanly traits—fertility. In this light, Frankenstein reflects the fears of British society in general, and of Mary Shelley in particular. Victor Frankenstein is a protagonist who moulds dead flesh into a living being, who gives life as a man through the power of his studies and his medical skills. He is a man who learns the burden of responsibility that comes with bringing such a life into being. This was a responsibility that Mary Shelley understood too. A woman who knew from infancy that it was her life that caused her mother’s death, who lost her firstborn just days after the birth, who would go on to lose her other children to disease and eventually almost lose her own life to a miscarriage, Mary Shelley understood perfectly the horrific duality of dying to give birth.

Related Posts