Dr Sara Read is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University. Her research area is the cultural representations of women, bodies, and health in the early modern era. Her first monograph was Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which examined all aspects of female reproductive bleeding, from adolescence to menopause. She has subsequently published widely on matters related to reproduction, including miscarriage and pregnancy. Outside work she spends most of her time running round after her two-year-old granddaughter. The Gossips' Choice is her debut novel, published by Wild Pressed Books. Sara can be contacted on Twitter @saralread
The Gossips’ Choice: Biofiction with a Twist
By Sara Read
My debut novel, The Gossips’ Choice, is an example of what I later learned is known as a ‘practice-as-research’ creative writing project, whereby a researcher uses her existing research as the point of departure for the fiction, but also uses her research training to add to the context of the story when it is in development. I knew a lot about how people were helped into the world by midwives, but how were people laid to rest in the late seventeenth century? The Gossips’ Choice is anchored in the writings of midwives Jane Sharp (fl. 1671) and Sarah Stone (fl. 1737). It uses some of the cures and practices described by Jane Sharp, the first named English woman to publish a midwifery guide, The Midwives Book, 1671, and the fictionalization of episodes documented Stone’s case notes, published in A Complete Practice of Midwifery, 1737. I use the language and expression of these real-life midwives in the creation of a fictional midwife, Lucie Smith, who is in some ways an amalgam of both women. Nothing is yet known about the biography of Jane Sharp, other than that she tell us she has been a midwife about thirty years, a timeframe she shares with Sarah Stone. More is known about Stone because she includes biographical details in her text, and details from the historical record have fleshed this out a little more: Stone was originally from Somerset where she trained under her own mother, a well-reputed midwife, Mistress Holmes, during a six-year apprenticeship. Sarah Holmes married apothecary Samuel Stone on 29 November 1700 in Bridgewater, and their first child, another Sarah, was baptized on 17 October 1702.
Taking commonalities such as that both women practised for above 30 years, and were literate and forthright, as the point of departure, I invented a fictional world which allows readers to ‘see’ anew the world of professional women and families they attended in the early modern era. It imagines a world in which midwives Sharp and Stone could have existed, and, in a coincidence that I could not have imagined living through when I was writing the novel, it is set against the backdrop of an epidemic, as plague ravishes the population of England in 1665. So the twist I allude to in the title is that this is bio-fiction as it is based on the lives of real historical figures, but not ones which are present in the text in person.
Cover of Jane Sharp's The Midwives Book, 1724 edition
Excerpt from The Gossips’ Choice
As they walked the short distance to the shop, one of the traders, a farmer’s wife from a couple of miles outside the town, grabbed Lucie’s arm.
‘Might I have a moment of your time, Mistress Smith?’ she said. ‘I am with child again and need some advice.’
‘Of course, Goodwife Todd.’ Lucie recognised her as a gossip at the Townshend birth. ‘Why don’t you follow us back to the Three Doves, so I can see you immediately?’
Safely back in her kitchen, Lucie looked at Hannah Todd.
‘Judging by your bigness, I’d say you have but a month to your time. Is that right?’
‘Oh no, I yet want four months, Mistress Smith.’
Lucie was very surprised and asked Hannah to accompany her to her chamber, so that she might touch the woman’s belly while she lay flat on the bed. When Hannah removed her dress, Lucie was shocked at the tightness of the laces on her leather stays. By pinching her in from breasts to navel, her corset was forcing the lower part of her belly to jut out in a way that looked not only unnatural but unhealthy.
‘Why on earth are you laced so tightly?’ Lucie asked.
‘It’s my husband’s mother’s doing. She insists upon it,’ Hannah replied.
‘Damaris? I thought she would have known better.’ Lucie told her this was a great error, and that she ought to allow herself as much liberty as possible.
Hannah was very relieved and said, ‘That sounds like good counsel. I’m sick and faint three or four times a day, and that’s why I wished to consult you.’