Shana Galen talks about Nineteenth Century Attitudes on Miscarriage and Infertility

Shana Galen
Today I am very pleased to welcome Shana Galen to the Word Wenches! Shana is the author of a number of wonderfully adventurous and romantic Regency Historicals. She was RITA-nominated for the book Blackthorne's Bride, described by Booklist as "an irresistible mix of sexy romance and sharp wit," and a book that I enjoyed enormously. I can't wait to get my hands on her latest release, Lord and Lady Spy, chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of their Top 10 Romance Picks for Fall 2011. Every so often a book comes along and as a writer I think "I wish I had had had that idea!" Lord and Lady Spy is one of those books telling the tale of the rivalry between Regency England's pre-eminent spies Lord and Lady Smythe. Today Shana is talking about some of the historical inspiration behind Lord and Lady Spy:

"If you’re still reading after that title, I’m glad I haven’t scared you off! First of all, thank you, Word Wenches, for having me today. I’m having a serious fan girl moment just thinking about any of you reading a single word I’ve written. I’m not worthy!

My important-sounding title, I hope, mirrors an important topic. We historical romance authors write extensively about women’s experiences in history, but seldom do we touch on the common female experiences of miscarriage and infertility.

Many of us have been unfortunate enough to experience the pain of miscarriage. Before I became pregnant with my two-year-old daughter, I suffered a miscarriage at eleven weeks. I found the experience mildly physically painful and all but devastating emotionally. How I wanted that baby, and how I mourn—and still mourn—the loss of that child.

Thanks to modern medicine, I know the reason I miscarried. This knowledge gave me solace and hope that would not have been available to a woman living in the nineteenth century. What did women in the 1800s think and feel about miscarriage?

In my new novel, Lord and Lady Spy, which is definitely not a serious, scholarly novel—as the title no doubt indicates—the heroine deals with the poignant issue of repeated miscarriages. She does not know if she will ever carry a child to term. As the wife of a viscount, her sole purpose is to give her husband an heir, and the fact that she cannot fulfill her purpose plagues her.

Some of the inspiration for Sophia was based on what little I could glean about the repeated miscarriages suffered by the Duchess of Devonshire. Undoubtedly, these losses upset Georgiana, butDuchess of Devonshire  they are overshadowed by her celebrity, her notorious drinking and gambling, and her use of opiates. Obviously, these excesses might have contributed to her miscarriages, but might they not have been fueled by depression after failing to meet her chief purpose in producing an heir for the dukedom?

The difficulty in researching the topic of pregnancy loss in the nineteenth century is that many women and men writing about miscarriage describe it vaguely. Claire Crowninshield, family friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Mary Longfellow, describes Mary’s miscarriage as “sickness” and “worse than an ague.” The term “miscarriage” did exist and was often interchangeable with “abortion” and “premature birth,” which further muddies the waters for the researcher.

Fortunately in Lord and Lady Spy I am not so concerned with the terms for miscarriage as with the attitudes of the period. Today miscarriage rates are between 15 and 30% of all pregnancies. That number was most likely higher in the nineteenth century, which made miscarriage a common event, especially in a society where women routinely gave birth to large (by today’s standards) numbers of children.

However, the primary concern for miscarriage in the nineteenth century was that of the danger it posed to the woman. Hemorrhaging and fevers resulting from miscarriages could and did, as in the case of Mary Longfellow, cost women their lives. Thus, women who miscarried need not only be concerned with the fact that they had failed to fulfill their purpose but also that the miscarriage itself might cost them their lives.

The medical establishment did little to comfort women who experienced miscarriage. For the most part, miscarriage was blamed on the woman. Exercise, worry, and maladjustment were given as reasons for miscarriage as recently as the 1950s. In the Regency era, women with a history of miscarriage were instructed to partake of bed rest and told that too much worry or a foul mood caused the miscarriage. Even today, these attitudes linger. When I became pregnant after my miscarriage, I was repeatedly told not to worry so much because it was “bad for the baby.”

More is known about infertility in the nineteenth century. It too was blamed on the woman. The childless woman was pitied and suspected of not doing her duty by her husband. Physicians attributed the problem of infertility to women’s education. It was assumed that energy applied to expanding one’s mind took away energy from the woman’s reproductive system. The idea seems ludicrous today, but it held sway into the twentieth century.

Lord and Lady Spy Cover Writing about a nineteenth century woman dealing with miscarriage and possible infertility and making this heroine relatable to modern readers was a challenge. But it was also therapeutic as I dealt with my own feelings of devastation and sorrow after the loss of my child. I won’t say whether Sophia has the happy ending I did—a beautiful child—but I do hope you’ll pick up a copy of Lord and Lady Spy and enjoy the poignancy along with the adventure and the repartee."

Are there any issues, like miscarriage, you would like to see addressed or addressed more in romance novels? Or do you prefer your books issue-free? Two people who comment will win copies of Lord and Lady Spy (sorry, U.S. and Canadian residents only).